THE MARKET the intelligent consumer
CHIN up. If you've ever paused guiltily half-way through a bag of crisps, take comfort from this: 32 million packets of savoury snacks are eaten in Britain every day. You are not alone. We are all in this together. We could even consider it a matter of national pride. The country may have gone to the dogs, but the British are still the unchallenged European masters of snacking, out-munching the French three times over.

And although we don't yet consume the quantity of crisps, nuts, corn and wheat snacks they do in the United States - 7.1kg per person versus 5.2kg - we do buy them more often.

In fact, figures in a new report from KP even suggest that the act of purchasing snacks holds more magic for us than what's in the packet. Asked why they like to snack, just 36 per cent of people said it was because they were hungry. But 11 per cent admitted to a "craving", and 16 per cent said "impulse". And 6 per cent confessed that they filled their faces because they were bored. Given this kind of behaviour, is it any wonder that a crisp, Walkers, is the country's leading food brand?

At pounds 1.6bn a year, the market is enormous and growing. Sales have almost doubled since 1987, reflecting steady changes in British lifestyles. For example, parents now spend 600 million man-hours a year (or more likely woman-hours) driving children to school where once they walked. Imagine how many Monster Munch and cheesy Wotsits dished out as bribes and comforters that means.

With fewer schools offering hot lunches than a decade ago, more children are eating packed lunches. According to the market analyst Datamonitor, three-quarters of all under-10s' lunchboxes now contain bagged snacks. Likewise, because Britain has the highest percentage of working women in the Western world, families now eat fewer formal meals together than in the past, and the frantic pace of modern office life means adults are taking whatever nourishment they can, when they can.

In one's grandparents' day, it was the height of vulgarity to be seen eating on the street. Now we all openly "graze" on buses and trains or just walking along, and marketing experts talk breezily about "street- eat penetration" of brands.

Those brands have seen many changes in recent years. The so-called "Phileas Fogg phenomenon" fed the adult snack-buying public's appetite for such sophisticated exotic nibbles as tortillas. For a while, it was rumoured that the days of the traditional crisp were numbered. In 1995 it's hard to believe that. Manufacturers have begun to realise that high-priced niche products can only do so much for their profits. So the humble cheapo crisp is back, repackaged in foil and borrowing a little credibility from football.

Walkers Crisps started the ball rolling when it cast the squeaky-clean Gary Lineker as a nun-baiting, child-hating crisp-snatcher in a hugely successful television ad campaign. Then, in August, KP launched the FA Premier League Crisp, 48 different packs complete with football trivia.

The aim, the company says, is "to create a brand which aims to bring together the nation's two great pastimes - football and snacking". And a smart move it is, too, appealing not only to the soccer-mad 16-34 group who make a third of all impulse purchases, but also to children, who eat a third of all snacks.

By contrast, the less said the better about Golden Wonder's flirtation with the national game. The company hired Vinnie Jones, Wimbledon FC's hard-man captain and now football coach By Appointment to Prince William, to launch a "Naughty and Saucy" limited edition of its malodorous corn snack Nik Naks. It contained, the makers jokingly imply, an aphrodisiac. As Harry Enfield - currently advertising Hula Hoops - might say, "Oi Vinnie, no!"

If Vinnie Jones clutching a crunchy love drug is the snacker's nightmare, though, what of the dream - a low-fat crisp that's a licence to pig out and not put on weight? Dream on. We may be able to put a man on the Moon, but sin-free snacking is an area that no company has yet found the technology to exploit. To label a crisp low-fat, by law it must contain less than 3 per cent fat. Regular crisps tend to contain about 35 per cent. Lower- fat crisps, which are often considerably more expensive, have about 25 per cent. That means they are still about as fatty as corn chips.

"We've all got bright people working on low-fat products," says Martin Glenn, Walkers' marketing director. "The reason we've never put the Walkers name on a [low-fat] crisp, though, is that we've never found one that tastes good enough. People think: 'It's only 150 calories, so why do I want it to taste like cardboard?'"