The Realization of the Search 1
There is a system or cycle of thoughts that exists in this world that I have only recently begun to consider actively and find words for. It is something of a snack cycle that is made up of a continuous flow of small desires and potential small satisfactions. In this cycle there is generally a moment of desire followed by one of three temporary resolutions:
- I acknowledge a loose desire for some kind of satisfying snack but am overwhelmed by the options when I press the decision further. I ultimately postpone the search.
- I determine a specific snack that I hope will be satisfying, but upon eating it, I decide that it is not quite right and am still left unsatisfied. I might feel a little bit bad about consuming meaningless, unsatisfying calories.
- The third (and most rare) situation is that I make a lucky selection and am satisfied by the snack. Even in this best case scenario, the satisfaction that I feel is only moderate, and I generally feel a new craving for the next snack within (at most) a day.
The Contemporary American Snack
It is empirically felt that snack consumption has been on the rise in the United States during the last few decades. Various studies show that there has been a significant increase in both the average number of snacks consumed daily by individuals as well as in the percentage of daily calories that are consumed through snacks. According to Richard D. Mattes, Ph. D., professor of foods and nutrition at Perdue University, “between 1977 and 2006, snacking in the American diet had grown to constitute a ‘full eating event’ or a fourth meal, averaging about 580 calories each day.”2 Another report put together by the NPD group, a market research company, shows that the traditional three meals are getting smaller, often becoming “mini-meals” while snacking is on the rise. The report states that “one out of every five eating occasions in the U.S. is a snack and over half of Americans (53%) are snacking two or three times a day.”3
This data is not surprising for anyone active in the American public sphere. The idea of leading busy, hectic lives has become built-in to the contemporary American Identity. There is a desire to participate in the growth and prosperity of the contemporary world; to experience this directly is to feel overwhelmed and hyper productive. The very existence of on-the-go and convenience-oriented foods may function especially to reinforce the idea of the always-busy, on-the-go American who doesn’t have the time to sit down to a full meal. By choosing the product for the busy individual, the individual tells themselves (and others) that they are busy.
An increase in snacking may also be due to the incredible abundance of snacks available in the contemporary environment. Aside from the overwhelming diversity of snacks one can experience at any local convenience store or supermarket, “Mintel Menu Insights data shows that restaurant menu items incorporating the words “snack,” “snackable” or “snacker” have risen 170 percent since 2007, and further growth is expected as restaurants pile on this new trend.”4
In contemporary culture, food and food marketing have become incredibly developed languages. Food objects and situations have gone beyond acting as passive signs where they are read for their often slowly established, passive, historic and cultural connotations and have now become a language that is heavily written by food marketers attempting to keep up with the contemporary conceptions of reality. It is the aim to both give the people what they want and make them want things they had not expected. One of the key strategies of food marketing presently and historically is to sell people on the new. Because of these marketing efforts, products in the snack, candy, and cereal aisles of any given supermarket seem to mutate like bacteria, there is a line-extension to fit any taste.
There is an inherent lack of limits built into the concept of the snack. Snacks can be any food (or really, any thing); snack-time can be any time (as long as it involves a snack), and the creation of new snack foods embraces the unorthodox. In some ways, snacks and treats function as the fiction and fantasy of food in the same way that America (or the idea of America) functions as the fiction and fantasy of countries. They are both in some ways connected to a history, but that history is defined by youth (that is to say, by a state of freedom from the weight of history) and revered more for its power of influence than any other factor. The more important aspects of these fantasies are tied to the ideas of creation, innovation, and the progress of technology. Both attempt to offer innovative formats for easy, accessible, modern living, and both exist heavily in media [they are heavily mediated].
A key period in the recent history of American snacking was the rise and fall of the 100-calorie-snack-pack. In theory, the idea makes sense; if people are simply given smaller bags of snacks and told their caloric worth, individuals will have no problem knowing when to stop. They were marketed as a form of pre-fab portion control. The catch is that these smaller packages tend to cost twenty to thirty percent more than their large-bagged counterparts. For a while, people seemed to be willing to pay the price. They were introduced by Kraft in 2004 with the launch of Oreo Tin Crisps, Wheat Tin Minis, and Nabisco Mixed Berry Fruit Snacks, and in July of 2007 the New York Times reported1 the sales of these 100 calorie snack packs to be past “the $200-million-a year mark.” They quickly fell out of style, however (notably during the onset of the financial crisis), and by June of 2009 were dead enough to warrant the article title “The Demise of the 100 Calorie Pack” on the marketing blog MarketingProfs.6
It is both ironic and telling that as a culture we have arrived at and gotten past the point of pre-portioned 100-calorie-snack-packs of processed foods since it was the discovery of basic cooking, initial forms of food processing, that allowed our ancestors to access and consume the calories necessary to support the cranial development that makes us human was we understand it. The 100-calorie-snack-pack marks the concrete moment when it was literally more valuable to the consumer to have less than to have more. Here, now, at the dawn of the twenty-first century, it is our extreme proficiency at gathering and consolidating calories that has become one of our main cultural epidemics.
