NEW YORK - Sometimes one breakfast isn't enough. So why not sneak in a second or a third?
On-the-go Americans increasingly are consuming their morning calories over several hours instead of sitting down to devour a plate of pancakes, bacon and eggs in one sitting.
The case of the morning munchies is being fueled by the belief that it's healthier to eat several smaller meals instead of three squares a day.
What qualifies as a snack or a meal is a matter of perspective, of course. But food companies are rolling out smaller bites that feed the growing appetite for morning snacks.
General Mills, Quaker Oats and others are adding to their lineup of breakfast bars and yogurts. Sara Lee's Jimmy Dean this summer introduced mini breakfast sandwiches. And fast food chains like McDonald's in recent years have expanded their breakfast menus to include morning snacks like smoothies and a fruit-and-walnut pack.
"It's breakfast in stages," says Liz Sloan, president of Sloan Trends, a food industry consulting group. "They'll eat something at home, then stop at Starbucks or a convenience store for coffee and maybe a little snack."
The deconstruction of breakfast is happening as more Americans eat their meals outside of the home. After all, it's easier and less time-consuming to pop a few snacks in your purse or backpack for later rather than to sit down for a big meal.
Market researcher The NPD Group estimates that the number of times people snack in the mornings will jump 23 percent between 2008 and 2018. That's compared with a 20 and 15 percent increase in afternoon and evening snacking, respectively.
Of course, marketers have tried before to get people to eat outside of typical meal times. For instance, Taco Bell launched the "Fourthmeal" ad campaign in 2006 to tap into customers' late-night cravings with menu items such as the 980-calorie "Volcano Nachos."
Marketing morning snacks is trickier, though. That's because mornings are a time when people generally want to feel virtuous about their eating habits.
So to make the idea of tearing into a snack before noon easier to swallow, food companies are touting nutritional benefits of their packaged goodies. That means products that are less than 300 calories and have more fiber, whole grains or antioxidants.
The idea is that such snacks will help people stay energized or feel full longer.
That healthy halo is important for Monalissa Paredes, who eats several smaller meals throughout the day to control her weight. She starts out with a handful of almonds on the way to work. Once at the office, she nukes a bowl of instant oatmeal. Then she has a cup of yogurt a few hours later.
"I don't really feel like I eat breakfast anymore," says the 27-year-old New York City resident who works in communications. "It's just a bunch of snacks and then dinner."
There's no definitive ruling on whether spreading calories over multiple smaller meals is better than three square meals a day. But experts say all the extra snacking throughout the day could lead to expanding waistlines.
David Levitsky, a professor of nutrition and psychology at Cornell University, says the problem is that people often wind up consuming more calories when they switch to eating smaller meals throughout the day.
"If you reduce everything, that's fine. But that's not what we do," Levitsky says. "When you add in snacks, you're usually just adding calories."
Food companies nevertheless are betting on Americans willingness to take their snacking habit into the morning hours. Kraft this month is launching an advertising campaign for its MilkBite granola bars, which the company says provide the same amount of calcium as a glass of milk.
General Mills introduced its 140-calorie Fiber One bars in just two flavors in 2007. Since then, the company has introduced three new flavors as well as 90-calorie versions of the bars. Last year, the company added a Fiber One brownie.
Additionally, General Mills rolled out Yoplait Greek yogurts multipacks a year ago in honey vanilla and strawberry; coconut and cherry pomegranate were added this fall. The company says the Greek yogurts have twice the amount of protein as regular yogurt and offers "a great, convenient snack to help satisfy midmorning
And earlier this year, Quaker Oats began selling a soft-baked banana nut bar that it says combines "the taste of your favorite baked goods with healthy ingredients." The bar has 140 calories, 5 grams of fiber and 6 grams of protein.
"If you have a lull at 10 a.m., it's going to help you get through to lunch," says Candace Mueller Medina, a spokeswoman for Quaker Oats, which is owned by PepsiCo. "It's a perfect midmorning snack for people who crave something sweet before lunch."
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)