Millennials and Gen Z’s rebellion against their parents’ rules is spawning a $181 billion industry that makes everything into a snack

People snacking
Everything is snack, snack, snack.
Getty Images

Gone are the days when chips and cookies were just for munching while watching TV. For some consumers, snacks have now become entire meals, defying decades of health advice. Now, almost half of U.S. consumers have three or more snacks daily—up 8% in the last two years, according to market research firm Circana Group as cited by the Wall Street Journal Monday. And the younger generation—mainly millennials and Gen Z, from teens to people in their early forties—are likely driving this soaring phenomenon. 

“Millennials took something that had a negative connotation with older generations—parents would tell you ‘don’t snack and spoil the meal’—and turned snacks into the entire meal itself,” Andrea Hernández, author of Snaxshot, an online newsletter focused on food and beverage trends, told the Journal.

Snacking has been around for a long time, and currently accounts for 22% of the energy intake among U.S. adults. A rise in video gaming and in food prices is said to be responsible. 

The change in food choices is partly attributed to high inflation, which may be causing people to buy lower-cost food. Kroger, the largest U.S. grocery chain by sales, told the Journal that it was selling more boxes containing smaller snack bags inside to appeal to the growing snacker base.  

“Eating occasions have become slightly more evenly spread out throughout the day, shifting consumption away from mealtimes,” said a February report that analyzed eating patterns in the U.S. in 2022 by the Hartman Group, a research consultancy. “The decline in meal occasions witnessed in 2021 persisted in 2022, as consumers have shifted to more frequent snacks, with fewer items per occasion.” 

Forty-nine percent of consumers in 2023 are looking for snacks in multiple packs, up 8% from a year ago, for various reasons like saving money and controlling intake portions, according to Circana.

“You’ve started to see the ‘snack-ification’ of everything,” Hernández told the Journal.

Snacking is global, according to international food brand Mondelez. The company found patterns within snacking—such as a 42% rise in snacking between 6 a.m. and 10 a.m. in 2021 compared to 2013, driven by Gen Z and millennials. Within this group, particularly women worldwide were more likely to snack in the early hours of the morning or skip meals, according to Mondelez’s 2022 State of Snacking survey published earlier this year. 

Nick Graham, global head of insights and analytics for Mondelez, told the Journal that millennials and Gen Z consumers typically eat about 10% more snacks daily compared to other generations.  

Mondelez also found that between 2020 and 2022, there was at least a 10% increase in people replacing breakfast, lunch and dinner with snacks.

Junk food has negative health effects linked to obesity and diseases like diabetes. About 20% of the children aged 19 and under are obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And snacking, in particular, can result in unwanted weight gain and the absence of nutrition-rich meals.

Snack boom

If snacking is booming, so too are snack-makers. U.S. snack sales reached $181 billion in 2022, up by 11% from the previous year, the Journal reported, citing Circana’s data.

Companies like Mondelez, which makes Oreo cookies and Ritz crackers, and the chocolate-maker Hershey, have seen their revenue surge 22% and 30%, respectively, from 2019 to 2022. 

The enthusiasm for snacking is also helping some of these companies change in how they sell their products. For instance, cereals are now being sold as snack-packs while some iconic chips are available in “bite-sized” packaging.

To reach a wider chunk of the young audience, food and beverage companies are trying new channels of engagement—like the metaverse, the virtual world that’s supposed to be the future, but is currently mostly a ghost town. Cheetos, the famous cheesy snack made by PepsiCo, launched a campaign targeting the metaverse in October. 

But these companies also face a changing consumer palette, where mindful eating and healthier options are front-and-center. 

Circana noted a drop in consumers picking snacks solely for taste, but found an increase in those opting for snacks that are more nutritious like granola bars and nuts. Even traditionally unhealthy snacks have found healthier ways to repackage their offering—such as fried potato chips and grain-free or baked chips.

Subscribe to Well Adjusted, our newsletter full of simple strategies to work smarter and live better, from the Fortune Well team. Sign up today.

Read More

Great ResignationInflationSupply ChainsLeadership