According to a new Nielsen global report global consumers spent $374 billion (retail sales data adjusted for inflation), on snack foods between 2013 and 2014, a year-over-year increase of 2%.

The fastest-growing snack categories according to Nielsen retail sales information are savory snacks, which include crackers, rice cakes and pita chips. Sales increased 21% in the last year in Latin America. Meat snacks, such as jerky and dried meat, grew 25% in the Middle East/Africa and 15% in North America. Refrigerated snacks like yogurt, cheese and pudding, rose 6.4% in Asia-Pacific, while dips and spreads, such as salsa and hummus, increased 6.8% in Europe.

“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,” said Dunn. “While conventional cookies, cakes and confections categories still hold the majority of snack sales, more innovation in the healthy snacking and portable food space is necessary to adjust to this changing dynamic.”

Although Europe ($167 billion) and North America ($124 billion) make up the majority of worldwide snack sales, developing regions show the fastest growth. Asia-Pacific ($46 billion) and Latin America ($30 billion) increased 4% and 9%, respectively, while sales in the Middle East/Africa ($7 billion) grew 5%.

“The competitive landscape in the snacking industry is fierce,” said Susan Dunn, executive vice president, Global Professional Services, Nielsen. “Demand is driven primarily by taste and health considerations and consumers are not willing to compromise on either. The right balance is ultimately decided by the consumer at the point of purchase. Understanding the ‘why before the buy’ provides the foresight necessary to deliver the right product to the right consumer at the right time.”

In spite of the rise of diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease associated with a diet rich in refined sugars, confections—which include sugary sweets, such as chocolate, hard candy and gum—comprise the biggest sales contribution to the overall snack category in Europe ($46.5 billion) and the Middle East/Africa ($1.9B), found Nielsen. Salty snacks contribute more than one-fifth of snack sales in North America ($27.7B), refrigerated snacks comprise almost one-third of snacks in Asia- Pacific ($13.7 billion), and cookies and snack cakes make up more than one-fourth of total snacks in Latin America ($8.6B).

Consumers like snacks

More than three-quarters of global respondents (76%) eat snacks often or sometimes to satisfy their hunger between meals or to satisfy a craving, and 45% of global respondents consume snacks as a meal alternative—52% for breakfast, 43% for lunch and 40% for dinner.

“There is a perception that snacks are intended more for in-between meals than for actual meal replacements,” said Dunn. “But busy, on-the-go lifestyles often dictate a need for quick meals, and many opt for fast food options that can be high in calories and low in health benefits. There is a massive untapped opportunity to gain market share in the nutritious, portable and easy-to-eat meal alternative market that snack manufacturers could fill.”

Fresh Fruit and chocolate are favorites 

According to Nielsen’s survey, global respondents say that fresh fruit (18%) is the one snack they would choose above all others from a list of 47 different snacking options, followed by chocolate (15%). Both snack categories scored more than double or triple the responses for yogurt (6%), bread/sandwiches (6%), cheese (5%), potato chips/tortilla chips/crisps (5%), vegetables (5%) and ice cream/gelato (4%). Still, as the low percentages suggest, consumers’ preferences vary widely when it comes to picking a favorite.

Over a span of 30 days, however, global respondents say they ate a wide variety of snacks, including chocolate (64%), fresh fruit (62%), vegetables (52%), cookies/biscuits (51%), bread/sandwich (50%) and yogurt (50%). More than four in 10 respondents consumed cheese (46%), potato chips/tortilla chips/crisps (44%) and nuts/seeds (41%). One-third chewed gum (33%) and devoured ice cream/gelato (33%), while about one-fourth munched on popcorn (29%), crackers/crisp breads (28%) and cereal (27%). Softer offerings like dumplings (26%) and instant noodles (26%) were also popular with a quarter of global respondents.

Taste preferences for snack options are noticeably different around the world. Exceeding the global averages, large percentages of respondents snack on vegetables in Asia-Pacific (57%), cheese in Europe (58%),ice cream/gelato in Latin America (63%) and potato chips/tortilla chips in North America (63%).

“In the dichotomy of snacking, consumers want healthy, but yet indulgent options are still going strong,” said Dunn. “A better understanding of consumer demand and the need states that drive demographic profile preferences will help manufacturers crack the code on the right portfolio balance between indulgence and healthy. It will also increase the odds of success in this ultra-competitive landscape.”

Snacking with Conscience

Nielsen’s study shows that more respondents around the world care about the absence of ingredients than the addition of them. “Consumers want snacks to stick to the basics,” said Dunn.

Snacks with all natural ingredients are rated very important by 45 %of global respondents and moderately important by 32%—the highest percentages out of the 20 health attributes included in the study. The absence of artificial colors (44%), genetically modified organisms (43%) and artificial flavors (42%) are also rated very important. Caffeine-free (23%) and gluten-free (19%) snacks are very important for about one-fourth and one-fifth of global respondents, respectively.

Less is more for roughly one-third of global respondents who think it’s very important that snacks be low in sugar (34%), salt (34%), fat (32%) and calories (30%). One-fourth of those surveyed want snacks that have either low or no carbohydrates. Conversely, roughly one-third are looking for beneficial ingredients, rating fiber (37%), protein (31%) and whole grains (29%) as very important attributes in the snacks they eat.

Environmentally conscious consumers believe it is very important that snacks include ingredients that are sourced sustainably (35%), are organic (34%) and use local herbs (25%).

Meanwhile, portion control is very important for just over one-fourth of global respondents (27%).

The Nielsen Global Survey of Snacking polled more than 30,000 online consumers in  60 countries to identify which snacks are most popular around the world and which health, taste and texture attributes are most important in the selection criteria More information about this complete Nielsen Report on the Snacks Industry available at http://www.nielsen.com/us/en/insights/reports.html