Everybody needs to eat to have energy to sustain life. As a result, food is a necessity, but some people enjoy eating so much that they consider it a hobby or a pastime. The 21st century has seen great population growth and extremely busy lifestyles, making the availability of food all the more critical. Busy lives and not enough time to cook from scratch have made it so that most people no longer go home and cook a meal for themselves and their families. Without the ability to put in the time to cook, Americans are resorting to convenience foods. The most common form of convenience eating is snacking. Over the years, snacking has taken on many different definitions, but snacks were originally intended to be smaller portions of food eaten to fight off hunger between meals. The concept of three square meals daily is becoming obsolete because nowadays people snack for reasons besides feeling hungry, such as getting rid of cravings, staving off boredom, improving metabolic rates, alleviating stress, boosting nutrient intake, controlling weight, and simply because they believe that eating often is good for one’s health. Other reasons people may choose to snack are celebrations and special occasions. It has also now been estimated that 94 percent of people living in the United States consume one or more snacks every day. Because snacking has become so popular in recent years, this article will focus on popular trends in the food industry as well as quality and safety issues that may result from these new trends.
Recent trends in snacking demonstrate how this concept has really evolved in recent years. First, as described by Forbes, most consumers, especially the millennials, often feel responsible for what they do for themselves as well as their community and the planet. When deciding to purchase snacks, people typically ask themselves if what they buy will better themselves or the communities they represent. As a result, consumers are choosing to snack on foods that are clean, organic, less processed, contain fewer ingredients, lack genetically modified organisms, additives, or antibiotics, and are locally grown even if the snack costs more money. There have also been snacking trends associated with certain times of the day such as consuming healthy, energizing, and light snacks in the morning and eating sweet and savory snacks in the evening.
Flavors with Global Influence
People these days are also more open to the experience of unusual flavors and are more willing to eat foods that are bold, spicy, and culturally diverse. One category of snacks that has seen a huge change in flavor preferences is meat products, because people are now choosing flavors like Korean barbecue, sweet barbecue, bourbon barbecue, black cherry barbecue, and seasoned barbecue as opposed to cayenne, basil citrus, tangy barbecue, and red pepper.3 With new flavors comes world influence, and some areas of the world that have influenced flavor in recent years include Asia, Central America, and even the United States and Canada. Three popular Asian flavors that have grown significantly in popularity are cardamom and tikka masala from India and matcha powder from Japan. Other Asian flavors rising in popularity are garam masala, pistachio, rose water, saffron, and tamarind. Some popular Central American flavors are avocado, guava, green olive, key lime, mango, paprika, dark rum, sour orange, and sofrito, while one popular Central American snack is plantain chips. Popular flavors from the United States and Canada are watermelon, rhubarb, Cape gooseberry, maple, huckleberry, molasses, and brown butter. New flavors have resulted in greater variety and availability as there has been a growth in the number of places for consumers to meet their treat needs with the addition of specialty candy stores across America, the vending evolution, and the impact brought on by quick service and fast casual restaurants. These trends are all new and exciting but will not maintain popularity if they are of low quality or people are getting sick.
Quality vs. Safety
Although snacks are one of the safest foods in the market, it is still critical to implement the necessary procedures to attain the highest level of food safety and quality.5 Even though quality and safety go hand in hand, it is important to remember that not all food of poor quality is unsafe, but all unsafe food is of poor quality. An example from the snack industry is the oxidation and staling of potato chips, which cause the food to taste terrible but will not allow pathogens to grow due to low water activity, making it an issue of quality only. An example of a safety issue would be spices that were irradiated improperly, whether it be too much irradiation or irradiation from an unapproved source resulting in a radiological hazard. Too little or no irradiation can lead to microbiological hazards such as Salmonella, Clostridium botulinum, and Escherichia coli O157:H7.
