Expanding the Definition of Snacks

We once could have defined the four basic food groups of the snack universe as"sugar, salt, fat and fast." That definition is expanding while the boundaries are disappearing.

By John K. Ashby

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The definition of "snack" is changing faster than ever — and for the better, nutritionally. For decades the snack archetype was the potato chip, with crackers, cookies and candy hovering close. But the marketplace has changed and, as in any survival of the fittest situation, snacks are evolving. Ironically, they are evolving toward that which is fittest.

As the nutritional profile of a large segment of the snack market improves, the public health impact of these nutritional improvements by large food players is not to be taken lightly either, because these are changes in the formulations of a class of products commanding an enormous share of the market. The removal/reduction of trans fats is perhaps the most noticeable major change in the way snacks are being formulated and reformulated.

Trans ~ ition

Much of the impetus toward creating healthier snacks came out of — and was in many ways enabled by — the impending trans fat labeling requirement. Whether caused or enabled, the result is the same: Virtually all research data show the labeling and reduced use of trans fats can be expected to improve the cardiovascular impact of snacks on consumers.

A STAR IS BORN

The history of modern snacks may have begun in 1853 — as an act of spite. History has it that Cornelius Vanderbilt did not like the fried potatoes he was served because they were too thick, so he sent them back to the kitchen. The chef, George Crum, was incensed by the criticism. Crum took some potatoes, sliced them as thin as he could, fried them and sent them out â€" to great acclaim. Over a century and a half later, the potato chip is still the king of snacks.
Frito-Lay, Plano, Texas, holds a 60 percent share of the core salty snack food market, with sales totaling over $13 billion annually. The company took a jump ahead of the pack, garnering good publicity along the way by completing a conversion to zero grams of trans fats in their Doritos, Tostitos and Cheetos snack brands. Lay's, Ruffles, Fritos and Rold Gold Pretzels always contained zero grams of trans fat, which now makes their entire line of branded snacks zero-trans products. Also in 2003, Frito-Lay was the first company to change the Nutrition Facts panel on the back of packaging to include a trans fat content line. This was done well in advance of the U.S. Food & Drug Administration's 2006 mandate. The other big players are not far behind.

One interesting murmur in the snack manufacturing world that hasn't received enough attention is the use of fully hydrogenated oils that do not create trans configurations. Specifically, it is noteworthy that such hydrogenated fats could be an option for replacement of trans or other types of partially hydrogenated fats while achieving the "0 trans fats" goal.

This trial balloon raises conflicting issues of fat chemistry, metabolism and overall efficacy that have yet to be sorted out. However, the fact that it comes up for discussion indicates there are segments of the industry interested in finding something for their hydrogenation facilities to do as trans fats fall from favor.

What's in a Name?

Along with changes in snack formulations come significant changes in the way products are being packaged, labeled and marketed.

Frito-Lay, again showing initiative, developed a special identifying label for its health-oriented products â€" the "Smart Snack Ribbon." The criteria a Frito-Lay snack food must meet to display this ribbon were developed by Kenneth Cooper, M.D. at the Cooper Aerobics Center in Dallas. Cooper is the fitness and exercise pioneer who brought aerobics to world popularity with his landmark 1968 book, Aerobics.

Cooper has spearheaded efforts to shift the medical industry from disease treatment to disease prevention, especially through exercise. With the Frito-Lay initiative he is working toward improving the health of consumers through developing and endorsing this set of criteria for snack foods. To comply, a 1-oz. serving must contain 150 calories or less, with less than 35 percent of calories from total fat, less than 7 percent of calories from saturated fat, no trans fat and 240 mg or less of sodium.

Kraft Foods Inc., Northfield, Ill., also implemented its own "Health and Wellness Initiative." With respect to snack labeling, Kraft's 100-calorie packages promote the exact opposite behavior of "super sizing." The goal is to help to emphasize reasonable portion sizes, in discreet and obvious ways. Simply put, if you want more than 100 calories, you have to open another package.

Kraft Foods, by many accounts the second largest U.S. food and beverage company, reports $9 billion annual sales in the snack category. It has committed to changing the way it reports nutrition information. The biggest change is providing total package nutrition information if the package contains less than two servings. If the snack package is expected sometimes to be eaten by one person and sometimes shared, then nutrition information is provided for both the entire package and for a single serving.

This addresses expressed consumer dissatisfaction with misleading serving sizes designed to make the product look better rather than reflect the common amount of a food consumers actually consume. The goal is to make it easier for the consumer to get valid nutrition information. Additionally, Kraft is revising all its packaging to include nutrition information for products in countries where no nutrition labeling is required.

General Mills Inc., Minneapolis, as widely reported last fall, has committed to making all its cereals from whole grains. While this will certainly lead to the consumption of more whole grains, it will also validate for children (and adults, for that matter) the message that whole grain foods taste great.

The Other Side of the Cracker

While there is little doubt manufacturers are making concerted efforts to build a better chip or cracker, there is also the seemingly counterproductive efforts — occasionally made by the same companies — to take a product which is little more than candy, add healthful ingredients (such as, antioxidants, sterols or vitamins) to "health" it up and thus broaden its appeal.

