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Eating In, a series examining food and food culture in New Hampshire, ran May 17-21, 2010.

Incomes Down - Snacking Up

In the course of the great recession, household incomes went down and food prices went up. The combination did no favors for the American diet. Sales for the least expensive snack foods climbed. As part of our week-long look at food, NHPR's Jon Greenberg digs into some cheap calories.

SFX - Crunch

Along with Wall Street giant Goldman Sachs, count the potato chip as one of the big winners of the recession. John Dumais, president of the NH Grocers Association, says, many of his members would have had a much worse year if it hadn't been for sales of snack foods.

DUMAIS: It’s increased their sales 20% in many cases.

This is part of a nationwide trend. If it had fat, salt and didn’t cost too much, sales went up.

HAACK: Potato chips saw their best year out of the last five in 2009.

Chris Haack follows salty snacks for the marketing research firm Mintel.

HAACK: I think the reason for this is consumers have been trading down and looking for a cheaper alternative snack.

Haack says it’s pretty clear that people were shopping value. They said nuts to nuts. That price was a little higher and sales went down.

It wasn’t just the hunt for an inexpensive pop of pleasure that drove the numbers. The Chicago-based research firm, Symphony IRI Group, surveys consumers every year. Vice President Sally Lyons Wyatt says households changed how they spent their time as well as their money.

WYATT: There was a lot more home entertainment being done. So pretzels and chips, that would be a big part of that in-home entertainment.

The other big shift was bringing lunch from home. That boosted snack sales as thrifty shoppers bought those big bags of chips at the grocery store and put handfuls in little baggies to take to work.

No one would argue any of this does much to advance a healthy diet but there are some bright spots. The market share of snacks categorized as healthy has gone up. It’s now a little more than a third of all snack sales and Wyatt expects that to continue.

WYATT: Yogurt has been growing for the past six years and a lot of that is driven by innovation and yogurt has yet again come out with more innovation this year.

Snack makers are aiming to expand the health conscious slice of the market with items that they can promote as all natural, low sodium and with no trans-fats. The big sellers remain chips, candy, cookies and crackers -- affordable indulgences, as Wyatt calls them . And so long as affordability remains front and center, that seems to be where the money will go.

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