A lot of popular snack foods are made from peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, soy, milk, and eggs, which are six out of the eight most common allergens that must be labeled if present in any foods sold in the United States. This labeling also applies if a food is processed in a manufacturing facility that processes any of these allergens. Since allergens can be introduced into foods by accident and some people who suffer from food allergies may not have the time to read the label’s fine print, it is crucial to have an allergen management program in many areas of food processing (see “The Hazards of Food Allergy”). These areas of food processing include vendor approval, product development, proper labeling, receiving, warehousing and storage, production control, scheduling, cleaning and sanitizing, control of rework, product identification and recalls, and education of management and staff.
Mycotoxins and Acrylamide
Allergens are not the only chemical hazard to be aware of, as snacks that are grain- or seed-based could contain mycotoxins, the worst of which is aflatoxin, which causes liver disease. Companies that use baking, frying, or oven cooking to produce snacks must be aware of acrylamide because the ingestion of too much of this compound can be carcinogenic.5 Acrylamide has hit the snack food industry very hard over the past decade, necessitating the use of alternative processing.
Although most snack foods can be viewed as perfectly safe, it is important to avoid mishandling, abuse after processing, incorporation of contaminated ingredients, and failure to manage certain processing steps prior to consumption. One pathogen that has been common in snack foods is Listeria monocytogenes. Some of these foods are ice cream and hummus due to their high water activity and storage at refrigeration temperatures. L. monocytogenes post-lethal processing contamination has caused multi-year recalls and outbreaks within the ice cream and hummus categories. Companies have invested millions of dollars in mitigation, control, and prevention strategies. This includes but is not limited to new construction, new equipment, enhanced sanitation programs, and hiring additional experienced food safety/quality assurance team members. One company even stopped production and outsourced to comanufacturers of their product because the pathogen was found to be resident within the processing plant and unable to be effectively mitigated after multiple deep-clean sanitation and disinfectant applications.
In the last few decades, there have been several recalls related to Salmonella in everyone’s go-to snack, peanut butter, which demonstrates that some conditions, like low water activity, make it nearly impossible to remove a pathogen once the product is exposed.5 Other nut butters have also been involved in serious pathogenic outbreaks and recalls.
Another snack item that may seem extremely safe is beef jerky; however, some pathogens can survive the harsh drying process used to make this food, and killing off these pathogens would require additives such as nitrites which are known to form carcinogenic compounds.9 Beef jerky is a new artisanal movement enabling small processors to open for business.
Many artisanal jerky makers are market-ing their product as “handcrafted, using only the finest ingredients” and “hand-cut like it should be.” Hand-cutting animal proteins allows for various thicknesses (even within the individual slices), causing the standard dehydration process to produce different levels of water activity measured in the end product. But indulging in artisanal jerky because it is touted as a healthy, high-protein, gluten-free, and low-calorie snack does not reduce the concern of possible pathogen growth if the jerky is not processed safely.
Validation of Procedures
A very important aspect of food safety, even with snack foods, is validating one’s procedures by looking at previous studies to see if the procedures are actually effective at slowing down or killing pathogens (see “Salmonella-Tainted Cereal[10–14]). For example, a cookie producer might ask if the heating process is enough to kill the Salmonella from the eggs or flour. Also, validating the sanitation procedures for specific food types and manufacturing processes is an important step toward keeping snack foods safe and consistent in quality. Updating validation studies on a regular basis ensures that current technology and science are understood and implemented in the processing procedures. What worked 20, 15, 10, or even 5 years ago may not work in the current food safety and quality environment.
Snack Foods for Busy Lives
Snack foods are an established part of life. They have even become a popular meal replacement for many individuals on the go. As this market sector continues to grow and expand in unique flavors and food offerings, one thing is clear: Pathogens will find a way to survive in this food segment. Food safety and quality experts need to stay diligent, because the expectation, or more likely the assumption, of the consumer is that any food sold in retail is safe to eat.
Gina R. (Nicholson) Kramer, RS/REHS, is the executive director of Savour Food Safety International.
Megan Doran is an Ohio State University student and summer intern at Savour Food Safety International. She will graduate in December 2018 with a B.Sc. in agriculture, food business management.
3. www.iriworldwide.com/IRI/media/video/2017 SNAXPO IRI Emerging Trends.pdf.