This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode, Snack Attack!, first released on October 13, 2020. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.
NICOLA TWILLEY: We are about to tell a shocking story. The central character is a woman called Olia Hercules. She’s a cookbook author, and she grew up in Ukraine in the 1980s.
CYNTHIA GRABER: And the person telling the story is a voice you may well recognize from previous Gastropod episodes, because Bee Wilson is one of our favorite food writers. She’s a fan of Olia’s writing and recipes, and one night she joined other food writers at Olia’s house for dinner.
BEE WILSON: And we kind of got talking and then suddenly somebody mentioned snacks. And Olia said, “Well, I never snack. It’s not in my culture.” And we all just looked at her. I think our jaws simultaneously dropped. Like, well, like, never? You never have a snack? Just not—not ever? Not a packet of crisps? Not—I mean, sorry, chips to you. Not a rice cake? Not a tortilla chip? Not a protein bar? And she was just like, “No. I don’t snack. Why would I need to snack?”
GRABER: I am as shocked as Bee must have been at that dinner. No snacks? Not ever? No occasional piece of chocolate in the afternoon? How about some carrots and hummus? Doesn’t everybody snack? I mean, isn’t this a basic human universal?
TWILLEY: I’m so glad you asked, Cynthia, because that is exactly what this episode is all about: the snackification of our lives. This, of course, is Gastropod, the podcast that looks at food through the lens of science and history. I am Nicola Twilley.
GRABER: And I’m Cynthia Graber, and this episode we’re getting a bit of the munchies. The big, existential question that we’re tackling today is whether snacking is good or evil.
TWILLEY: On the one hand, we’ve all heard that it’s a good thing to nibble on handfuls of nuts and things—sort of graze rather than wait until you’re starving and then stuff yourself. But, on the other hand, I distinctly recall as a kid being told not to eat between meals so I didn’t ruin my appetite. So which is it?
GRABER: Getting to the bottom of this definitely sounds like a Gastropod challenge. But there’s another existential question: What is a snack?
TWILLEY: Plato, Confucius, the Dalai Lama, they’ve all pondered this one, I’m sure. Now it’s Gastropod’s turn.
GRABER: And if that’s not enough, we get to the bottom of the Cracker Jack box, or, actually, the Cracker Jack story. Who invented Cracker Jacks?
TWILLEY: Plus, in this deep dive into snack history, we’ll discover what the invention of the Cheeto has to do with creating better animal feed.
GRABER: Our reporting for this episode was supported in part by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, to promote science communication and our coverage of biomedical research.
TWILLEY: But first, back to the woman who never snacks: Olia Hercules.
GRABER: And the woman who told us her story, Bee Wilson. Bee’s most recent book is called The Way We Eat Now. She started to think about the concept of snacking when Olia Hercules told her she doesn’t snack now because she never snacked as a kid in the Ukraine.
WILSON: She and her brother would eat a delicious, hearty breakfast, which might include something like buckwheat porridge and maybe some wonderful preserved fruits. And then they’d go to school and school in those days only lasted for a kind of long morning. And then they’d come home and every day they’d sit down to this huge, ritualized, delicious cooked lunch. And so she said, why would we need a snack? Because they were never hungry. And you would just be ruining the wonderful ritual of those delicious shared meals.
GRABER: Olia has since moved to London. Bee told us Olia said she’s not nostalgic for everything, there were a lot of upsides to leaving the Ukraine. That said, she does keep up this way of eating in her family today.
WILSON: She was saying her son, because he goes to a British school and it’s completely normal to snack, is constantly saying, where are my breadsticks? Where’s my cereal bar? Because that’s what all the other mums bring. And she will just still say to him, it’s not in our culture, it’s not what we do.
TWILLEY: Hearing about Olia’s snack-free lifestyle started Bee down a path of wondering, well, did British people always snack? Or is snacking a new thing? When were snacks invented?
GRABER: But that leads to another question that has to be answered first: What is a snack?
NADIA BERENSTEIN: That’s a great question. Because it is entirely not simple to answer or it’s one of those questions, which is sort of like the Supreme Court’s definition of pornography. Right? You know it when you see it.
TWILLEY: Uh huh. And that is another of our favorite food writers who has also been on Gastropod multiple times, talking about artificial flavors and blue raspberries—the wonderful Nadia Berenstein.
GRABER: And now onto a third repeat Gastropod guest—
TWILLEY: The band is back!
GRABER: You might remember Barry Popkin from our three-part series on sugar and artificial sweeteners a year and a half ago, he’s a world expert in nutrition and obesity and he’s a researcher at the University of North Carolina.
POPKIN: A snack is actually not as simple to define as you could imagine. But the way we’ve defined it over time is something aside from a normal meal. So it could be a morning snack. It could be an afternoon. It could be an early evening. Or it could be a very late evening. But aside from the normal two or three day meals a day that a person eats.
TWILLEY: That still seems a little vague to me.
