The standard three meals a day may be falling by the wayside, with breakfast, lunch and dinner now being supplemented by an unofficial fourth meal -- the afternoon snack -- according to a study by Chicago-based Mintel International Group.

The study, entitled Mintel Consumer Intelligence Salty Snack Report, indicates that consumers purchased $19 billion worth of potato chips, pretzels and other snack products in 1999, an increase of about 5 percent from 1998.

The study found that each American spends $64 per year on salty snacks. Further, some 25 percent of survey respondents reported eating salty snacks on a daily basis.

While the early to mid-1990s showed a shift to low-fat or even fat-free variations of standard snack foods, the bathroom scale is beginning to tip in the other direction. Only 20 percent of those surveyed by Mintel look for low-fat or fat-free versions of snack foods. The reason? Original versions are full flavor. The current dietary trend of moderation rather than abstinence has also sent consumers back to originals.

Surprisingly, potato chips and pretzels took a back seat to microwave popcorn and pork rinds between 1995 to 1999, with the latter two groups comprising the fastest growing segments of the snack food market. The study indicates that microwave popcorn has emerged as a favorite of dieters looking for low-calorie indulgences, while pork rinds appeal to consumers on low carbohydrate diets.

Mintel expects the snack market to show increases of 1 to 3 percent in each of the next five years, and estimates the market will be worth nearly $25 billion by 2005. It notes that the major target of snack foods are kids, due to their propensity to eat snack foods on a regular basis. In an effort to retain these customers for life, companies direct the majority of their advertising and promotion toward them.