What was the first thing you ate this morning? Was it a sit-down breakfast – toast or a bowl of cereal eaten with your family? Or was it a protein bar, possibly an almond and spirulina nut ball grabbed on the run? Increasingly, it is likely to be the latter; according to The Grocer magazine, 30% of adults in the UK say they skip at least one meal a day in favour of snacking.
Elaine Malone, 28, a graphic designer based in London, tells me she “hardly ever” has breakfast. “I’m never very hungry at that time, and it saves me about 30 or 40 minutes a day by skipping it.” She might buy a protein bar on the way into her office or, more usually, she reaches into a secret stash of snacks once at her desk. “In my drawer I have a whole selection of Graze boxes, which I get delivered to work every two weeks.” Graze, launched just over a decade ago, is a subscription service that delivers its customers a snack selection taken from 200 different products – each package thin enough to be pushed through a letter box. “I love all their stuff – their fruity flapjacks, their Pro Bean box [a selection of dried edamame, broad beans and peanuts]. It’s just nice to have something healthy to hand when you are feeling hungry. It’s much better than a bag of crisps,” says Malone, who works for a company that hosts podcasts and events for Instagram and YouTube influencers. This year, Graze was sold for an estimated £150m to Unilever, the Marmite and Hellmann’s food conglomerate, a sign that Malone’s snack obsession has become very big business. “We’re all big snackers in this office,” she says, adding that dark chocolate rice cakes are a key afternoon regular among the mostly millennial-aged workers.
Britain has undergone many food revolutions over the last generation; olive oil has moved from pharmacist’s shelf to store-cupboard staple; we’ve seen a boom in gin, and an even bigger one in veganism. But there is one that has gone less remarked – what Praveen Vijh calls “the snackification of Britain”.
Vijh is co-founder of Eat Natural, the cereal bar company that has surfed the snack wave as effectively as Graze. We meet in its head office in Halstead, Essex, above a factory where 250 workers churn out 2m cereal bars every week, in a remarkably low-tech operation involving rolling pins and hundreds of baking trays. A former rice importer, Vijh moved into cleaning and packing dried fruit and nuts before asking himself, “Why not just stick all these fruits and nuts together?” In 1996, he developed a cereal bar with a university friend, at a time when “our only real rivals were the Tracker bar and the Cadbury brunch bar”. Since then, sales have climbed about 15% a year, hitting £45m in 2018. But last year, sales rose only 5%. Why? “Brands and supermarkets don’t want to be portrayed as purveyors of salt, sugar and fat. All these big boys are starting to get very worried, and there has been a plethora of new entrants. Everyone wants to get into snacking.”
Vijh is 52 and grew up in Solihull during the era of Monster Munch and Wagon Wheels, both launched in the late 1970s. “There was very little snacking,” he says. “You might have half a Twix. Snacking was a big treat.” Official figures bear this out. In 1977, the year Monster Munch was launched, the average adult in Britain consumed 29g of crisps, nuts, seeds, popcorn or savoury snacks each week, according to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) figures. That’s less than a bag of crisps. Fast-forward to 2015, the most recent year for which we have such detailed data, and the figure is 89g, the equivalent of very nearly three bags of crisps. In the space of a generation, we have tripled our consumption of snacks – if not more: Defra’s figures do not include the myriad of other products now sold in the snack aisles, from cashew quinoa bars at Aldi to Itsu crispy seaweed thins at Waitrose.
The size of the snacking market in Britain is hard to pin down, because all the market research companies and retailers measure it in different ways: do you include confectionery, an apple grabbed from a sandwich shop, or only savoury snacks? “Snacking is unlimited. You have one breakfast, one lunch and one dinner in a day. Maximum. But you could have as many snacks as you like,” says Katie Shade, consumer insight director at Kantar, a market research firm which estimates that snack sales – using a very wide definition – reached £11.1bn in the year to June 2019, up 4% on the previous 12 months. “In the UK we love snacking – we snack more than most other countries.” Her company estimates that British people snack 8.3 times a week, compared with 3.8 times in France and 3.1 times in China.
