TORONTO – They call it the fourth meal.
For many, snacking is the number one cause for derailed diets, unintentional calorie overloading and an increase in sugar or salt intake. But the snack is often the saving grace of the work day – the only problem is most of us are left with limited choices at the office vending machine.
Enter the subscription snack box – the latest online food craze that has businesses big and small betting on people looking for healthier snack options.
Silicon Valley-based company NatureBox has been leading the charge on the healthy snack front since its launch in 2012.
The idea for the company was born, in part, out of CEO and co-founder Gautam Gupta’s struggle with obesity. After teaching himself about nutrition and exercise in high school, Gupta lost 70 pounds, but struggled with finding snack options he felt good about eating when on the go.
“Twenty-five per cent of our daily calories come from snacking and we’ve found people will often say they don’t feel satisfied after they snack,” said NatureBox spokesperson Nicki Briggs. “So we thought it was a really big opportunity to make a difference.”
The service allows you to sign up to receive monthly snack boxes, chock-full of nutritionist-approved snacks that range from sweet healthy cookies, to granola and dried fruits, and even alternatives to salty favourites like chips.
The snacks – which are developed and produced by NatureBox – are promised to be free of artificial sweeteners, flavours, or colours and can be customized to fit your dietary needs – whether you’re vegan or gluten free.
Each month you will receive five full-sized snack bags. You can choose to customize your box by hand-picking a selection of snacks from NatureBox’s “pantry,” or let NatureBox surprise you.
In 2014, the company shipped three million boxes and, according to Briggs, the company is on track to double that this year.
The company began shipping to Canada one year ago and consumer adoption has outpaced what it initially estimated.
NatureBox has raised nearly US$60 million in venture round financing to date, including US$30 million to help with plans to move into markets beyond North America last month.
Similar to NatureBox is U.S.-based company UrthBox, which gives you a monthly collection of healthy snack options based on your pre-selected dietary restrictions.
UrthBox offers four versions of its boxes – “The Classic,” with no dietary restrictions, a gluten free version, a vegan version and a “Diet” version, which offers snacks with lower calorie, carb and fat counts.
But it’s not just big U.S.-based companies who are helping Canadians snack better – smaller, homegrown companies are also competing in the subscription snack box business, with an emphasis on boosting Canadian food producers.
“Canadian producers traditionally miss out on the shelf space in big stores. Large grocery chains are approached by the large U.S. food companies, and they have all the buying power so they get all the prime shelf space,” said Neil Thomson, president and founder of Vancouver-based Naked Snacks.
“[When walking down the snack isle] you can’t help but get smacked in the face with 300 types of different deep fried chips.”
Naked Snacks follows a model similar to that of its big U.S. counterparts – healthy, wholesome snacks that are delivered to subscriber’s doors every month.
Subscribers choose one of three box options – a low calorie edition called “Lite Snacker,” a “Chef’s Choice” selection, or the “High Energy” box, designed for those who might be more active. You can choose from a month-to-month, three, or six-month subscription.
And while the business might not be a direct competitor of NatureBox, Thomson believes a little hometown pride can go a long way.
“People eat snacks consistently – it’s the cornerstone of their diet,” he told Global News.
“What we can do differently is focus on the things we are good at – specifically supporting Canadian food producers.”
For those with more adventurous taste buds, Toronto-based Munch Better strives to find niche nutrition products that can’t be found in stores.
Co-founders Erin Letson and Amanda Facciolo bring in a handful of new products per month, the majority of which are Canadian-made.
“I don’t think the competition coming in from the States has hurt us – I think it’s educated people more and helped them to understand the subscription box model,” Letson told Global News.
“We are a little more stringent in what we are looking for in a snack.”
Though Munch Better’s boxes may include snacks that are a bit on the daring side – like the “green magic” chia squeeze included in their May box – Letson said her company is about introducing subscribers to new ideas.
“We’re already so saturated with “healthy eating” information – we really want to educate people with our box, but we want to make it fun,” she said.
“Snacks are naturally kind of fun! We don’t want to make it preachy.”