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Last Updated: Monday, 2 June, 2003, 10:45 GMT 11:45 UK
Web takes the biscuit
By Mark Ward
BBC News Online technology correspondent

A nice cup of tea, BBC
What biscuit do you dunk?
The net's ability to link people who share a common interest - but who will never meet - is unparalleled. And that's true even for fans of... biscuits?

The internet and snack foods have a lot in common.

Both are used to fill idle time, are usually enjoyed sitting down and are often accompanied by a beverage.

And there must be many people who enjoy both a snack and a surf simultaneously, indeed, one can enhance the enjoyment of the other.

So it is perhaps no surprise that the net is home to some very popular sites that help you get the most out of those moments when you have something sweet or salty in your hand.

Take a break

One of the most comprehensive biscuit sites online is nicecupofteaandasitdown.com which was set up two years ago by Stuart Payne.

The site features reviews and ratings, a biscuit of the week and regularly helps people track down biscuits from their childhood or brands they thought were no longer being made.

"Many people think if a supermarket does not carry a biscuit they will not find it anywhere," he said, "but what we find is that big supermarkets do not stock what you find in the corner shops."

Shelves of crisps, BBC
Britons eat huge amounts of snack foods
Regulars report sightings of brands other people are looking for and help direct people towards tastes they thought were long lost.

"I've been surprised by the interest and the level of emotion biscuits arouse," he said.

Mr Payne believes childhood experiences forge early attachments to biscuits that are never forgotten.

"Biscuits were very much treats as a child and they have a disproportionate amount of worth attached to them," he said.

Regular readers of nicecupofteaandasitdown send Mr Payne biscuits from overseas and badger him to review their own favourites.

His stewardship of the site has opened up a bizarre second life which involves him going along to the launches of new biscuits and being feted by snack makers.

Mr Payne's own favourite biscuit is McVities' Abbey Crunch which he describes as "groundbreaking".

"Without that we would not have had the Hobnob," he said.

Taste frontier

Other sites, such as Snackspot, are dedicated to bringing people the latest in snack foods, places where people can buy novel foods, sightings of limited editions of popular sweets and snacks as well as consumer tests.

Many snack-related sites scour the pages of publications such as The Grocer for news of new product lines or new twists on old tastes.

Simon Mowbray, spokesman for The Grocer, said more than 5,000 new products were launched into the UK food market every year. Many of these will be new snacks.

Tommy Handley with a cup of tea, BBC
The tea break is a venerable institution
"Britons are huge snackers," said Mr Mowbray, "particularly on confectionery and compared to other European countries that might have healthier diets than we do."

Although people seem willing to experiment with novel forms of old favourites, retailers are not convinced of the worth of limited edition lines.

"They are the cowards' route," he said.

Retailers do not like products with such a short shelf life, he said. A fact that adds to the allure of websites that reveal where keen snackers can find something to tickle the most jaded palate.

Emma Mansfield, marketing general manager at snack giant United Biscuits, said many food firms are reluctant to change products because people are so attached to them.

She, too, has been surprised at the passion people show for some products. Hobnobs being a particular object of desire for many.

Ms Mansfield said snack foods were evolving to match changes in consumers' lives.

"There has been a huge trend towards informal eating in the last 10-20 years," she said, "the idea of people having three meals a day does not exist any more."

As life speeds up we need help to cope and perhaps this is another reason why snacks and the net are so well matched.

They help us to get the most out of our busy lives but can also provide a moment of quiet among the hubbub and toil.

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