But if no one can agree on the size of the market, they can agree that there is one area growing faster than all others: healthy snacking. Kantar calculates that what it terms “better for you” crisps and snacks shot up 20% last year. This includes everything from Hippeas, a brand of chickpea puffs (tagline: “We think ‘tastes good’ and ‘do good’ can be in the same sentence”) to Walkers, Britain’s biggest snack company, whose oven-baked potato crisps claim to contain 50% less fat than the standard variety.
When did snacking become not only part of our everyday diet, but a fiercely fought battleground for supermarkets and food brands desperate to persuade us that their product can do us good? Even Cathedral City, Britain’s biggest cheese brand, has started packaging its product in 100-calorie “snack bars”. In reality, this is no more than a small slice of cheese, but one that the company describes on the pack as “high in protein, an ideal snack for on-the-go”, sold in Shell petrol stations alongside fizzy drinks.
At Eat Natural, Vijh argues that one thing above all others is driving this trend: we are working longer and harder than ever before. That means many consumers, such as Malone, are missing meals, especially breakfast. “Consumers are leaving home earlier in the morning. This is not only in London, this is also in Nottingham, this is also in Birmingham – everywhere that we can see it’s absolutely on the increase,” he says, explaining that he receives data from every WHSmith, supermarket and railway station shop detailing the time of day people buy an Eat Natural bar. He says a decade ago the peak time was 11am. “It is now from seven or even 6.30 in the morning. That’s the biggest trend I’ve seen over the last 10 years.”
The slow demise of the nuclear family has also played a part. “Living in individual, smaller-person households has meant we’re not sitting down to eat as a family as much,” Vijh says. Malone shares a house with four other people and says that though they may not all sit down to share a meal together, they do snack together. “In the evening when I come home from work, my flatmates and I will often sit and watch TV with a large pack of tortilla chips or popcorn.” While her snacking at work is strictly healthy, in the evening it’s not. “If we don’t have any snacks in the house, it’s a crisis and someone has to go out and buy some.” Malone and her flatmates are precisely the people the big brands are trying to attract: health-conscious, but willing to indulge.
It’s not only Unilever, with its purchase of Graze, that wants a slice of this. The past two years have seen a spike in snacking acquisitions: Kellogg’s bought the American protein bar company RXBar for $600m (£483m); PepsiCo, the parent company of Walkers, spent $200m buying Bare Snacks, which specialises in banana chips, as part of its mission to “make more nutritious products”; and Mars, the confectionery giant, took a large stake in Kind, the cereal bar company, valuing the latter at $4bn. Mars said the Kind acquisition would help anchor “a newly formed global health and wellness platform”.
And this is only the food giants; there are tons of smaller startups trying to muscle in on the market. According to Nielsen, the market research company, an eye-popping 1,780 different snacking products were launched on to Britain’s shop shelves last year – everything from sweet chilli black-eyed pea puffs to oven-baked spelt bites and salted caramel beans.
One supermarket, in particular, has encouraged this snack explosion: Sainsbury’s. Like all of the “big four” supermarkets, it is under intense pressure from the two German discount chains, Aldi and Lidl, which have chipped away at its market share. Its failed attempt to merge with Asda has left it scrabbling around for a convincing approach. One answer is snacking – specifically, offering customers a large number of unusual treats. “Our strategy is to give more reasons for customers to choose us,” explains Rachel Eyre, head of Future Brands at Sainsbury’s. “And one of the ways we want to do that is by offering innovative, exciting brands that you can’t find in other supermarkets.” In return for putting these small, start-up labels on a prominent “Taste of the Future” shelf, these brands commit to supplying only Sainsbury’s for an agreed period of time.
Eyre is interested in everything from kombucha to craft gin, but focused on snacks. “Adult snacking in particular is very competitive. That’s because it sits at the intersection of this spaghetti junction of consumer trends, which means there is a huge amount of entrepreneurial heat,” Eyre says. The roads meeting in her junction metaphor are: our “busier on-the-go” lifestyles, and the joint rise of an interest in health and “premiumisation”, the phenomenon whereby consumers are occasionally willing to splash out on upmarket products. She adds: “I think of it as credits and debits: consumers are looking to make healthier and more considered choices. That means when they do indulge, they want to do so properly.”
