The Joy of Snacking
Although snacking seems to be ingrained in our culture, the way we snack has changed over the decades. Parents may remember picking out treats to pass out after soccer practice, students might reminisce over the kindergarten days when snack time was a part of the curriculum, and partygoers can recall snack tables lined with chips and dip, cookies, and occasionally a veggie plate. Though the pandemic has put large gatherings on hold, consumers haven’t stopped reaching for snacks. In fact, many consumers are hungry for more: in their U.S. Snack Index survey, Frito-Lay found that 66% of people are planning to stock up on more snacks at home than they did before the pandemic.
The trend towards snacking more has led some to dub snacking “the fourth meal,” but this name is somewhat inaccurate considering that snacking often replaces one of the three main meals. According to Mondelez’s 2019 State of Snacking report, 59% of adults prefer snacking to traditional meals. This effect is even more pronounced among Millennials, where the preference jumps to 70%. It seems like it is only a matter of time before we find a headline that asks, “Are Millennials killing dinner?”
There has been consistent debate over the health benefits of snacking. Advocates claim that it can prevent overeating at meals since it keeps a person from becoming too hungry to make healthy choices. Anyone who has ever gone grocery shopping on an empty stomach has probably experienced the urge to purchase far more food than necessary. On the other hand, snacking can increase the total daily calories a person consumes if the snacks are eaten in addition to the regular amount of food a person consumes. This is especially true if the snacks are low in nutritional value or if calorie-laden snacks are replacing a meal typically lighter in calories.
There is no real consensus over whether eating more frequently impacts a person’s health. In her piece “What Science Says about Snacking” for Food & Nutrition Magazine, Jill Weisenberger, MS, RDN, CDE, CHWC, FAND, writes, “Of five short-term studies comparing high and low eating frequencies, only one showed a slight advantage when subjects consumed more meals and snacks.” Weisenberger notes that rather than snacking frequency, it is the type of snack that likely matters more to a person’s overall health. There is a stark difference between eating an apple versus a bag of chips, but both items fall under the snacking umbrella. This makes quantifying the health benefits of snacking difficult.
One of the problems facing snackers is that many items that come to mind when we think of snacks, such as cookies, potato chips, cheese, and crackers, are highly processed. While processing has become a taboo word in the food industry, it is not merely processing that makes food unhealthy. Unfortunately, many processed foods require the addition of high levels of sugar or sodium to preserve the product and keep consumers buying. Michael Moss, author of Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, talked with NPR Fresh Air’s Dave Davies about some of the tactics food companies use to make us crave their products. He described research showing that the more crunch a potato chip has, the more a person enjoys it. Food companies have used research like this to their advantage and created snacks that are so perfectly formulated that we cannot stop eating them. Although these snacks are fine when eaten in moderation, many snack products make it nearly impossible for us to stop after just one handful.
This does not mean that we need to write off snacking as unhealthy. Snacks exist beyond the sugary and salty treats lining convenience store shelves, and some of them are just as easy to enjoy, if not easier. Take bananas, for example. They are a halal snack that you can toss in your purse, backpack, or briefcase without any extra preparation. The same goes for other fruits with thick peels like oranges or tangerines, which can be easily transported from place to place with little damage. Nuts and seeds are other great options because they are high in many vitamins and minerals and a good source of protein and fiber. Whether you enjoy them raw, lightly salted, or as part of homemade trail mix, they can keep you feeling full between meals. Other more nutritious snack ideas include carrots, celery, dried fruit, and yogurt, though these are just a tiny sample. The possibilities are endless!
If you are one of the many people who has increased their snacking habits in the past year, embrace it. Snacking will always be popular as long as we continue to lead busy lives and find ourselves hungry in between meals. Whether or not snacking itself is healthy is less important than the snacks we choose to consume. Swap your potato chips for nuts and cookies for fruit to fill up without unnecessary sugar, sodium, and fat. Stow a few healthy snacks in your bag to make it easier for yourself to make healthy choices. If you must have that handful of chips, pour some into a small bowl and put the rest of the bag away. Remember: balance is the key to a healthy lifestyle.
Alison DeGuide is a content developer at IFANCA as well as the editor of Halal Consumer Magazine. She holds a master’s degree in public diplomacy from the University of Southern California, where she also did her undergraduate studies.