The Sudden, Sinister Rise In ‘Healthy Snacking’

Photo by Yulia Reznikov/Eyeem
When I first went vegan about three and a half years ago, my access to snacks suddenly, rapidly diminished. The choices on offer were limited to pulped and reconstituted 'fruit' snacks or anything I could spot from my mental roster of accidentally vegan snacks (most chocolate bourbons yes, all digestives no). But that didn’t last long. By then, the snacking landscape was already in the midst of a monumental shift, one that has now reached fever pitch. No longer are 'healthy' snacks (of which many are vegan) the preserve of specialist health food shops. Now, they line supermarket shelves, with some stores dedicating entire areas to these new snack choices. Most of these products will proudly proclaim themselves free from everything we were taught to feel guilty about in the highly processed, hyper-coloured snack foods of our youth, or loaded with what we assume we lack: high in protein, plant-based, high fibre and free from the eight major allergens.
Where once I had to carefully plan every aspect of my eating for the day, snacks included, I can now walk in anywhere and buy something to satisfy a sweet or salty craving. But I’ve found the branding of so many of these snacks as healthy or 'good for you' and – more sinister – 'guilt free' jarring, especially as more and more varieties make their way onto the market. Legume substitutes and lower sodium powder flavourings, fruit, nuts and chia seeds reformed into bars, balls, crisps, puffs and even fake jerkies all pride themselves on being the better choice, whether it’s by virtue of being good for you, or for the planet. "We are not like the bad snacks of your childhood," these labels seem to say. "We’re on your team and we know you want to make good choices, so why not buy me! It can’t hurt, right?"
These snacks pair their claims about how good they are for you with the idea that they are consequently guilt-free and can be consumed in bulk, which is really the same marketing as "once you pop you can’t stop" but with supposed added benefits. This, plus the saturation of individualised food items in every supermarket, can encourage the kind of binge behaviour that directly contradicts any kind of healthy relationship with food. It is the next step in the 'snackification' of the world, a modern phenomenon showing how our diets have radically shifted in recent years. These days, there is a trend of supplementing – or even replacing – meals with a steady stream of snacks. According to The Grocer magazine, 60% of adults in the UK say they skip at least one meal a day in favour of snacking, with 30% of young women doing it daily. And this form of eating has now been made 'health conscious'. As Robert Rona, director of new markets, products and services at The Triangle Nutrition LTD told Feast magazine: "The flexibility and convenience of the health-conscious snackification movement means consumers can eat what they want when they want – without worrying about calorie intake or nutritional levels."  

60% of adults in the UK say they skip at least one meal a day in favour of snacking, with 30% of young women doing it daily. And this form of eating has now been made 'health conscious'.

Irrespective of what they're made of, a lot of these products rely on something called the 'health halo' effect – where consumers overestimate the healthfulness of a single item based on one claim – in order to keep us buying in. In a culture where we’ve been taught to be wary of additives and hyper-processed food, anything that sets itself up in opposition must therefore be good. If it’s free from dairy AND high in protein, it’s got that good-for-you glow, irrespective of what else may be in it. Emer Delaney, a spokesperson for the British Dietetic Association and registered dietitian tells me that advertisers will often deliberately be misleading, especially in instances of health claims. "Advertising can be very powerful and misleading, and the food industry hasn't always been as transparent as it could be: they would love people to think they are healthier options and quite often they're not." She goes on to say that these healthy snacks are expensive and can actually be high in calories. "If for example they're 'low fat', loads of the fat has been replaced with sugar. I think people are very confused these days. They're looking for quick fixes, they want to be healthy, they think they are being healthy, but actually they're not always."
Beyond whether or not what we consume can really be deemed 'good for you', how we eat can also impact our physical wellbeing. In the case of snacking, it is set in opposition to meals, which are generally seen as hot, savoury and consumed with others. Snacks, on the other hand, are invariably cold, quick, sweet and solitary affairs, snuck in stolen moments. They are marketed as, and intended to be consumed, 'on the go'. They fit into our days as a replacement for breakfast to make allowances for a long commute; a quick bite during an overnight shift; or to tide you through the working day when you don’t leave your desk, as more than one in three British workers do.
This inability to slow down in order to nourish ourselves can have serious health consequences, argues food writer and historian Bee Wilson. In her book The Way We Eat Now, Wilson writes about the 1969 medical researchers who followed Japanese men that moved to the US, knowing as they did that the average Japanese man suffered less from heart disease than US men. The assumption was that the US diet (of burgers, pizza and soda) would pose more of a risk to heart health than the traditional Japanese diet (fish, vegetables, tofu, green tea, seaweed). But it turned out that the culture in which they ate had an effect; there was a fivefold difference in coronary heart disease between those men who became most Westernised and those who didn't. "Eating Japanese food was not by itself enough to give these men low levels of heart disease. To get the full benefit, they also needed to slow down and eat meals in a Japanese way, recreating the culture of their homeland in the sun of California."
There are short-term consequences for our health too, as Emer tells me: "If you are eating on the run, you don't necessarily have enough time to chew your food properly ... and you can swallow a lot of air and that can cause indigestion and bloating, and make you feel really uncomfortable. And there's also the social aspect of things... How many families actually sit down in the weekday to eat as a family? We're losing that as well." 
The shift of priorities towards snacking either to supplement or replace meals is pinned on the consumer, as is whether 'healthy' choices are made. But what it actually comes down to is the way we now work, and are expected to work. The celebration of snackification, healthy or not, obscures the fact that we are now sustaining ourselves in bitesize, individual moments instead of shared, bigger meals. When breakfast melds into the commute, lunch is overtaken by work, the gym or non-work life admin, and dinner is an exhausted afterthought, it’s no wonder we constantly feel the impulse to nibble on things, and then, if we can afford to do so, try to make the 'good' choice.

The celebration of snackification, healthy or not, obscures the fact that we are now sustaining ourselves in bitesize, individual moments instead of shared, bigger meals.

Many people no longer have set mealtimes when we can safely assume that because we’re eating lunch, most other people are too. Shared eating time is being scheduled out of existence, as we’re expected (and we expect ourselves) to work longer hours and never tune out of work. In objective terms we actually have far more free time on average than workers did 100 years ago: nearly 1,000 hours more a year, according to The Way We Eat Now. But it’s about the way society dictates that time should be carved up. We may have more free time but it doesn’t fall at mealtimes, when we need it; if it does, because we can eat snacks whenever we want, dedicating time to preparing and then eating a meal is less of a priority.
A more diverse range of options for all foods, especially if they can be affordable and readily available, is no bad thing. But we should be wary of claims that something is good for us – it demonises other types of food, which are all that many people can afford, and glosses over how the work economy more than anything shapes our eating habits. It would be far healthier, for everyone, if we all had the time and space to eat proper meals, away from our desks, maybe even in the company of others.

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