Some of Sainsbury’s “future” snacks are far from radical. One is Olly’s Olives, which claims to be the “world’s first unpasteurised snack pouch of olives”, costing £1 for 50g in a small pouch – a 60% mark-up on olives in a plastic tub. “Olives, of course, aren’t new,” admits Eyre. “But the very simple idea of putting them in an on-the-go format means you can have a slightly indulgent, grown-up snack in your bag rather than a bag of crisps.”
Others are more outre, such as Sea Chips, “hand-crafted salmon skin crisps”, which boasts on the front of the pack of being “high in omega 3” and “62% protein”. On the back, the company explains that, along with donating some profits to charity, it is saving “tonnes of highly nutritious skin from going to waste”. The crisps are surprisingly tasty – a puffy, light snack with enough salt and vinegar to make your lips tingle. Even my 11-year-old daughter, whose most hated food is fish, judges them quite moreish.
A prominent protein count written on the front, combined with a message about the company either transforming you – or the world – into something better, has become a key strategy in the healthy snack market. And it works, according to Eyre. In a bid to understand its customers’ emotional reaction to marketing or packaging, Sainsbury’s has recruited volunteers and rigged them up with heart scanners, sweat detection monitors and even eye-tracking headsets, observing them as they wander through the aisles. “We know where they are engaged around the stores, and that they are drawn to these stories,” she says. “These messages definitely resonate and, crucially, they go on to put those items in their basket.”
One such brand is Yaar, which calls itself a “Nordic quark bar”, though it is made in Estonia by a Ukrainian who went to boarding school in England and then became a pharmaceutical entrepreneur in Singapore. Andrei Garbuz, 37, says the business of selling painkillers and selling snacks is very similar. “I saw a huge trend: the convergence of healthcare and food businesses. So I decided that if I was to start a new business, it would be a food business with a tilt into health. It’s a huge opportunity. Humanity is going back to Ayurveda – eating better for your health.”
Quark is a fermented high-protein dairy product similar to yoghurt or cream cheese. The problem is that it is nearly always eaten out of a pot – so Garbuz has coated his quark in chocolate to make it an “on-the-go, no-spooning snack format”, available from the chiller cabinet. I found them a bit sickly, like a rich mini-cheesecake, but I can see that for those with a very sweet tooth they might be a treat that, at 140 cals, doesn’t blow the daily calorie count. Garbuz argues that “no-spooning is a radical concept”, delivering nutrients “in a permissible dosage”.
His use of medical terminology is not an accident. Increasingly, snacks have become meal replacements and consumers do not want to have to scan the nutrient smallprint on the back; they want just a simple message on the front. And where once it was calories, it is protein that has become the most appealing shorthand for healthy. According to Anthony Fletcher, chief executive of Graze: “Consumers are willing to pay far more for high-protein snacks. It started in the fitness community, people who went to the gym and were interested in building muscle. But now it’s far more about feeling full. Protein, in the consumer’s mind, helps fill you up, so you can eat a high- protein snack and it satiates. That’s important if there’s a missed lunch.”
Where snacking used to be an impulse purchase, grabbed at the till, it is now planned. Fletcher says 60% of Graze’s sales are bought in advance, especially by women. “Female consumers are more interested in where their protein is coming from – am I getting that protein in a natural way, or is it a synthetic product?” His bestselling product is Veggie Protein Power, a 28g box with edamame beans, chickpeas and cashews, containing 7.3g of protein.
The protein fad helps explain the surprising rise of meat snacks; while they may be high in salt or fat, they are very high in protein and so, according to Rosie While, product developer at Marks & Spencer, represent “positive snacking”. While developed a new range of serrano ham, chorizo and salami crisps for this summer – not potato crisps, but actual slices of meat, air-dried and crunchy. While says the trend for air-drying has been particularly embraced by millennials, in contrast to their parents’ generation, who were more keen on calorie-counting. “It’s all about good ingredients, rather than bad ingredients that are being controlled by a certain calorie limit.” Still, she admits that the serrano ham crisp (99 calories a pack) is significantly outselling the chorizo and salami (130 calories). While points to 100 calories as the magic number many people still look for. “We do know that anything under 100 calories is something a customer will aim for if they are trying to be healthy.”
