Snack attack!

The rage to graze continues as Canadians ramp up spending on convenient, portable snacks.

An older generation may remember a time when people yearned for nothing more than three square meals a day: breakfast, lunch and dinner. Those days are long gone. We've become a nation of snackers. And for good reasons, says Rena Mendelson, a professor of nutrition at Ryerson University in Toronto.

"Snack foods are convenient, they're cheap and they're available everywhere," says Mendelson. "Today you can't walk through a hardware or department store without seeing snacks for sale. I've even seen them in the ladies' lingerie department."

Needless to say, Canada's grocers have taken notice. In warehouse-sized stores, it's not unusual to find two full aisles–each as long as a bowling alley–devoted to snack food. And where most people once reached for chips or a chocolate bar to quell a mid-afternoon rumble in the stomach, many now look for healthy alternatives that are low in fat, sugar and salt or contain no artificial sweeteners, flavours or preservatives. In other words, they want snacks that will nip hunger pangs while delivering a nutritional wallop.

"Eating healthy is here to stay," says Francois Bouchard, owner of the Country Grocer in Ottawa. "Every class of shopper is doing a little bit. If you're older, it's because the doctor said you have to watch what you eat; if you're younger or have a family, you're trying to do the right thing for you and your kids."

One snack that is a hit with both young and old is yogurt. It has become one of the fastest-growing categories of healthy snacks. "People are adding fruit or granola (to yogurt) and making their own snacks and taking them to work in reusable containers," says Holly Chmelyk, operations manager of Pete's Frootique in Bedford, N.S. Manufacturers of almost every type of snack food have rushed to meet consumer demand for nutritious food. ConAgra, for instance, has re-engineered some of its dessert snacks, such as Snack Pack puddings, to appeal to health-conscious shoppers. It now offers fat-free chocolate and vanilla puddings and a sugar-free gelatin that contains just five calories per cup. It also has 60-and 80-calorie cups of pudding, which are substantially below the standard 100- to 120-calorie cups. "The consumer is spending more time looking at what is in that package and what is on the nutritional content slip on the side of the package," says Sean Cunningham, shopper-marketing manager with ConAgra.

Dole Packaged Foods has a line of fruit sauces that comes in squeezable plastic tubes that are ideal for kids' lunch boxes, says business development manager Livio Ghizzardi. They come in three flavours: apple, mixed berry and strawberry and they are all natural. There are no preservatives or food colouring and fruit juice is the only sweetener.

Granola bars have long been viewed as a quintessential healthy snack. But even these products are being changed to keep pace with consumer tastes. Pierrette Buklis, senior manager of health and nutrition with General Mills Canada, says the company is introducing boxes of 12 and 24 bars of its popular Nature Valley line: Trail Mix; Sweet and Salty; and Fibre One. The new packages will offer consumers alternatives between the standard five-bar boxes and the 32-bar Club Packs. General Mills is also broadening the blend of nuts in the Sweet and Salty bars to include cashews and bringing out a strawberry and chocolate version of its 100-calorie Fibre One bar. "The new flexible-size boxes are more in tune with what a family needs," says Buklis. "They need a bigger bar count than the traditional box of five."

Selection in dried fruit snacks has also grown considerably. There are now cranberries, mangos, bananas and mixes. Raisins, of course, remain the top seller, says Joe Tamble, vice-president of Sun Maid Raisins in California.

Given shopper interest in health, that's no surprise. "If you look at the label on the side of the box it says "Caliornia raisins," nothing else," Tamble observes. "They're natural seedless grapes, dried by the sun. There are no added ingredients. There has been a buzz about health and wellness for the last few years. That's not new to us."

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