BERENSTEIN: Etymologically, according to the to the Oxford English Dictionary, there’s this precursor meaning, this archaic meaning, which is basically to snack is to kind of snap your teeth like a dog. In the 1700s, it records a now obsolete meaning: to share or divide. So the example the OED gives is highwaymen snacking their booty.
TWILLEY: Oh, I guess this has to be where Pirate’s Booty, that weird puff snack thing, gets its name. Snack some vegetable puff booty with your friends!
GRABER: I’m sure. Though perhaps that wasn’t exactly the pirate’s booty they were dividing—I mean, snacking—back in the 1700s. Either way, Nadia says, it’s not really until the 1800s that a snack starts to refer to maybe a light meal.
BERENSTEIN: But really, the popularization of the word “snack” doesn’t occur until the 20th century, and especially until the middle of the 20th century. So it’s almost like the word “snack” kind of emerges to kind of describe or define a category of food or of eating that’s already out there. But that doesn’t quite have a word to hold it all together yet.
TWILLEY: The reason that this new category of food all of a sudden needed a word to describe it is because the 20th century is when this kind of food and this kind of eating pattern took off. And that happened for all sorts of other reasons that we’re going to explore this episode.
GRABER: So, to get back to the definition of a snack, Barry’s is really the best we’ve got, a snack is anything that is not a meal.
TWILLEY: Which makes a meal anything that is not a snack? My head might actually explode. Cynthia, does this mean we have to define a meal now?
GRABER: Don’t panic, Nicky, we are not going to get into the whole complicated story of what makes a meal a meal and which cultures eat meals when, it’s actually pretty complicated and interesting. But what Barry says is that, in general, there is some similarity among cultures. And that’s in how many meals people eat in a day.
POPKIN: Either three meals or two meals. In agricultural areas, often it was two meals a day in many low- and middle-income countries, traditionally. But increasingly, globally, we would say it’s a three-meal-a-day culture.
TWILLEY: Broadly speaking, that three-meal-a-day structure tends to get pinned down as a society industrializes. For the U.S., that meal formalization happened in the 1800s.
BERENSTEIN: In response to all these other social changes like industrialization, and urbanization, and so forth.
GRABER: And along with industrialization and urbanization came the development of the work day. Everything became more scheduled. People went to the factory, or the office, and they took breaks or came home for meals at specific times.
BERENSTEIN: And if the meal becomes more and more kind of formally defined as this site of kind of like middle class, bourgeois family life, of kind of proper healthy eating, of family togetherness, the snack is always… it’s kind of like its anarchic or riotous counterpart.
TWILLEY: I like that. Snacks are like the food that refused to grow up and settle down into mealtimes.
GRABER: But it’s not that we haven’t eaten between meals before—
BERENSTEIN: It stands to reason that there must always have been some kind of informal noshing behavior that existed and you can definitely, you know, find pretzels in antiquity, and probably the Mayans were eating tortilla chips. But the, the cultural meaning of a snack—and with all of the cultural weight that it bears, right, about this: this kind of forbidden thing or this thing that’s kind of maybe a treat, maybe a guilty pleasure, maybe something to kind of keep you going between meals… That that idea only really comes to exist, and that kind of eating occasion only really comes to exist, with the sort of formalization of the three square meals in modernity.
GRABER: Nadia’s point is that we have always snacked, but we haven’t always had snacks. It was just food. It wasn’t till the twentieth century that the meal and the snack went their separate ways.
TWILLEY: Some of the earliest snacks in modernity were things that had been noshed on for centuries—things like pretzels, peanuts, and even apples. They were crunchy, they were handheld and you could buy them on the street or at ballgames or fairs or circus shows. Snacks were for eating in public.
GRABER: One of those snacks of the late 1800s was popcorn, and then something we also still eat today that evolved from popcorn: Cracker Jack. I’m hungry just thinking about it. It’s a mixture of caramel and popcorn and peanuts, and it was first introduced by a German immigrant named Frederick Rueckheim at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893.
TWILLEY: Cracker Jack was a breakthrough in snack history. Frederick brought his brother Louis over from Germany and together they patented the recipe, branded their snack—this was no longer plain old caramel corn with nuts, it was Cracker Jack.
JINGLE: Lip-smackin’, whip-crackin’, paddy-whackin’, knickin’-knackin’, silver-rackin’, scoundrel-whackin’, cracker-jackin’ Cracker Jack!
TWILLEY: And then they paid a German scientist to teach them how to wax paper.
GRABER: This was a really important innovation. They waxed the cardboard box and they made a waxed paper lining, and this kept moisture out. So the popcorn stayed poppy, nothing got soggy. They said in their ad that it was quote “fresh, snappy, and as crisp as when newly made.”
JINGLE: Candy-coated popcorn, peanuts, and a prize. That’s what you get in Cracker Jack!
TWILLEY: This waxed packaging was really pivotal for the newly emerging snack industry.
BERENSTEIN: The kind of emergence of snacks as a food category is sort of inextricable from single serve packaging. And especially from packaging that is meant to keep things crispy.
