In mean girls, the cult high school comedy written by tina fey, the villain regina george is fooled into eating swedish nutrition bars to lose weight because they just burn up all your carbs. she takes some time to realise that her supposedly healthy snack is having the opposite effect.

The film was ahead of its time in 2004, for appetites are now insatiable for snacks that do you good. supermarkets are filled with protein and fruit bars, rice cakes and gluten-free tortilla chips, many made by small brands. guilt-free and delicious, promises one fruit bar. ingredients you can see and pronounce, says another from kind snacks, the healthy snacking leader in which mars has a stake.

Mondelez, the confectionery and snack group spun off from kraft foods, which owns cadbury chocolate and oreo cookies, is a convert to the trend. it said this week that it intends to create and acquire more healthy snack brands, reinvesting some of the $10bn investment it currently holds in coffee companies. mondelez bought perfect snacks, a us maker of refrigerated protein bars, last year.

It is a profitable time for a second helping. the covid pandemic has been good to mondelez and pepsico, another of the worlds biggest snack groups. as people went into lockdown, they reached for the biscuit tin and the cookie jar; kantar, the research group, found that snacking occasions (also known as not waiting for the next meal) rose the longer it lasted.

But are we all regina george now, believing that we can graze healthily, when really its just over-eating? a lot rests on the answer, since snacking has become such an integral part of modern eating. rushing to work with a cereal bar instead of eating breakfast, or taking a mid-afternoon break with a biscuit: many lives are now built around snacks as much as meals.

Americans and the british are leading snackers but the trend towards eating several small meals instead of three big ones is global, if adapted to local tastes. dried fish and squid strips are on offer in japanese convenience stores, nearby the peanuts and crisps. mondelez reports a rise of 18 per cent in snacking occasions globally between 2015 and 2017.

It is a generational change, as well as one of lifestyle. millennials are keen on snacks seven out of 10 said they preferred multiple small meals in one survey as are teenagers. but they are also cynical about corporations, weary of old brands and choosy about ingredients.

Small brands, many founded by millennials, spotted this faster than companies such as kraft. snacking without compromise is the slogan of texas-based amplify brands, which makes skinnypop popcorn and pirates booty rice and corn puffs, and was acquired by hershey in 2017. consumers are used to deciding between what we really want and what is good for us. at amplify, we dont believe it needs to be that way, it promises.

Amplify knows its millennial snackers. in a study in 2017, it identified the qualities they crave. most believe that the fewer ingredients in a snack, the better, and recoil at trans fats or added sugar. they like labels such as gluten-free, allergen-free and vegan and want responsibly sourced food. they are also willing to pay higher prices for guilt-free pleasure.

Hunger for healthy snacks has produced a cornucopia of unusual treats to pop in the mouth. at my local sainsburys supermarket in east london, the cereal bars, crackers and puffs take up as much space as the biscuits, and put the soda and sweet drinks aisle to shame. baked corn snacks, crispbread, beef biltong and oatcakes jostle for attention with crispy seaweed.

They all look healthier than the oreos opposite, but they warrant close examination. the nakd cocoa delight fruit and nut bar that i ate for research contains dates, cashews, raisins and cocoa with a hint of natural flavouring and no added sugar or syrups. it was delicious, but it also turned out to have 15.9 grammes about two heaped teaspoons of natural sugars.

The calories soon mount up from snacking, even of the healthier kind: almost a quarter of americans daily energy intake now comes from snacks. the fact that they are often eaten alone also reduces the social pressure to stop before finishing off the baked puff bag. a treat can become a habit and what mondelez calls permissible indulgence may turn permissive.

Snacking need not be pernicious some studies have found that there are metabolic advantages to nibbling regularly through the day, rather than overindulging out of hunger at meal times. one italian study last year concluded that the optimal pattern was three meals and two snacks a day (it was funded by the food group danone, but written by academics).

But nor is it coincidence that a global increase in obesity has accompanied the rise of snacking. snack mindfully, is mondelezs response, to be placed on all its labelling by 2025 (chew thoroughly. finish one bite before starting the next). when choosing a healthy snack, it also pays to look before you eat. that would have spared regina george a lot of angst.