NEW YORK — There are no meals anymore, only snacks.
As around-the-clock grazing upends the way people eat, companies are reimagining foods that aren't normally seen as snacks to elbow in on the trend. That means everything including grilled chicken, cereal, chocolate, peanut butter and even Spam are now being marketed as snacks.
Some are trying to jump into the party by playing up protein. Meat processing giant Tyson launched Hillshire Snacking this year with packs of cut-up chicken that people are supposed to grab and eat with their hands (120 calories per pack). Canned meat maker Hormel is testing "Spam Snacks," which are dried chunks of the famous meat in re-sealable bags (220 calories per bag).
People with a sweet tooth aren't being forgotten. After years of slumping cereal sales, Kellogg recently introduced Kellogg's To Go pouches, which hold slightly larger pieces of cereal the company says were "specifically created to be eaten by hand" (190 calories per pouch, which is comparable in size to a bag of potato chips).
Even Hershey is trying to become more of a snacks player with "snack mixes" that seem like trail mix, except with Reese's peanut butter cups and mini chocolate bars (280 calories per package).
"People are snacking more and more, sometimes instead of meals, sometimes with meals, and sometimes in between meals," said Marcel Nahm, who heads North American snacks for Hershey.
He said Hershey's research shows some people snack "10 times a day."
Snacking has been encroaching on meals for years, of course, fueled in part by the belief that several smaller meals a day are better than three big ones. Snacks now account for half of all eating occasions, with breakfast and lunch in particular becoming "snackified," according to the Hartman Group, a food industry consultancy.
But more recently, the blurring lines are making people reach for snacks with benefits they might otherwise get from a meal, like protein or fiber. That has led to ingredients like chickpeas, lentils and quinoa popping up in snacks. And it's inspiring some companies to try and transform everyday foods into more exciting snacks.
Snacks can have good profit margins, too. Prices will vary depending on the retailer, but the suggested retail price for a snack pack of Hillshire's grilled chicken is $2.49, while Kellogg's To Go pouch sells for about $2.
Kellogg is also marketing regular bowls of cereal as a late-night snack, and says it can do more to push Pop-Tarts as an anytime snack. Hormel recently introduced Skippy P.B. Bites, which are candy-like balls of peanut butter marketed as filling treats for kids.
A serving has 160 calories and 8 grams of sugar, with each canister containing six servings. The canister costs around $3.50 and isn't supposed to be a single snack, but Hormel president Jim Snee says "unfortunately it can end up being that."
Prescribing an ideal eating pattern for everyone is difficult given people's varying lifestyles, said Claudia Zapata, a registered dietitian in San Antonio, Texas. But she noted that snacks should generally be 250 calories at most and are meant to tide people over between meals.
"Well, that was the point of snacks back then. I don't know what the point is now," she said.
Zapata noted there is a lot of mindless eating going on, and that people should stop and ask themselves whether they're even hungry before diving into a snack. "It may be that you just need water," she said.
For food makers, the bigger priority seems to be delivering maximum convenience so people can eat wherever and whenever the spirit moves them.
"I don't like things that have to be assembled," said Bridget Callahan, a part-time student and freelance writer in Wilmington, North Carolina who says she snacks six or seven times a day.
Callahan says she picks snacks like protein bars and oranges that she can carry around in her purse.
The various efforts to court snackers may not succeed over the long term, but Kellogg promises that the pouches for its cereal snacks are "ergonomically designed to allow fingers to easily access the food" and Hershey describes its snack mixes as perfect for "one-handed eating."
And while it may seem odd to snack on meat with bare hands, Hillshire says its research shows people don't mind.
"The meat is quality meat, so people would take it and dip it with their fingers," said Jeff Caswell, general manager of Hillshire Snacking.
Already, Caswell said the company is looking at turning other meats into portable finger foods.