The name snack foods covers a wide range of food products. They are consumed as light meals or a partial replacement for a regular meal. Often they will be eaten while travelling or watching sports and other entertainments. The general range of snack foods will include products such as nuts, biscuits and merge into confectionery and meat products with count lines and jerky beef. However, the main sector, which is defined clearly as snack foods, contains the major snack products such as popcorn, potato chips or crisps and baked or fried snacks and starch-based snacks. There are many ingenious variations in the processes used by the industry, which serve to increase the range of products manufactured. A number of the most important processes are carried out using extrusion cookers as part of the production line.

The snack industry has been linked closely to the development and use of extrusion cookers for over sixty years. However, snack products predate extrusion cooking, having their origins in the traditional handmade products from earlier centuries. The classic examples of such products are puffed grains, prawn crackers and kerpok of the Far East and the tortilla snacks of South America.

It was possible to make prawn crackers in the home by cooking a 50% aqueous starch gel made from flour and fish-based bouillon to form a solid cake. This was sliced into thin pieces and dried in the sun to produce the first types of half-product. These stable intermediates could be stored until required and then transformed into a crispy expanded snack by frying in oil or heating in salt or even sand.

A second traditional technology grew up in the Americas where maize or Indian corn was a major cereal crop. The grains of maize were cooked in water until they softened and could be separated from their hulls and milled into dough. This dough was rolled into thin layers, cut into pieces and baked or fried to form tortilla chips.

These traditional products were dry and crispy and pleasant to eat and, with other products such as puffed grains or pork skins and nuts, formed the basis of early snack manufacture.

Extrusion cooking and ancillary processing machines have enabled these products to be taken from the cottage industry scale to be mass-produced at the rate of several tons per hour and to be made in many variations of form and recipes. At first the numbers and varieties of snacks may present a confusing picture to the food scientist and technologist trying to compare them and to understand their critical processing steps. For this reason we will attempt to classify the snacks into a number of categories based on the functional changes occurring to the raw materials as they are formed into products. For the modern industry there are several forms of snack products.

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