Meals have undergone many changes reflecting the reality of the times, the pressure of work, the drive to keep up and a healthy obsession with health. Perhaps no meal has changed so much as the snack. And while the modern snack might typically be composed of healthy ingredients, more often than not the act of snacking conflicts with how we were raised: Too much snacking spoils our dinner.
The norm in most healthy traditional cuisines has been that snacks should act as occasional meal extenders consisting of nutritionally dense staples such as nuts, seeds, whole grains, beans, meats or cheeses.
Fast forward to today’s fast-eating era. The lifestyle changes that have shortened meal times and meal prep times, coupled with a constant requirement of energy, means consumers sit down to fewer prepared meals. This means snacks become a necessary substitute.
Definition, here, is critical, however. Simply put, American consumers are not substituting these calorie-dense, meal-substitutes but maintaining their behavior of using snacks as a tide-over between meals. Grab-and-go snacks that are higher in calories and in real sustenance than should be acceptable for basic staples have played a big part in the rapid increase of obesity and type 2 diabetes. Both (often related) disease states have corresponded closely with this changing dynamic.
While there are many contributing factors to the modern health crisis, the association with nutritionally dense portable foods is not merely temporal. Look at the USDA food availability, adjusted for loss, tracking food groups that have increased since 1970 (before the steep climb in obesity). Of the nearly 500 kcal increase in the average American’s diet, the majority come from added fats and oils, followed closely by flours and cereal products (not whole grains) and more distantly by sugar.
To this end, processors are challenged with reformulating snacks to match modern energy demands but without breaking the calorie bank. This can be accomplished by improving the nutrient density and quality of ingredients, without cramming 300 calories into a 2.5-oz. bar or similar item.
The right stuff
As most snack foods tend to be grain-based, a good place to begin reformulating snacks is by increasing the proportion of whole grains to simple calories or calories from unhealthy fats or “empty” carbohydrates. Such an upgrade in nutrient balance presents some hurdles, but ingredient technicians have been following the trends and creating some rather adept solutions.
“Formulating snacks with, for example, whole-wheat flour has a few challenges, but none that are insurmountable,” says Colleen Zammer, director of product marketing for Bay State Milling Inc., Quincy, Mass. “Whole-wheat flour contains the whole grain, which includes the bran coat. Even though the bran is typically ground to a fine particle size, its edges are sharp and can act like knives against the matrix in which it is contained.”
Zammer explains that, if a developer is making a whole wheat-based snack like pita chips and trying to form a cohesive dough for pita bread, the bran can weaken the dough as it cuts into the gluten matrix. “This is less critical with flat breads and similar snacks than with pan breads,” she says, “but it still can be an issue. This can also happen if whole grain flours are used in an extruded or expanded snack. They can make for a denser product coming out of the extruder.”
A near unavoidable requirement for formulating today’s healthier snacks is creating the gluten-free alternative. “Gluten-free grains do not produce an elastic matrix at all,” explains Zammer, “and do not typically have the capacity to bind water and form films to entrap gases.” This makes gluten-free grains tricky to work with in traditional grain-based snack formulas. “Often gums and other ingredients are added to help mimic the gluten found in wheat to allow for more dough-like formulas that can be sheeted or extruded.”
Zammer also notes that the equipment used for traditional snack manufacturing might also need to be modified or supplemented with other equipment to work with gluten-free dough, as such dough formulations “tends to be more fluid.” TIC Gums Inc., White Marsh, Md., has developed a number of innovative solutions to assist in maintaining the integrity of gluten-free dough.
The gluten-free/wheat-free phenomenon has pushed the envelope of consumer experience when it comes to new grains, opening inviting new ingredient channels for snack creation. Quinoa, once an obscure offering, is now mainstream.
“There are many varieties of grains that we have not fully explored yet in American cuisine,” continues Zammer. “The quinoa and amaranth we have seen appearing with greater frequency on menus of late are typically one white variety, but there is black quinoa, red amaranth, and purple barley that have yet to be discovered by consumers.
"Often times people combine grains and seeds in the same category or conversation [for example, chia and flax are really seeds but are often discussed as grains], and I believe there are many seeds and other plants that may emerge as winners for their functional or nutritional value," she continues. "Hemp seed, teff and Indian rice grass are ones that have strong potential.”