Snack sales expose cynical, misleading rhetoric

More than 36,700 tonnes of chocolate bought in Ireland last year shows extent of health challenge

In an opinion piece in the London Times a few months ago, the managing director of Haribo in Britain and Ireland, writing in opposition to restrictions of the online advertising of sweets to children, implored the British public to see sense: "Haribo's goal is to create moments of childlike happiness. We believe an occasional sweet treat with loved ones is a key part of happiness. Given the year we've had, small moments of happiness are sorely needed."

Mondelez, the manufacturer of snacks aplenty – its portfolio including Toblerone, Cadbury, Green & Black’s, Oreo and Fry’s – want to “help consumers easily enjoy the right snacks throughout their day, and inspire them to snack mindfully so they can savour and feel good about each and every snack”.

Bórd Bia, the Irish food board, advise snack brand manufacturers that “giving people ‘permission to indulge’ in your product is a smart strategy and one that’s behind many successes. It’s also a strategy that dairy is well placed to capitalise on, since it already has a ‘halo of health’.”

It is indeed a good marketing strategy.


Every single snack brand says you’ve had a bad day, treat yourself, you’ve had a good day, treat yourself. It appeals to that deep sense in all of us that we deserve something – the brand’s tone-of-voice is reassuring, indulgent, like a mother in a fairytale.

With the now common knowledge that snack food is inherently bad for you, the only way to market the oxymoron of "responsible" snacking if you are such a brand is to put up your hands, say it's "indulgent" (code word for bad) and advocate it as an occasional treat, an indulgence to share. A lobby group called the European Snacks Association reminds us that "savoury snacks can be part of a balanced diet". Those killjoy public health people want to take away those special moments we are trying to create for you, and your family. Sure, it is only a packet of sweets.

So, every brand in every snack category advocates its food as an occasional treat, which is individually logical. But taken together, these messages become collectively absurd. Let’s run the numbers. Euromonitor (the global market information database) disseminates reports on snacking categories in many countries, including Ireland.

Here’s a back of the envelope look at snack sales in Ireland during 2020.

  • Chocolate confectionary: 37,600 tonnes. That's 7.4kg per person per year. If a Mars bar weighs 51g, that's 145 of them, for everyone.
  • Ice-cream and frozen desserts: 20,409 tonnes – 4.16kg per person per year. If a Magnum ice-cream is 86g, that's 48 of them, for everyone.
  • Sweet biscuits and snack bars: 35,709 tonnes – 7.2kg per person per year. If a packet of Digestive biscuits is 400g, that's 18 packs, for everyone.
  • Soft drinks: 338.0 million litres. 68.97 litres per person per year. If a bottle of coke is 500ml, that's 136 bottles, for everyone.
  • Sugar confectionary: 22,088 tonnes. 4.5kg per person per year. If a packet of Skittles is 45g, that's 100 packets, for everyone.
  • Savoury snacks: 58,500 tonnes. 11.9kg per person per year. If a packet of Tayto crisps is 35g, that's 340 packets
  • Ready meals: 44,500 tonnes. 9.08kg per person per year. If a Dr Oetker frozen pizza is 335g, that's 27 pizzas, for everyone.
  • Packaged bakery: 320,000 tonnes. Packaged cakes, pastries and desserts make up about 40 per cent of this, so 128,000 tonnes. 26.1kg per person per year. If a Cuisine de France croissant weighs 50g, that's 522 of them, for everyone.

In order to account for this consumption, each man, woman and child is eating the equivalent of a third of a Mars bar, a bite of a Magnum, a couple of biscuits, a glass of Coke, a handful of Skittles, a packet of crisps, a bite of a pizza, and a croissant and a half, every single day. Just a little treat makes logical sense.

But put this logic in an environment of stiff competition and it’s nonsense.

And don’t forget, we are not including fast food, meat snacks, dairy, unpacked pastries and baked goods, breakfast cereals, sweet spreads, hot drinks or weaning foods in this analysis. Nor alcohol nor energy drinks. We are not talking about food service (deli counters, lunch portables) or dining out (about a third of meals in Ireland).

We are simply highlighting a subset of a subset: the “snack”. So ours might be considered a recklessly conservative underestimate of snacking.

But it does expose how cynical, inaccurate and misleading the discourse of “treatwise” can be.

While the Haribo director is right about the pursuit of happiness, what about the cumulative harms which inherently unhealthy snack food products pose to customers.

Rather than listening to the whisper, we all need to hear the clamour.

This is death by a thousand snacks.

Dr Norah Campbell is associate professor of marketing at Trinity Business School, TCD; Dr Sarah Browne is assistant professor of marketing and strategy at Trinity Business School; and Prof Francis M Finucane is consultant endocrinologist at Galway University Hospitals and NUI Galway