Snackmakers Chew Over Ideas As America Munches Into the New Year

Vending machines gobble up their share of the $24 billion a year that Americans spend on snack foods.
Vending machines gobble up their share of the $24 billion a year that Americans spend on snack foods. (By Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)
By David Segal
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 1, 2007

The American appetite for snacks, much like the American waistline, is always expanding, so the search for the next great flavor never ends.

What exactly is coming to the snack aisle? In the stretch between Christmas and New Year's Day, one of the snackingest times of the year, it could almost pass for a timely question. No matter how your family managed this torpid interlude, odds are good that it involved a sofa, a TV, football -- and something made with cheddar.

Strictly speaking, cheddar is an English invention, but credit for its rise from humble curd to vending-machine superstar belongs right here in the U. S. of A. At some point in our nation's history, cheddar became the American snack industry's cheese of choice. It's been cheddarmania ever since.

Pork rinds, garlic chips, soy chips, pita chips, rice crisps, pretzels, popcorn: You name it, someone has added cheddar to it and stuffed it in a bag, pouch, grab-and-go can, tin, bucket or gift bowl. There have been dozens of cheddar-flavored snacks on the market over the years, from Andy Capp's White Cheddar Cheese Steak Fries to Yum Yum Cheddar Popcorn.

Clearly, this is no mere crush. But maybe there's another cheddar out there and a fortune awaits the company that finds it.

About $24 billion a year is spent in this country on snacks, according to the Snack Food Association. Factor in the stupefying variety of products we bake, fry and chemically spark to life and, put simply, we are the champions, my friends. And we'll keep on snacking to the end -- which, if nutritionists are to be trusted, is substantially hastened by all this noshing. This bothers us just enough to make "healthy snacks" a thriving category, and not a jot more. Our snack appetite and its impact on our arteries are matched only by the pace of our snack-food innovations.

Which is why nothing teases out the great paradox of the American character -- that we are both a nation of striving, frenetic doers and a nation of blubbery, inert slobs -- like the snack-food biz. It's the place where the energized meet the enervated, where the self-starters woo the self-stalled. The sour cream and onion chip is both a testament to our ingenuity and a measure of our sloth; it takes a certain get-up-and-go to invent the thing, and a certain sit-down-and-nap to buy it. The point, of course, is to eliminate the need to make dip, which could seem like an aggravation only to the most gluttonous of slugs.

The breadth of our snack-o-philia is a topic worthy of a book. But even the briefest of surveys leaves the impression that the U.S. economy is one giant furnace fueled by box upon box of Doritos Blazin' Buffalo & Ranch Tortilla Chips, with a chaser of Smokin' BBQ Bugles. The key ingredients here are salt, sugar, emulsifiers, disodium phosphates, cottonseed oils, hydrogenated palm kernels -- and people like Glen Flook.

Officially, Flook is chief operating officer with a gourmet popcorn maker called Dale and Thomas, but think of him as a high-level snackacrat in the snackocracy. Despite an abundance of heartland imagery on the packaging, D and T is based in Englewood, N.J., about 10 minutes from the George Washington Bridge. An affable middle-aged guy who could politely be described as soft around the edges, Flook has studied the between-meals habits of Americans the way marine biologists study fish.

"I always tell people that if they want to know what people snack on, go get a lawn chair and have a seat at a Wal-Mart," Flook says. "I've spent hours that way."

Part of his job is to identify flavors that the public will like and then find ways to package those flavors into irresistible morsels that raise our cholesterol.

"We're looking for new flavors every minute of every day," he says. "That's our business."

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