TWILLEY: Frederick Rueckheim and his Cracker Jack were the first on the crunchy snack pack scene, but, by the 1930s, this newfangled invention called the potato chip, or crisp if you’re not American, was starting to catch on.
GRABER: And just like Cracker Jacks, potato chips also needed to stay crispy.
BERENSTEIN: According to kind of, you know, the little bit of digging that I’ve done into this, there was a woman named Laura Scudder, who was a potato chip maker. And every evening she’d have her female employees take home sheets of waxed paper, and she’d asked them to iron them into bags. And the next day they would pack these kind of ironed waxed paper sacks. They’d pack them with potato chips and seal them and then deliver them. So these were kind of like the first individually packed potato chips.
GRABER: Before these individual-sized wax paper bags were invented, you might have had to belly up to your potato chip seller’s barrel and they’d scoop some out into either a piece of paper or into your own container that you’d have brought from home. And you’d have to eat them pretty quickly, because they wouldn’t stay crispy for long.
TWILLEY: That’s if they even were still crispy when you bought them. Because a lot of times the chips would have been sitting in that barrel for a while, getting soggier by the day. That’s why Frederick Rueckheim boasted about his packaging keeping Cracker Jack fresh—most popcorn for sale at the time wasn’t.
GRABER: We are making such a big deal about the packaging because one of the hallmarks of snacks as they started to emerge as a category of food is this crunchy quality.
BERENSTEIN: Like the kind of crispness of a potato chip—it’s a kind of eating experience that’s quite hard to maintain or duplicate. It’s actually quite rare. But crispiness kind of became this sought-after and maybe, like, defining textural characteristic of snack foods, which also became associated with—psychologically according to food researchers—with things like with vigor and action, and like “go get ’em.”
TWILLEY: That’s how I feel when I crunch on a crisp, no doubt.
GRABER: But the packages were good for more than just keeping your chips crispy. Before these individual packages, you had to buy and usually eat your snacks on the street, or at the circus or the ballgame, as Nicky said. And these snacks were often sold by immigrants, or by African-Americans. And so they were considered kind of rowdy and lower class, and also, because of racism, kind of unclean.
TWILLEY: Packaging the snacks meant you could buy them and eat them at home. Waxed paper basically domesticated the snack. Which made snacks appropriate for women and children and everyone who considered themselves too classy to eat them before.
GRABER: One example of this shift is Mr. Peanut, he’s the mascot for Planters Peanuts and he was first introduced in 1916. Mr. Peanut was classy, he had a monocle, he wasn’t a rowdy peanut seller at the baseball field.
TWILLEY: What all of this means is that by the 1920s and 30s, snacks were for everyone to eat, everywhere. They were exploding.
GRABER: Literally. The invention of the Cheeto had to do with exploding corn!
TWILLEY: And cattle feed.
GRABER: In the early 1930s, a company in Wisconsin called Flakall was trying to perfect a method for flaking corn to turn it into animal food, so that the cows wouldn’t get their mouths cut on the sharp kernels. The grinder worked, but it wasn’t great, and it would occasionally get clogged.
TWILLEY: Flakall employees tried moistening the corn kernels before putting them in the machine, to cut down on the dust that clogged it up. But then something weird happened: as they went through the flaker, these moist corn kernels turned into puffs.
GRABER: One of the employees brought some of these corn puffs home instead of leaving them for the cows, and he seasoned them, and he tasted them, and they were damn good. He decided to call them Korn Kurls, both with a K.
TWILLEY: You know and love Korn Kurls today as Cheetos. And so, I hate to break it to you, but that does mean that your Cheetos and really the entire category of extruded corn snacks—they are actually repurposed cattle feed.
GRABER: So with packaging and corn puffs, now snacks have been invented! The 60s was a huge snack creation decade: Pringles, Chips Ahoy, Doritos, Pop Tarts, Bugles, Jelly Bellies.
DORITOS: Doritos taste as good as they crunch. Try Doritos tortilla chips. One good crunch leads to another.
CHIPS AHOY: Chips Ahoy, the 16-chip chocolate chip cookie from Nabisco. Delicious cookie!
TWILLEY: Truly a modern Renaissance. The golden age of snacking.
POPKIN: Snacking was already becoming important in the U.S. in the 60s and 70s for higher income people, and across the income spectrum, by the 80s. So that’s when snacks truly exploded. And when they shifted between the 70s and the 90s, from being really once or twice a day to up to three times. And then by today, in the last 20 years, we’ve seen the increase in people who just seem to be snacking many times a day.
GRABER: When it comes to snacks exploding into the public consciousness, of course it will come as no surprise to you listeners that America was really the leader. And children were the early adopters. It’s really only been later that it became a total population shift. And I would say by the 1990s, every age group was snacking.
TWILLEY: Greaseproof packaging made the first wave of snacking’s rise to glory possible. But Barry is describing a second wave that led to the wholesale snackification of American life. So what led to that second wave?
GRABER: To answer that, we actually have to take a step back in history again. After World War Two, the food industry started to wake up to what a great business opportunity snacking had become as its own entire sector.