Now that protein has gone mainstream, the next big trend is fibre. Vijh at Eat Natural argues that consumers are increasingly interested in gut health, as well as the growing number of studies that have associated diets high in fibre with a lower incidence of heart disease. “Fibre isn’t very sexy, but we know that people aren’t consuming enough of it,” he says. “It’s nothing new – my parents used to give us prunes for breakfast.” Graze now has a large number of snack boxes flagged as high in fibre, while even Walkers has launched a premium range of snacks (dried vegetable and nut mixes, pea and bean sticks) called Off The Eaten Path, some of which highlight fibre content.
Vijh first experimented with a fibre bar a couple of years ago, and got it wrong. “We called the bar Better Inside, and did it a bit artificially using chicory root fibre,” a tasteless substance that Vijh admits had the texture of talcum powder. “That made the product taste a little bit weird, to be quite honest – just dry and powdery.” This summer he tried again, with a dark chocolate and sea salt bar called Fibre Packed, using figs as the main source of fibre. Is it still weird? “No, it’s delicious,” he says. “People have an aversion to highly processed ingredients. They want ingredients they recognise.”
We finish our tour of the factory and head up to Vijh’s office, where his desk is surrounded by boxes of cereal bars and jars of ingredients that his developers are experimenting with (tomato powder and rice syrup, hinting at the Willy Wonka-ish possibility of a savoury cereal bar). I ask Vijh if he’s excited by the “snackification” of Britain, expecting an enthusiastic response. But he answers rather wistfully: “Actually, I would love to go back to the days where we used to all sit down together and eat meals as a family. I hope we don’t become a nation where we eat nothing but snacks.”
But as the market intensifies, a return to the era of three square meals looks unlikely. I ask Malone if she could cope without her hit of Graze protein bites at work, or popcorn in the evening? “Good god! I am such a snacker. It’s something I do every day.” She laughs. “What would I do with my hands?”
Landmarks in modern snacking
After decades of rectangular flapjacks and cereal bars, Bounce introduces the world to the spherical protein hit.
Graham Bosher, a former executive at DVD subscription service LoveFilm, launches Graze, sending parcels of fresh fruit through the post. It moves into nuts and dried fruit after consumers complain about slices of pineapple sitting on their doormats.
Joe & Seph’s, a gourmet popcorn brand inspired by Garrett Popcorn Shops in Chicago, launches in Selfridges. Sold in clear plastic pouches (to prove there are no unpopped kernels), its bestselling flavour is salted caramel, followed by goat’s cheese.
Mondelez, the giant American parent company of Cadbury, introduces BelVita into Britain, claiming it is “the UK’s only specially designed breakfast biscuit”.
Lentil crisps become mainstream thanks to Cofresh, a leading Indian snack company based in the UK, starting the Eat Real brand, promising snacks that are gluten-free, vegan and free from all 14 declarable allergens.
Walkers, Britain’s biggest snack brand, introduces a new packaging format: Tear ’n’ Share bags, which turn into a bowl, aimed at consumers who want to stay in, watch TV and “snack socially”.
Prime bars, made from 80% British beef and mixed with either apricot and sage, or chilli and red pepper, are marketed at ultra-marathon runners or those on keto or paleo diets, kickstarting a boom in meat snacks.
Popped lotus seeds, a popular snack in India and China, hits the UK market thanks to the Nuto brand. The market research company Mintel predicts they will become “the new popcorn”. Many other brands have followed.
Daniel Pawson, inventor of Sea Chips, crisps made from salmon skin, appears on the BBC’s Dragons’ Den. The company had sold 3,000 bags of the product. He turned down an offer of investment, but the publicity secured him a listing in Sainsbury’s, and he now makes 10,000 packets a day.
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