Snacking State of Mind

These pandemic snacking trends are here to stay

snacking, snacks

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Show me what snack you reach for when you’re stressed, excited, procrastinating, or just plain bored, and right away I get you. Our snacking choices and habits say a lot about us, from our heritage, our desires, our personality, and more. 

But what EXACTLY is a snack? I could easily call munching on a handful of Bamba puffs snacking as I would diving into a deep dish of pasta. The dictionary defines a snack as a light meal. Fair enough, but in the case the past year my days became defined by snacks. In fact, a consumer poll this past year showed that more of us snack than eat full meals these days. This feels dramatic, but let’s explore this shift more.

The mere word “snacking” invokes warm emotions of nostalgia from 90s icons (hello, Dunkaroos) to cherished moments with my friends when times were simpler. This is probably why many of us found solace in snacks through the pandemic. From day one, food advertisements drilled the tie between snacks and togetherness into our heads, so it’s natural that just when we were feeling most disconnected from the world, snacks filled the void. That same consumer poll I mentioned earlier found that 52 percent of us worldwide viewed snacking as a “lifeline” through the pandemic, with comfort as the number-one driver. All I can say is, I FEEL YOU. 

But let’s be clear, this revolutionary time of snacks is not all doom and gloom. There's an uprise in various trends that we can all get behind. Indulge in the exciting shifts I'm seeing in the snack-mosphere along with my picks for brands making waves.

Global Flavors

Sriracha Kimchi

The Spruce / Cara Cormack

We are stepping out of our comfort zones, both in the store aisles and in the kitchen. There’s diversity across the shelves, introducing us to all kinds of cultures and ingredients. In a way, some snacks inspire the sensation of travel we’ve been longing for from the couch cushion.

America is a melting pot of identities and ethnicities. Our awareness of regional flavors continues to evolve with the reach of social media, streaming networks, and restaurants. As the pandemic forced restaurant shut downs, producers stepped in to deliver the menu flavors we missed along with new experiences we longed for. A focus on localization further encouraged bold flavors of spice, umami, and sour along with exotic ingredients. Asia-Pacific represents the largest and fastest-growing market for snack food products, followed by North America due to penetration of western eating habits in developing countries. Additionally, Mexican flavors of tajin, elotes, chimichurri, mole, and more are finding their way into popcorn, nuts, and chips.

Maybe we already rode along this adventurous path exploring outside our snack box, but the pandemic propelled us forward as snacks offered a form escapism.

Our Picks

Mexican-American family-owned company with a wide variety of grain-free snacks

An international snack subscription box

An Israeli staple now available at Trader Joe's

Latin-inspired gluten-free cheese bread and empanadas

  • Trader Joe's Elote Corn Chip Dippers

A subtle kick of spice at the end of each bite is what does it for us

Functionality

different adaptogen powders against grey background

Getty Images

There’s more to snacking these days than filling energy levels. Enter: adaptogens and functional snacking or bites with nutritional benefits. We want snacks that do it all—I'm talking uppers, downers, and everywhere in between.

Where snacking used to be seen as a negative habit, now it's giving us life—literally. You can now buy protein balls that offer beautifying properties of collagen and biotin. There's even a snack for every time of the day as some might offer Maca to boost energy and mood for the start of the day, while another offers Tulsi Basil to reduce stress, anxiety, and inflammation. Some of the most common adaptogens and their targets include: Schisandra (memory, focus, mental performance), Ashwagandha (stress and anxiety), Reishi Mushrooms (sleep patterns, stress), Turmeric (stress hormones, inflammation), and Nettle Leaf (stress, tension). Then, there's CBD, which offers non-psychoactive benefits of hemp extract for post-workout recovery to a good night's rest.

Mindless snacking is shifting to mindful snacking as we look for more ways to slip into a state of relaxation and calmness.

Our Picks

CBD peanut butter, 'nuff said

Double dipping in the global category, the pandan-flavored cereal holds "chill-inducing" adaptogens of turmeric and ashwagandha

Crunchy paleo clusters with reishi adaptogens

Buy one-off products or indulge in a curated box, including a variety of adaptogen snacks

Alcohol-infused popcorn that won't quite give you a buzz, but will definitely put you in the mood to celebrate

Wellness

Basic Roasted Pumpkin Seeds With Variations

The Spruce / Cara Cormack

When we say "healthy," we usually mean both physical and mental well-being, but beyond that, what does it really mean? We all look to become healthier in our lifestyles and habits, whether it's in terms of longer life expectancy or a trimmer waist. A worldwide pandemic will certainly push health to the top of our minds as we all focus on immunity in a number of ways.