A TAXING SITUATION

The "Prevention of Childhood Obesity Act â€" S.2894," introduced by Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, would require phasing out of "junk food snacks" from school vending machines. Additionally, grants would be proposed for schools offering options that are low in calories, fat and added sugar.

This type of law could be the tip of an iceberg of regulations and lawsuits if we don't make progress improving the nutrition level of our food offerings.
Even more dubious are the cases of manufacturers who have reformulated nothing but the marketing and labeling through use of a healthful tag, such as "low-carb" or "high-protein," on items that merit the monikers solely by comparison to fat content. Such a big and often taken advantage of loophole allow a high-fat item to declare itself "low-carb." In these cases, the healthful merit of the product is suspect.

This raises the odd conundrum of snack foods becoming healthier as well as "junkier." "Corn chips are now organic and stone ground, while candy continues to invade everything from our cereal to applesauce to waffles to yogurt to puddings," notes Jill Melton, R.D., consulting nutritionist for JGM LLC, Birmingham, Ala.

The Classics

Currently a small percent of the huge snacks package, fruits and vegetables are a category appearing to be making headway by increasing both in prevalence and acceptance as a snack alternative.

"We can now include the fruit and vegetable industry as part of the snack industry in the non-traditional sense, since many of their items are now purposefully being positioned as snacks," explains Elizabeth Pivonka, Ph.D., president of Produce for Better Health Foundation, Wilmington, Del. "Many fruit and vegetable industry members made great strides in providing fruit and vegetable snacks in locations where they weren't [available] before."

Pivonka points to Sunkist Growers Inc., Van Nuys, Calif., and its "smiles" line of products (grapes, orange slices, apple slices); Natures Pleasures LLC, Wolcott, N.Y., with its fresh, single-serve apple slices and pineapple push-ups; and the phenomenon of fresh-cut fruit being more available in fast-food chains, airports and similar public venues.

Wendy's fruit salads and McDonald's Waldorf salad and fruit parfaits are other successful "snack-like" examples, as are the updated traditional single-serving fruit cups produced by Dole Food Co., Westlake Village, Calif., and Del Monte Foods Co., Wilmington, Del.

Low Carb Strikes Again

One can't speak of the snack evolution without discussing low-carb diet mania. The low-carb diet has, to say the least, drawn attention to the overeating of "empty" calories. With that latest fad appearing to be going the way of all fads, its ultimate legacy â€" similar to the legacy of the no-fat craze a decade before — is that it encouraged consumers to pay closer attention to the quality of the calories they consume.

This nutrition-awareness spillover accounts for at least part of the resurgence we are seeing in different protein options. Dairy and nuts are beneficiaries of this. Whole grains have already begun to benefit from this, too, as consumers refocus their thinking about carbohydrates from (unhealthy) aversion to seeking carbohydrate sources that contribute significant nutrition benefits.

Packaging and promotion play a huge role in opening the snack realm to healthier options. Packaging is allowing more unique, individualized portions of different foods â€" something critical to supporting our grazing, eat-on-the-go culture. If chips and soda are the only things you can get in "to go" form, then these are the only products that will be eaten on the run.

Few will argue that sitting down and enjoying a meal slowly with friends and family isn't the better way to do it, but there is a lot of "do as I say, not as I do" in this approach. Improving the nutrition of the U.S. will not happen unless higher nutrition products are available to go.

Also, packaging solutions are crucial for the growth of healthier options in vending machines. A great example of this is Stonyfield Farms, Londonderry, N.H. Stonyfield Farms launched its "Menu for Change: Getting Healthy Foods into Schools" program in Rhode Island in 2003, and this program is growing rapidly.

This is a fairly complete program for improving the food schools offer to kids. The snack part of this program is a great example of making something work that too many say can't work. Stonyfield Farms provides vending machines and stocks them with products that must meet two criteria: they must be healthful, nutritious foods, and they must taste good. According to one Stonyfield spokesperson, "Our healthy vending machines demonstrate that if kids are offered healthy food that tastes good, they will eat it."

Dairy is a hit with kids via dozens of yogurt offerings, individual-serving combination cottage cheese and fruit packs and the wildly popular string cheese phenomenon. These would not have been traditionally defined as snacks in the days when salt and sugar ruled the category, but are fulfilling the true snack purpose as a quick small meal between meals. Whey and other dairy proteins are being used to increase the protein content of snacks while consequently replacing so-called "empty" carbohydrate calories with protein calories.

The definition of what constitutes a snack continues to grow with the more prominent role snacks are called upon to play in our upwardly/overly mobile society. At the same time, consumers are reaching for products not traditionally defined as snacks. The steady and continuing demise of the sit-down meal means snacks are becoming our meals.

One attempt to define the market segment of snack was "what is not eaten at the traditional breakfast, lunch or dinner." Today it seems more like "what is eaten instead of the traditional breakfast, lunch or dinner." If snacks are becoming our meals, at least it's a good thing they are becoming healthier and more nutritious.

About the Author

John K. Ashby is General Manager - Ingredients, for California Natural Products, a pioneering manufacturer of rice ingredients for the food industry, focuses on the Nutritional, Nutraceutical, Functional and the Organic Foods industries and serves on the Manufacturing, Processing, Packaging and Labeling committee of the Organic Trade Association.

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