Post-Utilitarian Consumption: The Snack
Snack foods, as they exist in America, are made to be fun (60% of Americans report snacking for fun rather than hunger).7 Snacks let you treat yourself and take a break. In kindergarten, snack time is generally built into the schedule. Although there are some diet plans built around having many small meals throughout the day rather than the standard three square meals, generally people don’t eat snacks to survive. In the case of those diets, one eats mini-meals rather than purely snacks. Because snacks are primarily non-utilitarian, they enjoy the most freedom in expression.
When I was a kid, I used to (and still do) take enormous pleasure in trying to think up new snacks and treats. While lying in bed trying to fall asleep or staring out the bus window on the way to school I used to think up fantasy treats; I performed numerous experiments on the textures of various things after being microwaved or frozen (there was an especially in depth series of experiments regarding the achievable textures of marshmallows in the microwave). This kind of experimentation is at the heart of snack culture. Nothing is sacred and everything is at least worth trying. Snacking is a perfect low-risk environment for play and creation. I was not the mother of the house; I did not have to cook and provide for the family. I am the daughter who is free to cook to provide for her own interests and imagination. Because snacks are frivolous, they are free.
Doubt and a Lack of Satisfaction
The grand total of all varieties of snacks available on Walmart.com (including candy, cookies, chips, crackers, nuts and trail mixes, and granola bars) is 4879 options, as of November 2013. When attempting to make the right choice regarding the search for the satisfying snack, this overwhelming number of options is the primary hurdle. I, at least, experience a slight doubt that I’ll choose correctly when the options become too great (this is common, also, at record and thrift stores where most options are probably great, but I have no way of knowing which are the best). Mathematically, the odds of choosing correctly are not in your favor. What ways can one ensure a correct choice? A friend recently told me, “If I only have rice to eat, I will be satisfied with rice.” With this thought, it seems that one way to achieve satisfaction is to deal with the reality of the situation and decide to be satisfied.
But what if there is satisfaction in the lack of satisfaction experienced in the search for the satisfying snack? At our most ancient cultural roots, humans are hunter-gatherers. The acquisition aspect of the utilitarian hunt has become too easy to be totally satisfying. The never ending search for the satisfying snack comes about as a way of staying un-satiated in order to never tire of and never complete the hunt. There is something pleasurable about wanting.
Snacking today is not just limited to food-snacks. Rather, snacking has become our primary mode of consumption in most areas. Food, media, relationships, thoughts, even the acquisition of objects. We deal in frequent short bites of varied things; with the advent of the internet and the ever growing global economy, the proliferation of accessible, consumable goods has followed. Snacking is just a way of coping with this information overload, this overload of possibilities as it allows one to make more choices and sample more bites. While the world has always contained more than any one human could comprehend, humans were rarely ever confronted by the whole world all at once. Now, even just one company, Google, can provide access and answers to more inquiries than any individual could ever ask (even if all the questions were asked, there are still the images to browse and the maps to wander).
This overwhelming everything has created a new system of self-definition. Rather than being defined so heavily by what you do and where you are, it seems that a lot of how people are defined today is by What They Are Into and How/How Much They Are Into It. With the accessibility of information and quasi-experience available through the internet and other media, there are no longer many limits of what an individual may have been exposed to given their geographic location or social status. Anyone has the ability to have heard of or to be interested in anything. This makes it seemingly all the more important to define and declare oneself. The declaration has become especially image-based rather than action-based due to the rise of screen-based living. Much of life on the internet centers around consuming and producing all of the info-snacks that make up the whole [persona].
As our known universe continues to expand with the progression of history, invention, and discovery, there will continue to be more and more of everything, but the individual will continue to be individual. Individuals may not be able to act of the scale of the universe and take it in all at once, but we can always make the attempt to sample it all and eat on the go. In an article titled, “Snacking Could Be the Future of Eating,” Gary Stibel, executive of New England Consulting Group (whose clients include Frito-Lay) predicts that “You and I will continue to snack more and sit down to meals less.”8
Photo : Dylan Thadani
- “I can never not eat the whole bag. Except usually I’ll stop when there are just 5 chips left at the bottom because I know that if I take one more handful I’ll have eaten the whole thing. So I always have a bunch of bags of chips with chip clips on them that have only five chips inside.” -anon.
- “Snacking Constitutes 25 Percent of Calories Consumed in U.S.” – IFT.org. N.p., n.d. Web. 05 Dec. 2013.
- “U.S. Consumers Adhere to Tree Meal Times Daily But Define Meals Differently and Snack Often, Reports NPD.” – NPD. N.p., n.d. Web. 05 Dec. 2013.
- “Bite Sized Bliss.” Food Processing InPerspective™ by Cargill Salt. N.p., n.d. Web. 04 Dec. 2013.
- Peters, Jeremy W. “Fewer Bites. Fewer Calories. Lot More Profit.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 07 July 2007. Web. 05 Dec. 2013.
- Mininni, Ted. “MarketingProfs.” MarketingProfs Daily Fix Blog RSS. N.p., n.d. Web. 05 Dec. 2013.
- Wyatt, Sally L. SNAXPO2013-for-Webinar. N.p.: SymphonyIRI Group, 2013. PDF.
- “Food Processing.” Food Trends: Snacking Could Be The Future Of Eating. N.p., n.d. Web. 05 Dec. 2013.