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Snack Attack: COVID-19 Continues Changing Eating Habits


Published on November 17, 2020

You don’t have to look far to know that eating habits have changed during COVID-19. Ask any parent or grocer in your neighborhood and they’ll tell you that learning and working at home, and the desire to stay as safe as possible, are shifting the dynamics of everyone’s eating habits.

Woman Food Shopping with Mask

People all over the globe are tired, cooking smaller meals, snacking more, baking more, and eating a lot more take-out and fast food, and that’s making an impact all the way upstream to the food packaging equipment demand we see every day.

According to the International Food Information Council’s (IFIC) 2020 Food & Health Survey, 85% of Americans have made at least some change in the food they eat or how they prepare it because of the coronavirus pandemic. According to surveys by the IFIC, 60% of US consumers surveyed reported cooking at home more. They also said they are simply thinking about food more than usual, citing increases in snacking and eating more pre-made meals from their pantry or freezer. Not surprisingly, fewer responded to eating healthier than usual, indicating a trend in increased consumption of comfort foods.

What Types of Food Are People Eating?

In a September 2020 article, “The COVID-19 consumer: goPuff’s 5 consumer trends to watch,” written by goPuff’s Strategy VP & Chief of Staff, Daniel Folkman, it’s suggested that even healthy eaters have been buying unhealthy snack foods like candy, chips, chocolate, ice cream, and salt and sweet snacks.

“24% of customers who ordered a healthy food item also bought a traditional snack in the same purchase,” states Folkman. He also cites that the energy drinks category—led by established brands Red Bull and Monster—continued to surge as much of the nation became entrenched in working from home. Monthly energy drink sales have increased 210% since January, with the largest jump coming in April, which saw an 84% month-over-month increase in sales over March. (One could safely say a fair percentage of those consumers probably had a snack in the other hand, too.)

Mr. Folkman also predicts that although shoppers will always prefer fresh meat and produce over canned and frozen alternatives, following COVID-19 he says many will have lessened their aversion to frozen options. Pandemic-induced behavioral changes may open the door to products and brands that previously could not establish a foothold in the fresh food space.

Additionally, retail intelligence specialists at Stackline say gourmet popcorn is one of the fastest growing trends among snacks. And figures from market researchers, Nielsen, show that sales of baking products were up by almost two-thirds over the same period when compared with 2019.

Is This a Trend Around the World?

Take Out ImageIt seems to be so. According to a webinar, “How COVID-19 is impacting our eating and drinking habits,” which was produced by Kantar, there are certain changes that are consistent worldwide, and some that are more specific to markets. For example:

  • People are snacking 50% more often than before lockdown, across the UK, Spain, Brazil and France, with increases in sweet treats and liquor.
  • On average, lockdown has triggered six more at-home meal occasions each week—most of these are snacking.
  • People are spending a lot less on dining and drinking out. In the UK for example, Brits spent £2.9bn less out-of-home during a lockdown month than they did in a normal month in 2019. There has been a 245% year-on-year growth in spending on meal delivery/takeout. In France, out-of-home dining expenses decreased €2.5bn, while in Spain the money spent was €2.3bn less.
  • Where a long-term trend away from eating desserts has been observed over recent years, lockdown has reversed that trend.

Do COVID Eating Trends Vary Across Age, Gender, and Ethnic Groups?

We found that COVID eating habits do not vary that much across demographics like age, gender, and ethnic group. Not surprisingly, parents are snacking more than childless adults, with women snacking just slightly more than men. This is most likely due to parental fatigue and overwork from trying to keep up with working at home and homeschooling children with no time to prepare better meals. Those between the ages of 18 to 35 also snacked more than ages 50+, according to the IFIC survey, but the 18 to 35 age group has historically (pre-COVID) been a larger consumer of snack foods.

And interestingly, COVID behavior changes were not significantly different by ethnic group, as was reported in a research study for the World Obesity Federation, where 123 patients were surveyed across a diverse range of ethnic groups. The majority reported that it has been more difficult to achieve their weight loss goals since the stay‐at‐home orders, and that they have increased their food shopping frequency and stockpiling of food. The fact that there was no disparity in eating behaviors with regard to ethnic groups shouldn’t be surprising, as it seems we are all in the same boat with regard to lockdowns, work at home, and remote learning.

What Does the Future Hold?

How will COVID-19 change the way we eat in 2021? Whole Foods predicts an increase in the sale of these foods:

  • Health and wellness products—superfoods, probiotics and adaptogens
  • Breakfast foods—eating more meals from home, people are starting their day with more substantial meals, from bite-sized eggs and pancakes to breakfast pizzas
  • Amped up staples—cooking at home more, Whole Foods’ experts say we’ll buy new or reimagined pantry staples, such as upscale pastas, sauces and condiments
  • Coffee—and coffee-flavored bars, coffee yogurt, coffee granola
  • Foodie baby food—vegan, keto, or Paleo baby foods
  • “Upcycled foods”—which is another way to say food producers are taking everything from soybean pulp to imperfect fruit to make chips, bites, bars, flour, and more to cut down on food waste
  • Cooking oils—olive oil has long been a staple in American cupboards, but Whole Foods says that more chefs will use oils made from walnuts, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, and avocados
  • Hard kombucha—a handful of years after the hard seltzer boom, boozy kombucha will have a similar pop
  • Chickpeas—for vegan baked goods and also in tofu, flour, cereal, tortillas and pizza crust
  • Meat-free jerky—due to a movement toward plant-based eating, companies are selling jerky made with mushrooms, jackfruit, mango, bananas, pineapple and just about anything else that still has a nice chew after it dries

Wholesale Food Distributors Experiencing Things Differently Than Grocery Retailers

Grocery shopping is up since the lockdown. According to the Food Industry Association’s U.S. Grocery Shopper Trends Report, household food shopping frequency stayed high, at 2.7 trips weekly, down from a high of 3.6. The FMI added that food retail revenue soared over 25% from February, “collapsing more than eight years of dollar growth into a few tumultuous weeks.” As of April, food retail revenue remained 10% higher than pre-pandemic levels.

But due to government-mandated closures of restaurants, fast food joints, coffee shops, schools, sports venues, and more, wholesale food suppliers are hurting. Distributors have been significantly affected by quick-service and casual-dining restaurants in their switch to takeout only, with slow recovery given the staged return to full service.

Adjusting to Change

Ohlson Packaging remains ready to help food manufacturers meet the new demands brought on by COVID-19 so that they can add capacity and efficiency to their product lines.

We are hearing from food manufacturers who are increasing their production of snacks, frozen foods, coffee, and more, who are in need of new equipment to fill their pillow bags, stand-up pouches, vertical form fill seal machines, specialized frozen food packaging, and other containers.

We are also hearing from wholesale food manufacturers who are moving into the retail sector, making the move to individual retail containers rather than bulk food packaging.

Ohlson designs and manufactures a full range of food packaging machinery, including automatic food packaging machinery, automatic weighing and counting machines, and specialized custom food packaging equipment. As the needs of food manufacturers change, we are adjusting the way we think about every scale, counter, bagging/pouching machine, cup, tray, bottle, jar, auger, band sealer, printer, and conveyor belt we make. No matter what size your company, Ohlson can provide the packaging system you need to meet your changing COVID-driven environment.

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