TWILLEY: Earlier in the century, snack makers didn’t think of themselves as being in the snack sector. They thought of themselves as just making whatever food they made—crackers or popcorn or chips.
BERENSTEIN: In the 1930s, the National Potato Chip Association forms, and it has this magazine called “The Potato Chipper,” which is actually really great. Every year they have like a Miss Potato Chip. And there’s always these kind of like centerfold pictures of Miss Potato Chip. And there’s other kind of trade magazines like “The Biscuit and Cracker Baker.”
GRABER: By the end of the 1960s—and remember this is right when snacking is about to start to take off in the 70s—by the end of the 60s these trade magazines had had a consciousness raising. You know, just like all those hippies. “Biscuit and Cracker Baker” becomes “Snack Food Magazine” in 1968. “The Potato Chipper” somewhat later becomes “Snack World.”
TWILLEY: They weren’t biscuit or potato chip makers anymore, they were just one big happy snack-making family! With this new expanded mindset, these snack-makers set out to share the snack message with the people. Now that snacks had realized who they really were, it was time for all Americans to get on that snack train.
GRABER: If you want to understand how this major cultural shift got going, one good place to look is advertising. Now, any company with a marketing plan has a kind of archetypal consumer, it’s the person they have in mind when they’re pitching their product.
BERENSTEIN: In the 1930s and 40s, when you read food industry trade magazines, the imagined consumer is always Mrs. Housewife. Mrs. Housewife is white and middle class. And she is feeding a husband who has a white collar job and is grouchy when she doesn’t make the food he likes.
TWILLEY: Mrs. Housewife was of course making all the food purchases for the whole household and she needed things to be nutritious and thrifty and tasty so that Mr. Businessman Husband would be happy with her and their delightful 2.5 children.
BERENSTEIN: The ideal or imagined snack food buyer is not Mrs. Housewife. The snack food is kind of a disaggregated individual, a person who’s sort of roaming alone and eating alone outside of the boundaries of the meal, not responsible for making choices to feed anybody else, basically just trying to gratify his or her own senses. So buying a thing that pleases you and you alone. And that shift in sort of imagining what kind of appetites food companies are catering to, I think, makes a big difference in the way that food and the pleasure of food is sold.
MAGNUM: Take pleasure seriously. Magnum, for pleasure-seekers.
SNICKERS: Packed with peanuts, Snickers really satisfies. (Snickers really satisfies you!)
GRABER: Elizabeth Avery is the CEO of SNAC International, it’s the lobbying group for the snack food association. And she says that this is what snacks still mean today—snacking is all about personal pleasure.
ELIZABETH AVERY: I really consider myself a veteran of the overall food industry but, you know, it’s easy to be passionate about this category. We bring a lot of joy to consumers.
TWILLEY: Those consumers include Elizabeth herself.
AVERY: I love them all. But I am a little bit on the nostalgia or otherwise boring side. I like a more traditional snack. I love kettle potato chips. And then, I’m always game for trying some of the new mix-ins. I’m looking at some pretzel chips with dark chocolate drizzle on them right now, which I think are a great way to have a treat.
TWILLEY: Joy, treats, love, pleasure—this is the snack message. And it really fit in with this new more individualistic way of thinking that swept America in the 60s—people putting their own personal fulfillment and self expression above traditional social norms in a way that perfectly matched this new snack mindset.
GRABER: And then the time period that Barry said marks the real explosion in snacking, the 70s and 80s, this is when two-income families started to really become the norm in America. It’s also the time of the latchkey generation—otherwise known as Gen X—these were kids who let themselves in alone after school and had to fend for themselves for a while.
TWILLEY: Where fending for yourself meant foraging for snacks. And also maybe fighting with your brother about what to watch on TV.
GRABER: And just as snacking was really capturing people’s hearts, then along came some supposed science to justify the new obsession.
BERENSTEIN: I’ll give you a quote from an editorial from “Snack Food Magazine” in 1969: “Whatever the reason for snacking: The bomb. Next month’s mortgage payment. Today’s pace. That big contract. Dieticians tell us that more meals per day is a healthy trend.”
TWILLEY: Oh, I definitely remember hearing and reading this in all my teen magazines—grazing was the key to a desirable figure and life. A handful of almonds here, a spoonful of cottage cheese there, and Bob’s your uncle.
GRABER: Or, in American parlance, you’re good to go. No uncles necessary.
TWILLEY: So nowadays, in my very slightly older age, I know it’s not a super good idea to rely on the science in teen magazines for nutritional advice or really anything. But was there really research showing that grazing was good for you?
POPKIN: There was one study done, only one on this. In Canada, a scholar named Jenkins looked at six meals a day versus three meals a day for a small group of 30 to 40 adults. And he did this trial where everybody got the same number of calories. So whether you had six or three, you ate the same calories.
GRABER: The group that ate more frequently had slightly better insulin levels. Insulin levels are important to help process sugars in the blood, and if you don’t have good insulin levels it can lead to type 2 diabetes.
POPKIN: But it grew into a kind of a mythical thinking on dieting books that if you ate a whole lot of small meals, you could do it.
