CHICAGO and BELTSVILLE, Md. – Trend research shows consumers are snacking more now than they were two years ago, but with this trend comes mixed results, according to the US Department of Agriculture.

Technomic, a Chicago-based consumer research firm, found that 48 percent of consumers polled say they're snacking at least twice a day, compared to 25 percent of consumers in 2010.

But snacks provide about one-third of all daily calories from “empty calories,” or those from solid fats and added sugars, according to a “What We Eat in America” dietary survey from the US Department of Agriculture that involved 5,000 adults age 20 and older. Researchers within the USDA’s Food Surveys Research Group in Beltsville examined the dietary intake survey data.

The average intake of empty calories for the men surveyed was 923 calories, which meant men on average are consuming two to three times their limit in the solid fats and added sugars category. The average intake of empty calories for the women surveyed was 624 calories, which meant women are consuming two to four times their limit in that category. The researchers identified added sugars as caloric sweeteners added to foods during processing.

The good news behind the trend, however, is that snacking provides more than one-third of the total daily fruit intake for men and women. Also, restaurants are offering quick, portable, smaller-portioned, low-priced food and drink to capitalize on the growing trend of snack purchases. Restaurants now claim 22 percent of consumers' snacking occasions, up from 17 percent in 2010.

"Recent consumer research indicates that snacking is becoming a larger part of consumers' daily lives," said Darren Tristano, Technomic executive vice president. "Pressure from the nutritional disclosure legislation has prompted the foodservice industry to reduce calorie counts in meals. As a result, Americans are now more inclined to "graze" throughout the day, seeking snacks that provide fuel between traditional meal parts."

In addition, more than 33 percent of consumers surveyed said they expect to eat more healthful snacks in the future, indicating greater importance for foodservice operators to offer and promote better-for-you snacks, Technomic said.

Other findings from Technomic's Snacking Occasion Consumer Trend Report include:

• Major chains are using late-night hours to promote value-oriented snack items and bar plates to cater to younger customers who visit more often for late-night snacks.

• More than a third (37 percent) of consumers have broadened their definition of snacks to include more types of foods, beverages and restaurant fare.

• The mini-sandwich, slider or wrap has evolved from a simple snack item to a downsized gourmet version of signature full-sized offerings.

• Impulse purchases of snacks are up from two years ago. Sixty-two percent reported that most of the snacks they purchased for away-from-home consumption were impulse purchases.