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Food industry catering to hungry drivers

/ Source: The Associated Press

Paul Betancourt spends up to four days a week on the road and might drive more than 500 miles a week for his sales job.

It adds up to a lot of bagels, slices and wrap sandwiches chomped behind the wheel.

“That’s just the nature of the job,” Betancourt said. “Because of the distance, you just find yourself eating behind the wheel.”

Betancourt has a lot of company. With Americans eating more meals in their cars, food makers are obliging with an array of glop-free, finger-friendly products suitable for any meal and in between. So-called cupholder cuisine ranges from cereal bars with the milk congealed inside to the new “crunch wrap” — Taco Bell’s answer to the age-old leaky taco problem.

“We’ve been looking at our drive-through business growing steadily over the last couple of years,” said Taco Bell spokesman Laurie Schalow. “It’s currently at 70 percent of our business.”

McDonald’s, meanwhile, put a salad in a cup and also developed McGriddles breakfast sandwiches with the “yummy taste of maple syrup baked right in.”

And on the supermarket shelves: yogurt in squeeze tubes, Cheerios Milk ’n’ Cereal Bars, miniature versions of Cheetos and Doritos and Campbell’s Soup at Hand line of drinkable soups with smaller solid bits for easier sipping. The soups and snacks even come in cylinders with hourglass curves to fit snugly into cupholders.

Analysts agree that eating at the wheel is a popular activity, though just how popular depends on how the counting is done.

Dashboard dining

John Nihoff, a professor of gastronomy at the Culinary Institute of America, said about 19 percent of our meals are consumed in cars — though his definition of “meals” includes in-between snacks such as doughnuts or carrots.

Kelton Research, polling 1,000 people for Taco Bell this summer, found the portion of people who say they eat in the car at least once a day (9 percent) was eclipsed by the number of people who say they never eat in the car (31 percent).

The market researcher NPD Group said the average person ate 32 restaurant meals — including snacks such as cones — in the car last year. That is up from 19 in 1984.

“Thank God for the power window. If we had to still crank down that window we wouldn’t be doing this,” said NPD food industry analyst Harry Balzer.

The trend in dashboard dining is hardly surprising given the amount of time Americans spend in their cars. The average one-way commuting time has grown to 24.3 minutes, with New York City, Chicago and a couple of other metro areas above the half-hour barrier. The Texas Transportation Institute calculates that time lost to traffic delays in 2003 hit 3.7 billion hours.

That’s plenty of time to grab a bite.

“We’re grazers. We’re snackers,” Nihoff said. “We don’t have time to sit down and eat a big meal.”

Critics say grabbing a handful of fries at 65 mph can create distractions for drivers every bit as dangerous as gabbing on the cell phone. A few years ago, Hagerty Classic Insurance rated the most dangerous foods to eat while driving. Coffee was No. 1, followed by hot soup and tacos.

Highly-processed foods

And not all road food is healthy. Nutritionist Bonnie Taub-Dix said she has problems with car food that is highly processed, and thus more likely to lack nutritional value and be high in sugar and fat.

“It’s snack foods that very often replace meals ... so nutritionally they’re not really getting what they need,” said Taub-Dix, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association.

Her advice to dashboard diners: Bring along healthy foods that can be eaten safely in the car — maybe a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on whole grain bread or baby carrots.

Cupholder cuisine might not be ideal, she noted, but there is little use fighting it.

“It’s here to stay,” she said.