TWILLEY: You could lose weight—that’s what the teen magazines were promising, and I presume the grown up ones too.
GRABER: But first of all, the study didn’t have anything to do with weight loss. And it was a very small study, and it was just one.
TWILLEY: And those diet plans and diet books that were based on grazing all had something to sell.
POPKIN: So there is a lot of linkage of industry into the pushing for that multiple meals a day and grazing effect. And it kind of became something that became quite popular in thinking at one point in the 80s and 90s. We know now that’s not quite the case.
TWILLEY: Barry says that yes, eating small portions regularly might help diabetics with insulin management, but, for the rest of us, this Canadian study has no real relevance. Sorry teen me: there’s no science behind the idea that eating lots of little snacks is good for you.
GRABER: But that supposed science made for a good snack marketing tool. And at the same time as this obsession over snacking and grazing was growing, America’s waistline was starting to grow too.
TWILLEY: The snack industry used that one study to present snacking as the solution, but maybe snacking was the problem? Was it just a correlation—snacking just happened to be on the rise at the same time Americans were gaining weight—or did snacking in particular lead to weight gain? Was all that grazing actually bad?
GRABER: This is something that Satchin Panda wondered. He’s a professor at the Salk Institute and an expert in circadian rhythms. That’s basically the body’s internal clock. For a long time, scientists thought that clock only existed in our brains.
TWILLEY: But about a decade ago, Satchin realized lots of other genes also seemed to switch on and off in a time-based pattern, and lots of those genes were involved in metabolism in some way.
SATCHIN PANDA: So it became very clear that just like our brain has a clock, every organ has its own clock. And that means there is a good time for our body to expect food and to digest it. And there are other times when, if we eat, it may not be ideal.
GRABER: Satchin did a bunch of studies to try to figure out if we might be healthier if we only ate during a restricted time period during the day. He did those studies in mice, and the mice who ate only during a certain amount of time, 8 hours or 10 hours a day—they were a lot healthier and stronger than the mice who ate the exact same food but ate constantly over the entire 24 hours.
TWILLEY: This time-restricted eating research really caught on with some people—the results in mice were super exciting and people started doing intermittent fasting and all sorts. But, in fact, a paper from the first decent-sized study in humans just came out last month and the results were… nothing. The control group who ate whenever and the study group who only ate during an eight-hour period ended up looking exactly the same, in terms of weight and also insulin levels, caloric intake, everything. So maybe that magical effect in mice doesn’t translate directly to humans. More research definitely needed.
GRABER: But this episode we’re not interested in whether you should eat only for eight or twelve hours a day, we’re interested in understanding the impact of eating all the time, of snacking. And here’s where Satchin’s research does have an impact on that—he’s been able to describe a handful of clear pathways that flip on and off when you eat, they influence things like insulin and other hormones, and enzymes and proteins. This is what’s important.
TWILLEY: And of course, this research is still all in mice. But Barry says we do know that similar sorts of mechanisms are at work in humans.
POPKIN: Well, I can’t give you all the exact relationships. But we certainly know that there are certain hormonal changes that come when we eat. And as you eat more often, these insulin changes and hormonal changes are constant. So you don’t really understand when you need to eat anymore.
TWILLEY: So that sounds bad. But we checked with Satchin—are all these changes that happen when we snack good or bad?
PANDA: Yeah. So this is a great question that has been bugging nutritionists and scientists for decades—to snack or not to snack?
GRABER: It has been difficult to study. It’s been hard in the past to, say, constantly monitor people’s glucose in their blood or acid levels in their stomach. The technology has improved, though, and now people are starting to tease out the impact of frequent eating.
PANDA: So what we’re finding slowly is the result—it’s mixed. It depends on the person, on the underlying condition. So the bottom line is the jury is still out.
TWILLEY: Ugh, this is so unsatisfying. Kind of like a snack rather than a meal.
GRABER: Basically, given what Satchin and others have discovered about the body clock and the digestive system, it does make sense logically that eating constantly versus eating at mealtimes would have an impact.
TWILLEY: But, as yet, we don’t have any solid evidence in humans that the timing of eating is what makes snacking a problem for health.
GRABER: So how about the actual snackfood itself?
TWILLEY: I mean, if you think about it, a handful of peanuts or an apple as a snack, like people might have had a hundred years ago—those are really pretty qualitatively different than a Flaming Hot Cheeto or a Fruit Roll Up. Which is what the big snack makers are selling.
POPKIN: Apples and oranges went by the wayside by the 70s and 80s. They were pushing away from those to their processed, ready-to-eat, highly palatable kinds of food that they were making with lots of additive sugar, fat, salt. Very tasty kind of items.
GRABER: The new modern snacks often fall into the category that scientists have started to call ultra-processed foods.
WILSON: The term was coined by a Brazilian doctor called Carlos Monteiro. So one of the characteristics of an ultra-processed food is it will contain additives which would not normally be found in a home kitchen.
POPKIN: They have lots of chemicals together with some basic staples that make them what we taste and love. They’re not really real food.
