We are definitely a nation that loves our chips and sweets. According to a report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and its Agriculture Research Service (ARS), Americans are getting nearly one-third of their daily calories from snack foods that have little or no nutritional value.
USDA researchers with the Food Surveys Research Group examined dietary intake survey data from more than 5,000 adults ages 20 years and older to determine their snacking habits. The ARS analysis is part of its ongoing national “What We Eat in America” endeavor.
The latest data showed that empty calories, those filled with saturated fat and high in sugar, account for 32 percent of the daily calories consumed by women, and 31 percent of the daily calories consumed by men. In addition, findings indicated that the men had an average daily intake of 923 empty calories while the women consumed an average of 624 calories. The bottom line, according to the ARS, is that on average, the men in the study consumed two to three times their limit for solid fats and sugar, and the women ate nearly two to four times their limit.
These results are not surprising given the savvy marketing of 100-calorie snack packages and the growing abundance of “better-for-you” snack product sales campaigns. According to Packaged Facts’ Snack Foods in the U.S., 4th Edition, retail sales of packaged snacks reached $64 billion in 2010, up from $56 billion in 2006. The market is predicted to reach $77 billion by 2015.
This rapid growth is not unexpected. At first glance, the 100-calorie snacks seem ideal. Consumers get their favorite snack foods premeasured and conveniently packaged in to-go packets. The hitch is that most of these foods are highly processed and contain added sugars, refined flours and excessive salt. What they don’t have much of are vitamins, minerals, protein and fiber.
An additional downside of the 100-calorie snacks is the notion that they are portion packed and therefore good for us. But the portions are small — that’s why they are only 100 calories — they aren’t very filling, and it is easy to rationalize having another serving and even a third.
While a small amount of empty calories each day will do no harm, it is the alarming rate at which Americans are consuming nutrition-free snacks that is raising red flags. And there is no doubt that today’s hurried and harried lifestyles are encouraging on-the-go eating and fueling an increasing tendency to replace meals with several smaller snacks.
“The boundaries between meals and snacks are growing ever blurrier, creating consumer consumption habits that will resonate for generations,” said David Sprinkle, research director and publisher of Packaged Facts. “The children of today, comfortable with replacing entire meals with snacks, will pass these lifestyle traits on to their children, ensuring that snacking will remain a big part of American life,” he added.
A prediction that does not bode well for winning the war on obesity.