Fresh fruit is the most desirable of all snacks, according to consumers polled in a new Nielsen Global Snacking Survey.

The global consumer survey found that 18% of consumers singled out fresh fruit as their snack of choice among 47 options, followed by chocolate with 15%. Both fruit and chocolate fared well above other consumer choices, including yogurt (6%), bread/sandwiches (6%), cheese (5%), potato chips/tortilla chips/crisps (5%), vegetables (5%) and ice cream/gelato (4%), according to the Nielsen study.

Asked about what they consumed in the last 30 days, 62% of consumers in the global survey said they consumed fruit as a snack, compared with 64% for chocolate and 52% for vegetables and 51% for cookies.

The study of 30,000 consumers in 60 countries, available online at http://bit.ly/1rdVAPK, found global snack sales at $374 billion annually as of March this year, up 2% over year-ago levels.

Europe ($167 billion) and North America ($124 billion) make up the largest share of global snack sales, according to Nielsen data, but the growth rate of snack sales is growing faster in Asia Pacific (4%), Latin America (9%) and the Middle/East Africa (5%).

The consumer survey noted different global tastes in snacks, depending on location. Other than fresh fruit and chocolate, large percentages of respondents also snack on vegetables in Asia-Pacific (57%), cheese in Europe (58%), bread/sandwiches in the Middle East/Africa (47%), ice cream/gelato in Latin America (63%) and potato chips/tortilla chips in North America (63%), according to the Nielsen data.

Consumers want both healthy and indulgent snacks, Susan Dunn, executive vice president, Global Professional Services for Chicago-based Nielsen, said in the report.

“A better understanding of consumer demand and the need states that drive demographic profile preferences will help manufacturers crack the code on the right portfolio balance between indulgence and healthy,” she said.

About one in three consumers said it is very important that snacks be low in sugar (34%), salt (34%), fat (32%) and calories (30%). On the other hand, the Nielsen survey said one third are looking for beneficial ingredients, rating fiber (37%), protein (31%) and whole grains (29%) as very important attributes in the snacks they eat.

Women are driving snack sales, according to the report.

Nielsen data shows more women consume chocolate (68% women vs. 61% men), fresh fruit (68% vs. 57%), vegetables (56% vs. 49%), cookies/biscuits (55% vs. 48%), and other categories.

Nielsen said 76% of consumers snack to satisfy their hunger between meals or to satisfy a craving, but just 45% of respondents say they consume snack as a meal alternative.

“There is a massive untapped opportunity to gain market share in the nutritious, portable and easy-to-eat meal alternative market that snack manufacturers could fill,” Dunn said.