TWILLEY: So the question scientists have is: Do our bodies handle this kind of ultra-processed food differently somehow?
GRABER: Lots of scientists had noticed that populations seemed to gain weight when more processed foods were added to the diet, but it wasn’t clear that the ultra-processed foods caused the weight gain.
WILSON: But then, last year, everything changed slightly with the science of ultra-processed food because a scientist called Kevin Hall did a really remarkable study where he took 20 people, and they agreed to be confined to his hospital for, I think, a period of four weeks.
TWILLEY: For half the time, they ate a 100% fresh, whole food-based diet, and for the other, they ate 100% ultra-processed foods.
GRABER: They were provided full meals no matter what the diet, and they could just eat however much of the meal they wanted.
TWILLEY: And what Kevin found is that during the two weeks they were eating ultra-processed foods, people felt hungrier, ate more, and gained weight.
WILSON: So this is the first evidence that actually ultra-processed foods, they’re not just correlated with weight gain, they actually cause it.
TWILLEY: The group also had pretty substantial changes for the worse in their blood pressure and blood fat levels and insulin levels too.
POPKIN: It’s quite shocking to me and to the whole scientific community that works on food and weight, the weight increases. And then the diabetic community, the endocrinologists and the diabetologists and the others were shocked for the increases in insulin, the increases in lipids in just two weeks. These are really quite significant, large effects that have really changed our view of these foods.
GRABER: These foods seem fundamentally different from what we’ve eaten in the past.
POPKIN: These foods are so palatable. The industry has learned how to make you want to eat them. And it’s those foods that are the danger.
TWILLEY: Barry says Kevin has another study underway now to tease out: Is it just that people eat more calories when they’re eating ultra-processed foods, or is there also something about how our body digests these ultra-processed foods that makes them different? Barry says we should see the results from that study early next year.
GRABER: Barry thinks it’s probably a little bit of both. Maybe our bodies do process them differently. What’s clear to him though is that these foods have extra calories in them and they make us want to just keep eating—so, again, more calories.
TWILLEY: In his own research, Barry looked back at the changes in the American diet over the past fifty years, to see if he could find any clues. And he found two things: Americans today are eating more calories. And the reason we’re eating more calories is mostly because of snacks. We’re just eating more often—that seems to be more significant than changes in portion size or changes in the foods we’re eating.
GRABER: In the U.S., by the time Barry looked, everything had already happened. He couldn’t follow along and try to tease out what was going on. But he got in on the ground when he started doing research in China.
POPKIN: Well, it’s very interesting because when I went to China, they hadn’t heard of the word snack and they didn’t snack. But what I found then is income started increasing in the 90s, when they opened up the economy, that kids were often given like a fruit. So once or twice a week, the average child was given a fruit to consume.
TWILLEY: And then by 2004, that piece of fruit had become processed foods in packages.
POPKIN: It went to multiple times a day. It went up in the proportion of the meals and it became junk food or fast food.
GRABER: And then as Barry watched, in real time, weight started to increase in China, especially childhood obesity.
TWILLEY: Meals weren’t getting any bigger or more calorific. The difference was just regularly snacking on processed foods. And it had a huge impact—in 1995, only one in 20 Chinese children was overweight. Now that number is one in five.
GRABER: And Barry says it’s not just China that has got on the snack train these days—it’s everywhere he’s studied: Brazil, Mexico, India, everywhere.
POPKIN: It’s absolutely applicable everywhere. And we’ve seen an explosion, tripling every couple years as we were studying it, in the impact, the size of snacking.
GRABER: And, unsurprisingly, food companies are marketing their snacks pretty aggressively in all these new markets.
POPKIN: They’re really shifting their focus to the rest of the world. To low- and middle-income countries, to Latin America, to Africa, to Asia, to the Middle East. All of these regions are the growth sector for the snacking now.
WILSON: I mean, if you look at the way that the food industry behaved trying to establish Doritos in Thailand. People in Thailand ate very few ultra-processed snacks compared to people in other middle income countries such as Mexico. And, through a really deliberate campaign, Doritos made sure that they forced themselves into the hearts and minds of Thai consumers. So they were for a brief while giving people free mobile phones when they bought some, a certain number of Doritos.
GRABER: A mobile phone for eating Doritos. That seems like…
TWILLEY: A good deal?
GRABER: But, really? Seriously? Is that even legal?
WILSON: In India the marketing technique, which is clever and devious and, according to aid workers I spoke to in Mumbai, is already doing a great deal of harm, is they will market absolutely tiny versions of the ultra-processed snack foods. So that even a child on a really low income could afford to buy a tiny version and get a taste for it. And become familiar with the name and become familiar with the logo.
GRABER: No matter where the food industry advertises snacks, there’s a similar message running through—
WILSON: Which is appealing to anyone in this stressful, godforsaken world that we live in, which is go on, treat yourself. You deserve it. Have this delicious packet of extruded salty snacks. You’re going to feel better. You’re going to feel popular. You’re going to feel beautiful. You’re going to feel an explosion on your tongue. There’s somehow a message of nurture and self-nurture, which is actually obviously completely at odds with what the effects of these foods are going to be on your body. But it’s very, very appealing.
