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Snacking trends, from A to Gen Z

College and university dining offers insights into snacks, dessert, and food preferences of young consumers.


Generation Z is poised to become the largest segment of consumers in the country, and their dining preferences are playing out in the foodservice facilities of the nation’s colleges and universities.

Research from YPulse shows that these consumers are true foodies who are:

  • highly knowledgeable about foods from around the world.
  • socially conscious and look for “clean” ingredient labels with fewer additives and more natural and organic ingredients.

Their food preferences show up in the snacks and dessert choices they make, according to operators.

“We are seeing major differences with what today's college students want in their snacks vs. previous generations centered primarily around three things — ingredients, corporate social responsibility and convenience,” says Nadia Jackson, director of retail for Sodexo North America.

In addition, she notes that Generation Z is more ethnically diverse than other generations.

“They have more sophisticated taste buds, crave exotic flavors and have been exposed to many more international flavors than their predecessors. Indian, Middle Eastern, South American and Asian flavors are popular in our college locations.”

Below are four key snacking trends to keep in mind when feeding Gen Z:

1. Anytime is snack time

Gen Z takes an unconventional approach to snacking, says Jackson. These consumers are less likely to observe traditional meal times and they snack more often.

At Sodexo, the company’s Simply to Go concept seeks to cater to this phenomenon by offering grab-and-go foods any time of day including:

  • sandwiches.
  • salads.
  • bowls.
  • snacks.

“We have added more snacks and desserts to our menu lineup and offer dairy-free alternatives and gelatin-free options,” says Jackson.

Recent YPulse research found that 81% of Gen Z and young millennials — consumers between the ages of 18 and 34 — believe healthy foods should be convenient, and 66% say they are willing to pay more for a healthy snack.

Gen Z also considers snacks to be an important dining-out occasion, more so than previous generations, says Jill Marchick, vice president of consumer insights at Aramark.

“Younger consumers are more likely than older consumers to dine out for snacks,” she says, noting that two-thirds of consumers between the ages of 18 and 24 have purchased a snack from a quick-service restaurant in the past three months, according to Mintel and Aramark proprietary research.

Hayden Perry, marketing director at f’real, which provides self-serve shake and smoothie stations on college campuses, cafeterias and other venues, says that his company has research showing that Gen Z consumers replace meals with snacks at least once per week.

“They want great-tasting products, and they expect these products to fit their lifestyle,” she says. “Because they’re young and not yet in a set routine, their lives are being lived moment to moment.”

2. Snacking can be functional

Consumers in the 18- to 24-year-old age group are also more likely than older cohorts to seek out filling, portable and inexpensive snacks, says Marchick.

“Gen Z are more likely to view snacks as a meal replacement for financial reasons, so it is important to offer a variety of cost-effective, filling snacks,” she says.

The YPulse research found that younger consumers are interested in the functional aspects of foods, with 73% saying they enjoyed eating superfoods that serve specific functional purposes. In the snacking realm, these can include foods such as fruits, nuts and seeds, alone or incorporated into other food or beverages.

3. Ethics drive socially conscious snacking trends

The YPulse research found that 64% of younger consumers surveyed say that they wish there were more ethically produced snacks available, and 67% of them said they would pay more for snacks with an ethical pedigree.

“Gen Z supports brands whose story aligns with their values,” says Jackson of Sodexo. “Companies that support charitable causes and have cruelty-free practices or ethically sourced ingredients matter to this generation.”

In line with those ideals, Sodexo’s Simply to Go program has introduced compostable packaging and is participating in Sodexo’s company-wide initiative aimed at reducing single-use plastics. The company also seeks to partner with brands that are committed to ethically-sourced ingredients and sustainability, Jackson says.

4. Menus must contain plant-based options

Generation Z consumers tend to become more interested in plant-based foods as they progress through junior high and high school, says Jackson.

“By the time they get to college, they expect to have a large variety of protein alternatives,” she says. “Popular items include protein-infused bars and cookies, chips made from beans, chickpeas or other plant options.”

More plant-based concepts are appearing on college campuses to accommodate this trend. Drexel University’s Campus Dining Services, for example, recently introduced U.C. Veg, a new vegetarian and vegan concept at the meal exchange dining hall Urban Eatery.

The menu includes plant-forward dessert options such as pumpkin crumble parfaits, and vegan chocolate and zucchini carrot cupcakes, according to a recent report in Food Management.

With spending power of $828 billion in the U.S., and 78% spending most of their money — after tuition and bills — on food, “Gen Z is a population segment the food industry is watching closely as they wind their way through college dining hall lines,” Food Management reports.



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