Food Industry Banks on American Penchant for Snacking

Kellogg, best known as a maker of breakfast cereals, announced its plans to acquire Pringles, the stackable potato chips franchise, from Proctor & Gamble for $2.7 billion. Kellogg believes there is real growth potential in the snack food market, in the United States and worldwide, and the company intends to secure its share.

A spokesperson said Kellogg wants to include new categories of food and flavors for “snacking occasions” because that is where eating trends are going right now, according to the New York Times reporting on Kellogg’s acquisition plans (4/22/2012). “What Kellogg is saying is we’re buying a snacking mentality with a good brand with global exposure,” it said in the article.

Constant Snacking Contributes to Obesity Crisis

It’s this snacking mentality that gives nutritional health experts a headache. Through aggressive advertising and marketing, the snack food industry tries to seduce Americans to consume ever more of its products and the consequences are devastating, said Dr. Barry Popkin, author of a study titled “Tends in Snacking Among U.S. Children,” which was published in the journal “Health Affairs.”

The study tracked the eating habits of over 30,000 children and adolescents between 1977 and 2006. The researchers found that calorie intake from snack foods increased by almost 30 percent over that time period. While portion sizes of meals eaten at home and at restaurants have also become larger, the real reason why we eat more is that we eat more often than we used to, according to Dr. Popkin. “Food is there, it’s available all the time. It’s not very healthy, but it’s tasty. It’s sweet, it’s salty, it’s fatty – all the things we love,” he said.

Snack food is uniquely addictive, according to J. Stanton of gnoll.org. “Why can we demolish entire tubes of Pringles, boxes of donuts, trays of chocolates, and bags of goldfish crackers, when we would never finish the same number of calories in the form of meat and vegetables? Because snack food is a magic trick, played on our senses of taste. Snack food is designed to [give] our taste buds a supernormal stimulus… we can’t resist,” he wrote.

In addition, the industry does everything it can to shift our eating patterns from the traditional three square meals a day to near-constant eating, said Dr. Popkin. “It’s all about making people think they want to have something in their hands all the time.”

Naturally, the youngest customers are the easiest targets. Among the most striking trends are the snacking habits of preschoolers, according to the study. Children ages two to six are consuming as much as six snacks per day. Pediatricians warn that constant snacking at a young age often leads to poor eating patterns that last a lifetime.

Easy access to snack foods is also an issue. People used to go to the gas station to get gasoline and nothing else. Now there are salty crackers, candy bars, fruit juices and soft drinks staring at you everywhere you turn. “The ubiquity of snack foods in particular has helped drive overeating,” said Dr. Lisa Young, professor for nutrition at New York University and author of “The Portion Teller.”

It is not only the constant exposure to merchandise that increases people’s consumption. It is also the culture we live in. Even those who want their families to eat healthily feel the pressure to buy snack foods on occasion. “Not a month goes by without someone somewhere asking me to serve up some snack for an event that one of my children will attend,” wrote Jennifer Steinhauer in an article for the New York Times. “Snacks must be served at every sporting event, even those taking place an hour before lunch. Apparently, we have collectively decided as a culture that it is impossible for children to take part in any activity without simultaneously shoving something into their pie holes.”

Once the expectation has been created that snacks are always available, it is almost impossible to redirect a child’s behavior. The reason why so many parents pack ample amounts of pretzels, crackers and fruit bars whenever they leave the house is “to stave off tantrums” as one mother was quoted saying. Snacks are used as pacifiers. For a little peace and quiet, parents quickly give in to their offspring’s demands and it sets a pattern that becomes hard to break.

Still, parents are responsible for setting boundaries in and outside the home. Guidelines work best, of course, when everyone follows them equally. It is up to the adults what kinds of foods and drinks come into the house, what meals are being served, and how often treats are allowed. They should also set a good example by their own behavior. Time is of the essence. Once kids are grown up and gain more independence, it is usually too late to make any changes.

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