Fresh fruit is eaten as a snack more often than any sweet or salty alternative beyond the produce aisle, according to a study by The NPD Group. That pegs it the top snack choice of U.S. consumers.

According to the “Snacking in America” report from the group’s Rosemont, Ill.-based food and beverage division, fresh fruit is eaten 55 times annually per capita as a snack. Chocolate is second at 45; potato chips third at 30; nuts, 27; and cookies, 22. Crackers, yogurt, ice cream and others accounted for 17 each.

The two-year study ended in March. Excerpts are online.

The findings came as no surprise to Tony Freytag, director of marketing at Wenatchee, Wash.-based Crunch Pak.

“It reinforces the direction we’ve been heading in and what data we’ve been able to gather,” he said. “If you look at our item list today versus three years ago, we introduced Dipperz and (Apple) Snackers. We’ll add more items in those categories throughout the coming years. It is continuing to grow for us rapidly.”

Crunch Pak’s Disney-themed Foodles line also rides the trend, he said.

Elizabeth Pivonka, president of the Produce for Better Health Foundation, welcomed the report.

“To hear real evidence to substantiate this is exceptional,” she said. “When you consider both the growing wellness trend and the growing snacking trend, it makes sense that fruit would be a fast-growing snack food segment.”

The NPD Group study found snacks account for 20% of all eating occasions.

“Those of us already following the healthiest diets are snacking twice as often as those of us with the least healthy diet,” the report says. “Increased consumption of fruits, yogurts and other better-for-you products is contributing to this health dynamic.”

For grapes, the snacking trend is contributing to an anticipated new record for shipping volumes to be announced at the end of January, according to the California Table Grape Commission.

California table grapes growers have been promoting their fruit as the “Original Super Snack” this season.

“This is good news for Americans and the California table grape industry,” said Kathleen Nave, commission president, said of the NPD study in a news release.

The commission is touting five snack recipes on its website aimed at snackers. One is grapes in a canoe — peanut butter-filled celery sticks topped with grapes.

The study scores consumers’ snack choices on multiple criteria, among them health and weight concerns; satisfying hunger; convenience; satisfying a craving; and habit.

It distinguishes snacking from grazing. Snacking is more of a social occasion than grazing, it says, and is less likely to include a beverage. Only one in four snacks is now consumed with a beverage. High-calorie, sugary fruit drinks and carbonated soft drinks have seen the largest declines in consumption, according to the report.