NEW YORK – Snack foods have a permanent place in consumers' lifestyles, and demand is spurring year-over-year growth around the world, according to Nielsen's Global Survey of Snacking.

Consumers around the globe spent $374 billion on snack foods annually between 2013 and 2014, a year-over-year increase of 2 percent. Europe and North America lead worldwide snack sales with $167 billion and $124 billion spent respectively, but annual snack sales are growing faster in developing regions, Nielsen reported. Asia-Pacific ($46 billion) and Latin America ($30 billion) increased 4 percent and 9 percent, respectively, while sales in the Middle East/Africa ($7 billion) grew 5 percent.

“The competitive landscape in the snacking industry is fierce,” said Susan Dunn, executive vice president, Global Professional Services, Nielsen. “Demand is driven primarily by taste and health considerations and consumers are not willing to compromise on either. The right balance is ultimately decided by the consumer at the point of purchase. Understanding the ‘why before the buy’ provides the foresight necessary to deliver the right product to the right consumer at the right time.”

Nielsen reports the fastest-growing snack categories include savory snacks such as crackers, rice cakes and pita chips. Sales of these snack items increased 21 percent in the last year in Latin America. Meat snacks such as jerky and dried meat grew 25 percent in the Middle East/Africa and 15 percent in North America. Refrigerated snacks, which include yogurt, cheese snacks and pudding, rose 6.4 percent in Asia-Pacific, while dips and spreads such as hummus climbed 6.8 percent in Europe.

“Non-sugary snacks closely aligned with meal-replacement foods are showing strong growth, which signals a shift in a consumer mindset to one focused on health,” Dunn said. “While conventional cookies, cakes and confections categories still hold the majority of snack sales, more innovation in the healthy snacking and portable food space is necessary to adjust to this changing dynamic.”

Ingredients, or lack of them, remain an important attribute to consumers who are mindful of their health, Nielsen noted.

Snacks with all natural ingredients are rated very important by 45 percent of global respondents and moderately important by 32 percent — the highest percentages out of the 20 health attributes included in the study, Nielsen reported. Respondents also rated as very important the absence of artificial colors (44 percent), genetically modified organisms (43 percent) and artificial flavors (42 percent).

Caffeine-free (23 percent) and gluten-free (19 percent) snacks are very important for about one-fourth and one-fifth of global respondents, respectively, according to the Nielsen report.

Snacks low in sugar, salt and other items were very important to respondents. Roughly one-third of global respondents who think it’s very important that snacks be low in sugar (34 percent), salt (34 percent), fat (32 percent) and calories (30 percent).

Additionally, one-fourth of survey respondents want snacks that have either low or no carbohydrates. Conversely, roughly one-third are looking for beneficial ingredients, rating fiber (37 percent), protein (31 percent) and whole grains (29 percent) as very important attributes in the snacks they eat.

“In the dichotomy of snacking, consumers want healthy, but yet indulgent options are still going strong,” Dunn said. “A better understanding of consumer demand and the need states that drive demographic profile preferences will help manufacturers crack the code on the right portfolio balance between indulgence and healthy. It will also increase the odds of success in this ultra-competitive landscape.”

The Nielsen Global Survey of Snacking polled more than 30,000 online consumers in 60 countries to identify which snacks are most popular around the world and which health, taste and texture attributes are most important in the selection criteria.