TWILLEY: And it’s very, very good business for the food companies.
POPKIN: It is the fastest growing part of the food sector, by far. It has been for a decade. And its growth is exponential.
AVERY: For several years our growth as a category was double that of the overall food and beverage industry.
TWILLEY: This is Elizabeth again, she’s CEO of SNAC International, so she has all the stats on the snack business.
AVERY: Potato chips are the king, on an annual basis, they do about $6.4 billion. If you’re talking about the macro snack category, that larger category, crackers are about a seven and a half billion dollar industry and cookies are about 8.6 billion.
GRABER: It’s hard to overstate how big the market is. Barry says that in a handful of countries he’s studied, children are consuming twenty to twenty five percent of their entire day’s calories from snacks.
BERENSTEIN: There’s all kinds of market research that says stuff like snacking is now the number one meal occasion in America. Millennials are snacking more than ever and Gen Z, even more than that. And so it seems like this idea of snacks and snacking and snack food has become the sort of dominant way that we eat in the United States.
WILSON: If you look at snack bars or protein bars alone, there were at the point I was writing the book, around 4,000 different iterations of them for sale in the States. Just… I mean, it’s bizarre. You can’t even—the mind doesn’t compute that many different snack bars.
TWILLEY: Of course, for Elizabeth, the snackification of our lives is a good thing.
AVERY: What I think is so remarkable about this category is that you can now find snacks in every single aisle of the grocery store. And one of the ones that’s growing the fastest is in the vegetable section, where where you’ll find baked fruit chips and vegetable chips. There’s just something for everybody at every time of the day.
GRABER: This is great news for the food industry, because snacks are their most profitable sector.
WILSON: Because they’re shelf stable, they can last for a very long time. They’re made of extremely cheap ingredients, such as refined vegetable oils, refined starches, sugar, salt. And you can give them extraordinary claims, catchy names. They can be heavily advertised. For the food industry, snack foods tick every box.
TWILLEY: And so the food industry lavishes all its R&D budget on ever newer and even more improved snacks. Nadia says it always has.
BERENSTEIN: Snack foods seem to me to be the kind of chief beneficiaries of all of these remarkable advances in food technology, and sensory science, and food science. That they were kind of this new and exciting category of foods, where like the newest breakthroughs were being applied. And novelty is this kind of intrinsic part of what it means to eat snacks and make snacks.
GRABER: Novelty like… Pringles! It might sound funny to think of Pringles as a novel technological snack advancement, but these chips were a huge breakthrough when they were first released in 1967.
VINTAGE PRINGLES AD: Pringles newfangled potato chips—as many chips as in a big bag. Fresh, unbroken. Made a new way. Delicious.
JINGLE: Every single Pringles potato chip is a perfect potato chip.
They’re not broken, taste a lot fresher, too!
The canister keeps them that way for you.
Pringles newfangled potato chips!
BERENSTEIN: Yeah, well, Pringles were also really tremendously controversial in the snack food manufacturers’ community because Procter & Gamble, the company that made them, marketed them as potato chips and the potato chip industry was not having any of it. Because they were, you know, they were not potatoes that were sliced and fried, they were kind of reconstituted potatoes that were extruded and under high heat to produce that, you know, wonderful hyperbolic plane shape.
TWILLEY: Side note: The guy who invented the Pringles tube, to keep those wonderful hyperbolic planes in one piece—he was so proud of his invention that he had his ashes buried in an actual Pringles tube when he died. No word on which flavor.
GRABER: But burial tubes aside, Pringles continued to market themselves as chips despite the controversy. But the question of flavor? That’s another area ripe for creativity.
BERENSTEIN: There was one flavorist I talked to a few years ago described potato chips as a blank canvas for flavor innovation, right? It’s just sort of like a screen, like a blank screen that you can spray any kind of flavor sensation on because it’s sort of this bland starchy substrate.
TWILLEY: Whenever I travel, like back in the good old days pre-COVID, the first thing I do is go into a convenience store and check out the local crisp flavors. I love how everywhere has their own—like cucumber flavor in China. Surprisingly delicious.
WILSON: I think this is an example of how the food industry is so clever at thinking how to adapt their product. On the one hand, their products are very, very homogeneous. A potato chip is a potato chip. On the other hand, the flavors that I came across that were being marketed in Ukraine, I’ve certainly never seen in England. Things like crab flavor, red caviar flavor, and even hunting sausage flavor of potato chips.
TWILLEY: In the UK, where I grew up, we have a nice sideline in roast dinner flavors: roast beef and Yorkshire pudding crisps, or roast chicken crisps. But Britain’s best crisp flavor is smoky bacon. Or maybe pickled onion. So good stuffed in a cheese sandwich.
GRABER: But potato chips and snacks aren’t just ideally adaptable to local taste from country to country. They’re also the perfect vehicle for exploring new flavors.
