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Grab a snack. Everyone else is. Snacking has become a national pastime. We do it everywhere - in the car, at school, in front of the TV, at a baseball game, at the mall, even at work. Consider, for example, that last year Americans spent more than $14.7 billion on snack foods and consumed more than 21 pounds of snack foods per person.

A number of recent surveys have taken a look at America's snacking habits. Here's a look at some of the latest trends:A NATION OF SNACKERS: The Snack Association and the National Potato Board recently developed profiles of all-American snackers. When it comes to snacks, they say, most people fall into one of four groups: Coffee Break Crunchers, Nighttime Noshers, Noble Nibblers and Super Snackers. Which one are you? See if you recognize yourself:

- Coffee Break Crunchers (19 percent of those surveyed) are mainly working women, ages 25-44, who snack at the office. They snack from 9 to 5 - usually because they are hungry but sometimes just for a brief, stress-relieving change of pace at the workplace. Although they are regular snackers, they are not heavy snackers; they are weight-conscious, appearance-conscious and like to exercise.

- Nighttime Noshers (20 percent of those surveyed) are mainly men between the ages of 35 and 54. They enjoy snacking in the evening while sitting in the kitchen or in front of the TV. They are "snackertainers" who prefer munching with family and friends to snacking alone. They like to watch sports, news programs and late-night shows. But they are not necessarily couch potatoes; many are into the outdoors and enjoy activities such as biking and fishing.

- Noble Nibblers (31 percent) are the most health-conscious. They watch what they eat, watch what they drink and watch what they snack virtually all the time. They prefer food that is low in fat, cholesterol or sodium. Most popular snacks include pretzels, popcorn and reduced-fat versions of other snack favorites. They may also enjoy smaller portions of other snack foods. Interestingly, the Nibblers fall into two distinct age groups. Young adult Nibblers are typically between 25 and 44. Older adult Nibblers are 65 and over.

- Super Snackers (30 percent), the mightiest of munchers, are mainly between the ages of 25 and 44 and most likely have children. Super Snackers love to snack. They savor the many flavors and textures of different snack food. They snack for lots of reasons and for lots of occasions. They snack while watching TV, while relaxing around the house, at sporting events and while they read. Family and work takes up more time than leisure activities; they derive great enjoyment from the media available at home - TV, radio, newspapers and magazines.

WHYS AND WHEREFORES: When the snack attack strikes, what Americans choose to munch depends on a variety of factors. For example, on one survey 98 percent of Americans say what they care most about when selecting a snack is taste. In fact, a majority of Americans (63 percent) admit they aren't as concerned about nutrition when snacking as when eating a regular meal, and 88 percent say they eat snacks that aren't good for them because they taste good. Eighty percent say they wish there were more fat-free snacks available that they like.

Some 68 percent say they snack to tie them over to the next meal; 61 percent say they snack because they don't have time for a full meal; another two-thirds snack for an energy boost.

In one survey, 35 percent of adults say they prefer chips or pretzels; 31 percent say they like cookies, and only 19 percent opt for fruit. In another survey the Top 10 snacks listed were: potato chips, fresh fruit, popcorn, cookies, crackers, ice cream, pretzels, candy bars, candy and nuts.

When it comes to buying, most snack selections are made on impulse (53 percent), triggered by boredom (52 percent) and stress (44 percent).

Nearly a fourth of snackers do it between 8 p.m. and 10 p.m.; 19 percent say they snack between 2-4 p.m. and 17 percent between 6-8 p.m.

Women tend to snack less often - 53 percent say they snack one to five times a week; 50 percent of men eat five to 10 snacks a week.

CRAZY FOR THE CRUNCH: When it comes to snacking, there's a whole lot of crunching going on. According to a survey conducted by Quaker Rice Cakes, more than half (58 percent) of Americans say they prefer snacks with crunch, compared to 19 percent who say they prefer smooth and creamy snacks.

According to Bernard Beck, associate professor of sociology at Northwestern University in Chicago, there may be some psychological reason behind this quest for crunch. "A snack is more satisfying if it crunches," he says. "Crunchy snacks give us the sensation of really eating something substantial."

And crunchy snacks are fun to share - important since the survey also showed that nearly half of all Americans (48 percent) like to munch in groups: 21 percent with spouse or significant other, 11 percent with co-workers, 10 percent with kids and 6 percent with friends.

SNACKING SMARTS: Quick - which snack food has more cholesterol: a traditional blueberry muffin or one ounce of peanuts? Which snack contains more fiber: celery stalks, a granola bar or popcorn? Correct answers: the muffin and popcorn. But if you are like most Americans, you flunked this pop quiz.

When the Planters folks initiated a Snacking IQ Quiz, they found a lot of confusion out there on what's in snack foods.

For example, 55 percent of those surveyed believed that one ounce of peanuts had more cholesterol than a traditional blueberry muffin or 1/2 cup of chocolate pudding, and only 15 percent correctly guessed that three cups of popcorn provide more fiber than one raisin granola bar or two celery stalks. And when asked to rank the food highest in the B vitamin folic acid (important for growth and development) 44 ranked the banana as king of the heap, followed by an apple and potato chips. The correct answer: peanuts, again.

Planters wants people to know that nuts can be part of a healthy diet despite the fact that they are known for their fat content. Most nuts have predominately unsaturated fat, and more than 50 percent of the fat is mono-unsaturated, the kind of fat that's also found in olive oil. So, even though peanuts are higher in fat, the trade-off of protein and other important vitamins and nutrients is greater than many other snack options.

The key to smart snacking is balancing out whatever snack foods you choose with other healthful food so the total day's intake fits in with recommended guidelines for fat, sugar, calories and nutrients. Then, almost anything can make a good snack.



Where Americans snack

Americans love to snack everywhere:

At work or school 29%

In Living Room 50%

In Bed 4%

In Kitchen 21%

In Car 11%

Source: Snack Food Association