Should Snacks Come With Eating Instructions?

A new approach to slowing down for healthy food ingestion and weight control.

Posted Aug 07, 2019

Nina Buday/Shutterstock
Source: Nina Buday/Shutterstock

Mindful snacking is being promoted as a solution to the sometimes amnesia-like munching we do when we snack on cookies, chips, nuts, and popcorn. We often pay little attention to how much or how fast we eat when we dip into a box of popcorn while sitting in the movies, or into a bag of chips while walking down the street.

Our hand goes in and out of the box or bag, and in and out of our mouth, automatically. We are not oblivious to what we are doing; after all, we do experience the taste, the crunch, and inevitably the thirst that accompanies our munching, but usually our minds are elsewhere—on the movie, on a conversation with someone with whom we are walking, or on trying not to get hit by a car while crossing the street.

One consequence of typical snacking behavior is eating too much. Did we really intend to eat the entire box of popcorn or that large bag of Doritos? We planned to eat only one cookie or just a half cup of ice cream, but now realize that four cookies are gone from the bag, and only half the container of ice cream is left. Obviously, we conclude, the only way to control this heedless snacking is to become snacking abstinent, or to eat snacks like cornflakes that do little to titillate our taste buds.  

Manufacturers of some snack foods have come up with an alternative to snacking on cold boiled potatoes or bread crusts. They want you to eat a cookie, a piece of chocolate, or a few chips; the operational word is few.

They want you to snack, but with restraint. They want you to snack mindfully; contemplate the chip, its shape, its color, and then when you put it into your mouth to crunch it slowly, to be aware of the tastes on your tongue before you swallow.

“Snacking mindfully” is the message being promoted at the multinational food company Mondelez. Many of their products are popular snacks—Belvita, Chips Ahoy!, Nabisco, Oreo, Ritz, Triscuit, Club Social, Barny and Peek Freans (cookies and crackers)—along with chocolates: Côte d'Or, Toblerone, and Cadbury. 

According to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, Chris McGrath, Mondelez’s chief of Global Impact, Sustainability, and Well-Being, wants consumers to focus on the smell and taste of these products and eat them slowly.

He describes an all-too-familiar mode of snacking in which the snacker starts eating slowly but becomes distracted, and as a result, eats too fast and too much. Responding to such a snack binge, the eater often decides to stop buying the product, as in, “If I can’t control how much I eat, I won’t eat any.” To counteract this, McGrath plans to place tips on eating mindfully on all the snack brands.

Other manufacturers have attempted to slow down snack consumption by putting small amounts of snacks in individual packages, thus making it necessary to open up many to eat a lot. Indeed, given how hard it is to open some snack packages, especially airplane snacks (they usually require a sharp knife which, of course, is not allowed on planes), small packages may slow down the rate of eating. Of course, if the eater’s frustration increases because it is necessary to tear open several packages, he or she may switch to snacks in bigger bags.    

Mindful eating is considered a useful method for recognizing hunger and satiety. Because the eating slows considerably when each mouthful is contemplated before being swallowed, the stomach has time to release hormonal signals that tell the brain that eating is occurring. 

Consider what might happen if one Oreo is eaten only after slowly contemplating the contrast between the dark chocolate cookie layers with the white creamy middle and focusing on the crunch of these different textures. If the eater pauses for a minute or so before picking up a second Oreo, maybe a second Oreo won’t be eaten, as the first is so satisfying. Or maybe not.

But if snacking is driven not by hunger or just a desire to taste an Oreo, but by emotional need, as it so often is, then a calm, restrained, Zen-like approach to snacking may be very hard to achieve. Indeed, if eaters approach the Oreo in a state of tranquility, they probably won’t even want to snack.

But what about the rest of us, who mindlessly reach for the cookies, ice cream, chips, chocolate, cheese-flavored crackers, or popcorn when we are bored, anxious, depressed, frustrated, angry, lonely, procrastinating, unsettled, agitated, tired, or irritable? We are eating to feel better.

If eating cauliflower or string beans made us feel better, we would eat vegetables. We don’t because we have learned, probably when our mothers fed us Cheerios to stop us from whining, that carbohydrates do the trick.

Snacks won’t make us feel better as soon as they hit out tongues, although there is no denying the satisfaction from eating a warm, gooey chocolate chip cookie or a scoop of gourmet ice cream. But that sensation lasts only seconds. What delivers us from feeling grumpy, angry, down in the dumps, bored, or irritable is the effect of eating carbohydrates on serotonin, a brain chemical that restores calmness and emotional stability.

McGrath is almost right in how he wants us to snack. We should eat with restraint, as we don’t need to eat much to feel better. The dose of carbohydrate that works to produce a better mood is about 25-30 grams of starchy or sweet food. If the snack has very little fat (this eliminates most of Mr. McGrath’s snacks), then the calories are around 130. Eating more will not result in an even better mood.

Those of us who do snack on carbohydrates in order to improve our mood are still waiting for companies like Mondelez to produce healthy, fat-free, carbohydrate snacks, packaged in mood-improving quantities. The instructions should say: When in a bad mood, eat this, wait 20 minutes, and smile.