Healthy Snacks Add Opportunities for Good Choices

Consider the snack. For some, it’s a means to stave off hunger - anything will do. For others, it’s an extra opportunity to tack on healthful food choices.

By Kitty Broihier, MS, RD

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According to a recent NPD Group survey of top snack choices for Americans, adults place gum, chocolate, potato chips and mints in their top five snack choice list. Yet fruit also snagged a spot.

Navigating this conundrum, manufacturers are always seeking - and finding - ways to satisfy consumer demand for indulgent snacks, while also catering to the increased interest in healthful items.

A generation ago, adults scouring the supermarket aisles in search of a single-serve snack would be hard-pressed to find much more than a package of sunflower seeds, a granola bar or a stick of jerky. And those little bags of cookies and fruit snacks? Strictly for the kiddies.

Little Portions, Big Business

According to the Snack Food Assn. (www.sfa.org), Alexandria, Va., the savory snack food category alone sees around $25 billion a year in U.S. sales. Overall, snack sales are growing steadily by several percent per year, but health-oriented items, such as energy bars, have been experiencing a steeper growth curve.

In recent years though, all the talk about "portion distortion" (not to mention the increasing prevalence of obesity) has many adults seeking ways to downsize their snacks without giving them up completely. "Single-serve snacks grew about 15 percent in 2004, compared to only about 4 percent for the entire snack category," notes Linda McDonald, editor of Supermarket Savvy (www.supermarketsavvy.com), Houston, a national newsletter for health professionals.

Snacks article: Weight Watchers single-serve cake
Weight Watchers' single-serve desserts, produced by Dawn Food Products Inc., Jackson, Mich., contain just 80 calories each.

Convenience is certainly a major driver of pint-sized portion sales. But a new paradigm has also emerged: Snacks take much of the thought - and work - out of portion control.

"Most people do a very poor job at estimating portion size, and for people who crave treats but can't control their portions, these products are ideal," explains Peggy Eastmond, R.D., a food and nutrition communications consultant for consumers and companies such as Sargento Foods Inc.

Calorie control without sacrifice is what consumers are after, and two of the biggest snack makers, Kraft Foods Inc. with its Nabisco brand of 100-Calorie snack packs, and Kellogg Co. with its Right Bites brand, hit the mark early on. Other companies soon followed and now the concept of the controlled-portion, 100-calorie snack is fast becoming the rule. [Digital Editor's Note: Click here to read an Advertising Age article further emphasizing this point.]

For dieters in particular, who often feel they must deprive themselves when it comes to sweets, snack choices are becoming more numerous. "The portion-controlled snack trend has crept into other market segments, like desserts and bakery products," says McDonald. For example, Battle Creek, Mich.-based Kellogg recently launched Special K Snack Bites. At only 90 calories per serving, they're one of the slimmest of the crunchy single-serves around.

Weight Watchers International Inc., Woodbury, N.Y., rolled out a line of single-serve muffins, desserts, candies and ice cream treats that fit right in with the small indulgences trend. Their individual carrot cakes and chocolate cakes, produced by Dawn Food Products Inc., Jackson, Mich., contain just 80 calories each.

Other companies, including manufacturers of baked goods such as pies, cinnamon rolls and other sweets, are realizing the single-serve trend can benefit them as well. For example, at New York-based Vitalicious, muffins get a makeover as VitaMuffins, replete with fiber plus 15 vitamins and minerals and still hitting the magic 100-calorie mark.

The future of the healthy, portion-controlled snack looks especially secure, according to the predictions of many industry players. Health professionals see a bright future for more healthful single-serve noshes, believing the aging population, along with the increasing incidence of diabetes and obesity, will drive the market. The looming threat of restrictions on advertising to children could also contribute to a significant increase in healthy snack options.

Hot Chocolate

Dark chocolate is hot both in upscale candy stores and at the supermarket level now that interest is drawn to the antioxidant flavanol compounds in the sweet indulgence. Last year, industry giant Hershey Co. (www.hersheys.com), Hershey, Pa., launched Hershey's Extra Dark, a chocolate candy line of three varieties containing 60 percent cacao bean content. The package label highlights the cocoa content, a marketing move that other brands, both domestic and imported, have also started to employ.

"We're seeing a tremendous amount of interest from consumers in dark chocolate," says Amy Hahn, marketing manager for Hershey Co. One reason is the big jump in nutrition research - and subsequent media attention - regarding the health benefits of flavanols. Smart chocolate candy manufacturers wasted no time in acting on the findings. And recently, the epitome of high cocoa-content products, a 100 percent cacao bar, was just released by Ashland, Ore.-based Dagoba Organic Chocolate.

Organic chocolate production is quickly becoming important to a sizeable niche of the chocolate-buying public. "Despite the fact that there's not a lot of good research on the health benefits of organic foods versus conventionally grown foods, for consumers it [feels] intuitive," says Nell Newman, president of Newman's Own Organics (www.newmansownorganics.com), Westport, Conn.

Snacks article: Eden Foods' veggie chips
Eden Foods' line of vegetable chips contains about half the fat and saturated fat of potato chips.

"Organic foods have seen double-digit growth for 20 years, without ever a year down - that's a good indicator of how much people believe in them," adds Newman. What's more, with chocolate, the production of an organic product is tightly tied to both environmental issues and fair-trade practices, which are also becoming increasingly important to certain customers.

Vegging Out

Veggies haven't received the attention other snack foods have, but that's changing. Pre-packaged fresh vegetable cuts have gained big ground, especially in the kid-snack realm. In addition, extruded vegetable snacks and veggie chips have been around for a while and continue to appeal, as evidenced by the multiplying brands and varieties appearing on shelves everywhere from small specialty grocers to mainstream supermarkets.

One example of the healthy veggie-chip phenomenon comes from Eden Foods Inc. (www.edenfoods.com), Clinton, Mich. Its line of vegetable chips contains about half the fat and saturated fat of potato chips. "While the veggies themselves don't add any appreciable vitamins and minerals to the chips, they do add flavor," says Tonya Martin, an Eden Foods spokesperson. "People like our snacks because they taste great ‘even though' they're healthy."

Veggies constitute the lone ingredient in some popular snacks. Domestically produced dried vegetable snacks and snack mixes from Just Tomatoes, etc! (www.justtomatoes.com), Westley, Calif., include dried carrots, corn, peas, bell peppers and tomatoes solo and in blends. Newly available in an organic version, as well as in single-serve snack packs, this colorful snack mix appeals to children and adults.

Rice crackers also are taking a healthy bite out of the savory snack market. Organic rice cracker crisps from Edward and Sons Trading Co., Carpenteria, Calif., are a typical example, featuring a variety of flavors, such as tamari and seaweed, black sesame and onion.

Finding healthful ingredients and great taste in the snack category is no longer an either-or proposition. These days, whether in the sweet, savory, crunchy, crispy or chewy category, portable, palate-pleasing snacks are going to be increasingly important for consumers and food manufacturers.

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