More Changes In Store For Snacking, Treating


The shift in consumer snacking and treating brought on by the pandemic is continuing to unfold. The NPD Group, Inc.’s Darren Seifer reveals what’s on the horizon.

Cleveland — Snacks and treats play a constantly evolving role in consumers’ lives, and today’s times are no exception. The NPD Group, Inc.’s just-released Future of Snacking report offers forecasts through 2023 that are crucial to understanding how consumers will emerge from their pandemic-learned behaviors.

COVID-19 brought about sudden and drastic shifts to food and beverage consumption patterns, thrusting snack foods and treats into a new light. With many consumers staying home to maintain social distancing, snacks and treats filled voids created by boredom and stress. There is also emerging evidence that consumers are increasingly turning to new substances for health reasons, which can drive new consumption demands.

To understand where consumers are heading, it’s important to recap the journey they experienced during the past year. The pandemic and ensuing lockdowns brought about changes not seen in our lifetimes, elevating levels of fear, stress and boredom. During times like these, consumers often cling to anything that maintains a sense of normalcy to provide structure when it seems very little of it exists. This helps explain why consumers rushed to retail for bare home essentials such as meats, toilet paper, snacks and treats. Consumers stocked these items to ensure they could live as close to a normal life as possible in their homes for extended periods of times.

Treating is still expected to increase for the next few years. Indulgence became important to consumers to deal with the times and we’re not out of the woods yet.” Darren Seifer, The NPD Group, Inc.

Snacks and treats took on an additional role: helping consumers with their mental states. A new feature of NPD’s SnackTrack service gets to the mood consumers are in just as they consume their snack food or treat. During 2020, there was a dramatic decline in consumers feeling “normal” compared to 2019 while also seeing increases in feeling bored and depressed. 

Consumers are much more likely to consume treats in these negative moods compared to better-for-you snacks, and the beginning of the lockdowns proved to be no exception. Consumption of ice cream, sweet baked goods (including homemade) and savory snacks all increased, helping consumers compensate for the stress and boredom they experienced. Families also took advantage of these items to keep their children entertained while parents worked and kids were schooled from home.

Another major shift occurred as lockdowns dragged on and consumers realized this was a long-haul state versus a temporary change in daily life. Indulgence was still important to help cope with the stressors of the pandemic, but maintaining some semblance of healthy eating became the next priority. Consumers started using snacks and treats that were better options and helped balance the need to indulge and be sensible at the same time. Items labeled with low fat or calories became more popular to help consumers indulge while feeling better about the impact on their waistlines.

Consumers also looked to food intake with certain substances to cope with the pandemic. More consumers reported using antioxidants found in elderberry, moringa and kombucha to boost immunity readiness, while other substances like cannabidiol (CBD) increased in use to help manage stress. 

The concept of food as medicine has been with us for a long time, so consumers seeking health benefits from their intake is not a new idea. Looking forward, we should expect consumers to continue seeking substances that provide benefits but as we emerge from COVID-19 and our focus changes, expect the focus for food as medicine to change with it. Immunity boosting properties will likely be used as needed during the occasional illness, but as baby boomers age and take on more health ailments, gut, heart and brain health will come in focus as the need to protect those areas of health increase.

The snacking and treating industries also need to keep an eye on the mental state of consumers. Adjusting to change impacts emotional needs for snack foods. Today it’s about fighting boredom and boosting mental well-being. Consumers are more likely to eat treats and savory snacks when they feel this way. 

In the future, look for more sharing of snacks and treats in social environments, as consumers engage in more shared experiences. Treating is still expected to increase for the next few years. Indulgence became important to consumers to deal with the times, and we’re not out of the woods yet. There is still much uncertainty in daily life, leading consumers to eat treats for their mental well-being. 

And while boomers are dealing with their health ailments, they’re also entering a life stage when indulgence historically plays a greater role in their decision-making process. Expect that generation to help push treating through 2023.

And, believe it or not, focus on Gen X. They’re not a large generation, which is why they’re often overlooked, but they represent growth opportunities across a variety of snacks and treats. Given their life stage, they often balance their own needs on top of caring for the children and seniors in their lives. Look for them to engage with all snack food segments, from better-for-you and treats, to keep their families and friends entertained.

Darren Seifer, NPD Group

Contributor Info: Darren Seifer is food and beverage industry analyst for The NPD Group, Inc., where he provides insights based on NPD’s food-related research. He has authored research reports that cover topics such as concerns and strategies related to genetically modified foods, the profile of the organics consumer, the impact of baby boomers and millennials on America’s eating patterns and consumption behaviors of Hispanics in the U.S. He can be reached at [email protected].