Healthy Snacking In A COVID-19 Universe

Tuesday, September 8th, 2020

Exploring the perception of health snacking in Asia Pacific, and how the impact of COVID-19 has shifted consumer focus (if any) away from this concept momentarily. Contributed by Anthony Chien, Senior Analyst at Euromonitor International.

Healthy Snacking In A COVID-19 Universe

Snacking represents the activity of consuming food in between meals, and any type of food that has been designed or curated to fulfil this need can therefore be construed as a snack. This can range from the potato chips that we know and love, to street food that is commonly eaten in Asia Pacific, to even sliced fruit that is meant for on-the-go consumption.

There are a multitude of reasons as to why consumers purchase snacks. This ties into the concept of snacking occasions—for example impulse/on-the-go consumption, indulgence, before or after exercise, to alleviate boredom and so on. Not all snacks are, therefore, created equal on the health spectrum. Snack bars and nuts, seeds, and trail mixes, are naturally more health-inclined than snacks designed to de-stress, like chocolate tablets.

This article aims to explore the perception of health snacking in Asia Pacific, and how the impact of coronavirus (COVID-19) has shifted consumer focus (if any) away from this momentarily.


Is Health Truly Wealth In 2020?

With rising education and affluence levels, there has undoubtedly been a greater emphasis on the importance of health in Asia Pacific—diabetes, food safety, nutrition, calorie-counting and food portioning are all topics of varying prominence that have surfaced in recent years. Snacks have undoubtedly been in the limelight as well. Companies such as Lotte Group, Mondelez International Inc, PepsiCo Inc., Mars Inc. and so on have built their place in the market on the back of affordable, tasty, mass produced snacks, and not on snacks that are necessarily calorie-lite, sugar free, or fortified with nutrients. 

However, contrary to the healthy living rhetoric, snacking categories meant for indulgence are not seeing drastic volume declines, and neither are healthier snacking categories like vegetable chips and nuts, seeds, and trail mixes seeing exponential growth. In terms of the historic 5-year CAGR, puffed snacks and vegetable, pulse, and bread chips both grew by 5 percent in terms of total volume. However, the market for puffed snacks is at least 25 times larger than the market for vegetable, pulse, and bread chips. 

In the indulgent snack category, unpackaged ice-cream in APAC consistently grew at double-digit figures each year in terms of total volume from 2017 to 2019, whereas potato chips and other savoury snacks in APAC grew consistently by 5 percent per year in terms of total volume for the same time period.

In Asia Pacific, and especially in Southeast Asia, the majority of consumers come from emerging countries. Despite an increasing awareness of healthy living, the trends that have driven the snacking market forward revolve around premiumisation trends and localised, flavour-related trends—for example, salted egg and mala. In relation to this, the variety of cuisine(s) in Asia Pacific have formed consumers’ preferences in terms of taste over time, and these cuisines definitely lean towards rich and flavourful dishes as compared to healthy/better-for-you cooking methods. Hence, the decision to buy a snack—especially if it is an impulse purchase—is more likely to be swayed by branding or familiar tastes, as compared to the need to snack healthily. 

There is also the issue of consumer education about the type of healthy snacks available—which is why although vegetable, pulse, and bread chips are not the most expensive savoury snack category in terms of average RSP, the volume consumed in APAC is still small compared to potato chips, for instance. For that difference in volume, it is notable that vegetable, pulse, and bread chips and potato chips have grown similarly as fast in recent years. Consumers are simply not familiar with the category or any prominent brands within the category. While they understand that the products are healthier than your average potato chip, they may not know what type of health benefits are being conferred onto them by consuming these snacks.


Indulgence Is A Need, Not A Want

Stress is an inevitable consequence of rising education levels and affluence. It is unavoidable, and a faster-paced way of life, expedited by inter-connectedness and technology, has only created new avenues for stress.  The aforementioned categories of unpackaged ice-cream and potato chips, as well as growing categories in terms of volume such as toffees, caramels and nougat have one thing in common—they are small indulgences in life. Snacking is one of the coping mechanisms for stress for some consumers, and their options range from regular afternoon biscuits to simply pass the time, impulse purchases at convenience stores to momentarily uplift their spirits, or a tub of ice-cream at the end of a difficult day. 

In reality, it would be very difficult for manufacturers to incorporate healthy snacking elements into snacks targeted at indulgence. The fundamental value of an ‘indulgent snack’ is that it must gratify, which is very closely linked to taste. While healthy ingredients can be used as a substitute, or to make a product ‘better-for-you’ (for example, by using stevia instead of sugar, or vegetables like beetroot, carrots, taro instead of potato), the taste of the product would be compromised. Having a ‘lite’ version of any product meant to satisfy a craving is a recipe for disaster if the biscuit doesn’t have the right crunch, or if the potato chip isn’t crispy enough, or if the ice-cream isn’t rich enough.

Healthy living trends will assuredly affect the indulgent snack category—however, this is expected to be in the form of a reduced frequency of consumption, rather than toning down and trying to make the product healthier. Nuts, seeds, trail mixes and vegetable chips should technically see the highest growth if healthy living trends are the main drivers of growth, yet they fall short and have seen slowing growth rates in recent years.


How Has COVID-19 Changed The Snacking Landscape?

In a nutshell, COVID-19 has temporarily put a halt to social activities. Even in countries where the situation is relatively under control, the size and frequency of group gatherings has noticeably declined compared to pre-COVID-19. Prior to this, gym memberships and group workout classes were becoming increasingly popular. While the habit of exercising and keeping healthy was observed to have been maintained throughout the year, consumers are noticeably carrying out these activities in isolation according to their schedules. Hence, snacks that are hassle-free to consume have been targeted at these home workouts—for example, cereal bars and protein/energy bars were observed to have grown by 6 percent and 7 percent in terms of retail volume, respectively, from 2019 to 2020, even higher than the growth rates recorded in the previous year.

Conversely, COVID-19 has also boosted indulgent categories meant for at-home consumption, as there are only limited forms of ‘leisure’ and ‘enjoyment’ during the period that consumers were confined to home in their respective countries. Tying into the idea of indulgent snacking above, multi-pack dairy ice-cream and chocolate coated biscuits are categories that are slated to grow faster in 2020 than in previous years in terms of volume. Dried fruit, a category that falls under the umbrella of ‘guilt-free snacking’, is expected to post a decline in terms of retail volume at -3 percent.


Healthy Snacking Post-COVID-19

Snacking is an activity that has been shaped and moulded over time to satisfy the cravings of consumers, which often prioritises taste and experience over health. Although healthy elements and higher quality ingredients can be implemented into snacking, this may affect the affordability of such snacks, which has historically been a volume-driven category. A broad-based strategy cannot be applied to indulgent snacks—such as simply reducing sugar/salt—and targeting specific snack occasions and niches is necessary to make healthy snacking viable in the long run.



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