Niche marketplaces and curated, one-stop shops are helping us discover the "better for you" products we crave, but with a level of personalization that make these items approachable. We have the ability to explore more snacks thanks to the internet, which ultimately makes the barrier to entry easier for small companies that no longer need to "pay to play" for placement on retail shelves.

Moreover, we want snacks packed with vitamins, minerals, and probiotics that keep us full with a healthy gut. High-protein is still top of mind, but now we are interested in alternative sources: whole grains, plant-based, and legumes. Additionally, less sugar (both artificial and natural) is a priority for most lifestyles from keto to vegan to paleo. As we maintain our busy lifestyles, on-the-go options that target nutrient deficiencies are a huge hotspot in the market. Major buzzwords that go hand-in-hand with these items include gluten-free, clean-labeling, allergen-free, organic, low-calorie (I know, this feels odd to want a satiating snack with low calories), superfood, and antioxidant.

Our Picks

Keto, vegan, plant-based, low sugar bars

The nutrient-rich, paleo, and keto benefits of bone broth in an easy to microwave "mug"

Plant-based, gluten-free, no trans fat

Vegan and grain-free snacks—apple cider vinegar is my favorite

A snack pack of hard boiled eggs with a variety of spices, including Everything Bagel and Ranch

Sustainability

veggie peel chips

The Spruce / Lauryn Bodden

While Millennials lead the charge in sustainability awareness, age groups across the board show that both environment and wellness play significant roles in their buying decisions. Resources like Upcycled Food Association are encouraging us to buy items that close the loop on waste, packaging, labeling, and sustenance with a heavy focus on plant-based. This is not a surprise as Millenials are the largest group of snackers in the United States today with one in four considered "Super Snackers," meaning they snack four or more times a single day—I like to think I fall in this category.

Many Big Food corporations put sustainability messaging forward, promising to reduce negative externalities like greenhouse gas emissions and plastic pollution, only to defer another decade down the line. One argument is it takes time, money, and resources to make these changes. But, these companies HAVE the money and resources. Plastics in particular are one of the biggest issues the world faces. Made from extracted and refined crude oil, it never breaks down, but simply breaks up into microplastics that find its way into our food and water sources. It's hard to put an exact price on the damage these companies cause (air pollution, medical issues, diseases, climate change, etc.) in order to impose a tax, but organizations like #BreakFreeFromPlastic are demanding massive reductions in single-use plastics.

In the United States, we throw away two-fifths of all the food we produce, which equates to about 40 percent going straight to the landfill. This happens at every point of the chain from farms, factories, retailers, and homes. Changemakers are addressing this by implementing regenerative agriculture, upcycled veggies and byproducts, going plant-based, and even going whole-animal/veggie. Funny to think the birth of TV dinners originated from this very notion by packaging leftover Thanksgiving turkey into frozen meals. Fast forward 70 years, and the food revolution is even more exciting as well as environmentally driven. 

Our Picks

Yes, sausage can be a snack—easy entry to eating less meat as the sausages are 35% veggie with humanely raised meat and carbon-neutral processing

Sustainably sourced salmon skin chips

Made from grains leftover from brewing beer

Minimally processed ingredients, small-scale farmers, regenerative agroforestry, and compostable wrappers

Made from upcycled bananas using regenerative agriculture

Looking Forward

We dove deep into our feelings and desires this past year. Consumers these days are more fickle in their decisions and less loyal. Despite most of us still working remotely (and most likely doing so in our post-pandemic life), we have less time and patience to discern between all the options out there. And although we are more conscientious in our decisions, we will always gravitate towards Instagrammable branding and snacks with an allure of nostalgia. The good news is companies are listening to it all. Before I nerd out even more on my latest obsessions (Yuca everything) or the future of the snack industry, I’ll leave you this: Remember those Dunkaroos? Did you know Yan Yan, a Japanese treat, is the real OG of cookies n’ dip? Get out there, get snacking, and get inspired.

Article Sources
The Spruce Eats uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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