BERENSTEIN: Even like kimchi or gochujang as flavors that you might find in, you know, some potato chips or nuts, or other toasted crunchy things. That there’s this way that kind of enjoying these as snacks kind of paves the way for acceptance or for kind of like enjoying them or trying them in other food or eating occasions.
AVERY: You know, it’s a low threshold to be able to try something that you might never have imagined tasting before and you might like it, you might not, but it keeps them engaged.
TWILLEY: This is the potato chip as Trojan horse idea. Like maybe you’ve never tried kimchi or seaweed, but it’s less intimidating to taste them first in potato chip form.
BERENSTEIN: A market researcher who I interviewed a couple of years ago described snacks as this low risk experience, right? Because you’re buying a bag of chips. It’s not very expensive and it’s not something that you’re kind of counting on to really nourish you. So you can take a risk.
GRABER: And it turns out that all these aspects of snacks that make them great for companies and even for consumers—they’re cheap to make, there’s a high profit margin, there isn’t a big investment from consumers to taste one—Elizabeth says it means they’re great for new businesses too.
AVERY: And I think one of the reasons entrepreneurs are, are attracted to the category is it’s one that, you know, business people would refer to as having lower barriers to entry.
TWILLEY: Weirdly, Elizabeth told us, a lot of that snack innovation and entrepreneurship is happening in a hippie town in the foothills of the Rockies.
AVERY: I refer to Boulder, Colorado, as the Silicon Valley of the snack industry. I mean, just so many bright entrepreneurs with great ideas for new products starting up.
GRABER: Wait, why Boulder?
AVERY: There are a couple of folks out there who had done very well in the food industry and wanted to start providing funding and mentorship for startups. And that was all happening out in that space and then it just kept growing from there. You know, it’s definitely not exclusively happening there. But it is a hotbed of innovation.
GRABER: And speaking of hot, we read that birthday cake was one of the hottest snack flavors of the past few years. I am not sure I could identify a birthday cake flavor other than kind of sugary and slightly vanilla, but okay!
TWILLEY: Elizabeth specializes in the savory side of things.
AVERY: Definitely flavors inspired by Latin American cuisine are trendy right now. Mole, chimichurri. You know cayenne is hot, hot is always popular, and ghost pepper, which is way too hot for me but is clearly something that has captured consumers’ imagination. Those are currently hot. The other hot flavors are derived more from mainland Asia. We’re looking at Himalayan salt, red curry coconut, sweet chili.
TWILLEY: Snack industry people like Elizabeth talk a lot about elevating the snack these days. And what mean in part is using elevated flavors like mole and Himalayan salt…
GRABER: Which is really just salt that happens to be a pretty pink.
TWILLEY: It’s elevated salt, Cynthia.
GRABER: But Nadia says this elevation is all about enhanced functionality too. Snack food companies use all sorts of words to describe the ingredients even if they don’t actually mean anything.
BERENSTEIN: Superfood, you know, superfood ingredients, different kinds of like new, low caloric sweeteners, even things like cricket flour as a kind of environmentally-friendly, high protein additive. They’re kind of making their debut into the American food system and our imaginations in snack foods, which are kind of like a place that we’re asking to do this work that maybe meals can’t. To not just sustain us and keep us from boredom and delight our taste buds, but also like make us stronger and better and save the planet.
TWILLEY: Nadia is being a little tongue in cheek here, of course. But at heart she is a snack lover—or, at least, she sees the positive side of snacks’ inherent flexibility and adventurousness.
BERENSTEIN: I think that there’s something about the anarchic or undefined quality of snacks that allows us, if we accept the challenge, to kind of use it as an opportunity to redefine what we want from food in general.
GRABER: Obviously, snacks are not all bad. But we started this episode with the story of Olia Hercules, the cookbook author originally from the Ukraine who says she still doesn’t snack today in the UK. And Olia is an inspiration for Bee.
WILSON: Since I met Olia, I suddenly started thinking, do I really need to have snacks? And sometimes I do. And sometimes I get busy and I can’t say, like her, that I have this absolute strict no-snack policy. But I have really, really noticed how wonderful it is when you can somehow—I mean, when I was a child, people used this phrase, “work up an appetite.” That you could work up an appetite for dinner. It’s so wonderful to feel hungry and then to eat and then to feel satisfied.
TWILLEY: A very special thanks this episode to a new Gastropod superfan, someone who is particularly generous in their support of the show. Noella Handley gave her partner Yoshi Creelman a superfan membership for his birthday. Happy birthday, Yoshi and thank you both!
GRABER: Thanks also to the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, for their support of science communication and our coverage of biomedical research.
TWILLEY: Thanks this episode to Bee Wilson, you are going to want to read her most recent book, The Way We Eat Now, and we have a link on our website at gastropod.com. Thanks also to Nadia Berenstein, Barry Popkin, Satchin Panda, and Elizabeth Avery.
GRABER: We’ll be back in two weeks with the one cure that works for the common hangover!
TWILLEY: Really, Cynthia? We’ll be millionaires!