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The definitive guide to how people around the world snack

Potato chips might be popular in the United States, but the rest of the world prefers other snacks. (Damian Dovarganes/AP Photo)

Americans snack on potato chips, Europeans munch on candy, and Latin Americans love cookies.

A new comprehensive study released today by Nielsen, which looks at snacking habits around the world, illuminates quite a few quirks about how, when, and what the world snacks on.

There are overarching trends at play. For instance: the fact that snacking is not only big, but growing. All around the globe people are eating more snacks, and more often, each year. The global snacking market, which grossed nearly $400 billion in the 12 months ending this past March, grew by another 2 percent from the year prior, and is projected to continue growing for the foreseeable future.

Much of that growth will come from developing regions, where snacking is still in its infancy, at least in part because most of the developed world has already acquired an obsession with snacking. Europeans, which spend nearly $170 billion annually on snacks, gobble up more snacks than anyone else. But North Americans, who buy more than $120 billion in snacks each year, aren't too far behind. Asia-Pacific, for which snacking purchases fall just short of $50 billion, and Latin America, where they are roughly $30 billion, are a distant third and fourth.

But the popularity of snacking isn't merely growing; it's blossoming in all sorts of different and interesting directions, depending on where and how you look.

Americans, for one, don't snack like everyone else.

Shine a light on the U.S., and a preference for chips, nuts, and other salty snacks emerges. Nearly a quarter of the money spent on snacks in North America goes to salty snacks. Refrigerated items, like yogurt, makes up roughly 18 percent of snacks sold; vegetables and fruit, about 14 percent; and cookies and cake, less than 10 percent.

In Europe, however, the story is quite different. The most popular snack, when measured by pure dollar sales, is, rather incredibly, candy. Almost 30 percent of the money spent on snacks in Europe goes to confections. Refrigerated items, meanwhile, account for just over 21 percent; Salty snacks, 14 percent; and cookies and cake, 13 percent.

Shift over to Latin America and, once again, the picture changes—and rather drastically at that. Almost a third of snacks sales in the region are cookies and cake. Candy, by comparison, accounts for roughly 27 percent; salty snacks, 23 percent; and refrigerated snacks, 17 percent.

Asia, meanwhile, prefers to spend its money on refrigerated snacks, which account for more than 30 percent of snack sales in the region.

And the Middle East and Africa split their love between both salty snacks and candy, each of which accounts for roughly 29 percent of snack sales in the region.

Zoom in even further, this time to specific foods rather than categories, and the preferences become even more revealing.

Globally, the most sought after snack is — rather surprisingly — fresh fruit, according to a survey conducted by Nielsen. Some 18 percent of respondents said fresh fruit when asked what the one snack they would would be. Chocolate came in second, with 15 percent of respondents citing it as the single snack they want. And yogurt, at 6 percent, was a distant third.

But many people, as it turns out, say they want one thing, and then eat another. "Finding growth opportunities requires both a global and local understanding of what consumers say and do—which are not always the same," the report says.

Worldwide, that dichotomy isn't terribly pronounced. The most popular snack around the world, when measured by the sheer number of people who eat it, is chocolate. 64 percent of respondents claimed to have eaten chocolate as a snack in the past month. But 62 percent had also eaten fresh fruit; 52 percent, vegetables; and 51 percent, cookies or cake.

For Americans, however, the snack scale is considerably different, largely because of their unmatched love for potato chips.

In North America, 63 percent of people had eaten chips as a snack in the past 30 days—the highest percentage for any snack food. 59 percent had eaten chocolate, the second most popular snack; 58 percent had eaten cheese, the third; and 56 percent had eaten cookies, the fourth. Fresh fruit, meanwhile, was fifth—at 55 percent.

Europeans, meanwhile, shun chips for fresh fruit, chocolate, cheese, and yogurt. 62 percent of respondents in Europe had eaten fresh fruit as a snack in the past 30 days; 61 percent had eaten chocolate; 58 percent had eaten cheese; and 54 percent had eaten yogurt.

In Latin America, yogurt is the most popular—66 percent of people had eaten it as a snack over the past 30 days.

In Asia, chocolate reigns—69 percent of people had eaten it as a snack in the past month.

And in the Middle East and Africa, fresh fruit barely outpaces chocolate—52 percent of respondents had eaten fresh fruit as a snack in the past 30 days, while 51 percent had eaten chocolate.

But differences in what people are choosing to eat as snacks are often as pronounced as how they are eating snacks. Most notably, a growing percentage of people around the world are opting for snacks instead of eating breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and in certain countries, the habit appears to fairly widespread.

In a survey of more than 60 countries worldwide, 52 percent of respondents said they now eat snacks as a breakfast alternative. In certain countries, like India and Indonesia, the number of people that reported swapping out breakfast for a snack was significantly higher—72 percent and 68 percent, respectively—while in the United States, where the percentage was 49 percent, snacking for breakfast was less common. In much of Scandinavia, including the Netherlands and Denmark, the rate was well below 30 percent.

The same survey found that 43 percent of people across the globe are eating snacks instead of lunch. India, again, shows a particular affinity for meal-skipping—61 percent of people in the country said they ate snacks as a lunch alternative, which was second only to South Africa (65 percent). In the United States, 52 percent of people said they ate snacks instead of lunch, and Scandinavia, once again indexed very low—Denmark especially (22 percent).

People are least likely to eat a snack instead of dinner, according to Nielsen's findings. 40 percent of all respondents said they ate snacks as dinner alternatives. The countries were people were mostly likely to skip dinner for something light and quick were Egypt (65 percent), South Africa (64 percent), Greece (63 percent), and India (62 percent); the countries where people where least likely were Denmark (16 percent), Belgium (19 percent), the Netherlands (21 percent), and Japan (21 percent). Americans, meanwhile, were pretty much average in this regard—41 percent of respondents in the United States said they ate snacks instead of dinner.

The reason people are increasingly snacking instead of eating meals is, at least in part, because they no longer have the time to sit down and indulge.

"We are increasingly time-starved," said James Russo, the senior vice president of global consumer insights at Nielsen. "There is a desire for portable on the go meals."

That reality is as true here in the U.S. as it is elsewhere, where maturing economies are breeding more affluent and, as a result, more time-sensitive populations. "Emerging middle classes are helping to drive snack consumption," said Russo. "This is a trend that we expect to continue as people become increasingly mobile."

There's also a shift towards healthier foods, which has bled into a taste for smaller, snack-like meals. "Non-sugary snacks closely aligned with meal-replacement foods are showing strong growth, which signals a shift in a consumer mindset to one focused on health," Susan Dunn, the executive vice president of global professional services at Nielsen said in the study.

Globally, as consumers shift away from long, large meals, and towards quick, small bites, the practice of skipping traditional meals is only likely to become more prominent. That might leave certain, less sustainable snacking habits—like, say, Latin America's apparent lust for cookies and cake, or America's affinity for potato chips—behind. It might also call for significant innovation in the snack space if the industry is going to grow with the world's changing snacking habits, and not leave it rubbing an ever-growing collective gut.