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By David Feder, RD, Technical Editor | 05/19/2009
In spite of health recommendations telling us to avoid eating between meals, snacks are a growing multibillion-dollar industry covering a wide variety of items -- from bars to chips, from carbohydrate-based to protein-based. Perhaps the real challenge is, for many consumers, the term “healthy snack” is an oxymoron. But today’s food processors are working to change that.
“I’m a busy working mom, and I need 20-30 snacks a week to put in lunches for my kids,” says Nicole Dawes, mother of two boys (ages 2 and 6) and owner of Late July Organic Snacks, Barnstable, Mass. “But I also have to keep my eye on what comes back. I might think something is healthy and delicious, but if it comes back, I know it’s not worth it. It’s my obligation as a food manufacturer to make as healthy a snack as possible, while still making it something the consumer thinks is delicious and will actually consume.”
It’s no longer just about removing the bad things – empty calories, trans fats and artificial ingredients – from snacks. “In the overall trend toward a concern for health, we’re moving beyond 100-calorie snacks into the substance of health,” she continues. “For example, snacks that have a variety of other healthful components for nutrition -- protein, whole grains, fiber – we’ll be seeing more and more claims beyond simply calorie count.”
When it comes to healthful indulgence, ingredient companies are becoming more interactive with manufacturers when it comes to reconciling what consumers say they want and what they will truly eat. “It used to be consumers wanted a snack that was good for them, and then they hoped the flavor profile was pleasing; nowadays, consumers expect a good-for-you product that also is a delicious treat to keep them going,” says Mia Arcieri, market manager for FONA International Inc., Geneva, Ill.
For some makers of healthier savory snacks, the big issue is reducing calories, which customers often expect to come from fat. “The challenge to reducing calories by cutting fat is to keep the texture the same,” says Aida Prenzno, laboratory director for Gum Technology Corp., Tucson, Ariz. “Gums and gum blends excel in this area. They add texture, reduce oil pick up during processing, keep solids in suspension, add fiber and promote satiety.”
But not all formula adjustments should focus on fat content. “Consumers are more aware of the benefits of healthy eating, making traditional savory snacks less appealing,” says Prenzno. “But in order to make [such] snacks more appealing, industry is finding ways to alter formulations by reducing calories, adding exotic flavors, using natural ingredients and creating functional and satiety-promoting snacks.”
Baking, oven-toasting and air-drying are replacing deep-fat frying for many snacks. While the technical challenges of changing the cooking method differ with the product, crackers are a natural for baking.
Crackers deliver unique ingredients, textures and flavors consumers “would not accept in other snacks,” according to Courtney Kingery, marketing and customer development manager for ADM Specialty Food Ingredients. “The explosion of the vegetable blends of crackers is a great example of this,” she says. “Crackers are no longer the sidekick for a dip; the dip flavors are now on the crackers.”
“Iím a busy working mom, and I need 20-30 snacks a week to put in lunches for my kids, but I also have to keep my eye on what comes back. I might think something is healthy and delicious, but if it comes back, I know itís not worth it. Itís my obligation as a food manufacturer to make as healthy a snack as possible, while still making it something the consumer thinks is delicious and will actually consume.”- Nicole Dawes, mother and owner of Late July Organic Snacks
“The challenge has been to achieve a full serving of vegetables into a snack product with a small serving size,” says Sean Craig, senior executive chef for Gilroy Foods & Flavors, Omaha, Neb. “Creating palatable snack products with a full vegetable serving can be done with the help of ingredient systems such as Controlled Moisture vegetables or GardenFrost purees,” which eliminate excess water in vegetables by up to half and also have significantly less salt than vegetable bases. “They do not contain flavor-muddling acids or preservatives-and it shows with a clean label,” he adds.
Kingery says one major goal in savory snack formulation is “how to push the boundaries in snacking while still keeping the food familiar.” To that end, ADM continues to develop “novel technology and ingredients that allow us to deliver familiar snack shapes and textures with added nutrition.”
As to how to make that happen, Kingery points to a series of steps for processors to focus on. “When processors evaluate ingredients, they need to consider the overall solution. First, what are the nutritional and marketing requirements? Low fat, increased protein, increased fiber, made with honey or vegetable inclusions? Second, consider how the ingredients will work within the current process. Finally, evaluate the quality of the ingredient supplier and if that supplier can offer technical and production support as this processor incorporates new ingredients.”
Making healthier savory snacks is leading to paradigm shifts in some categories. The merging of the cracker, chip and pretzel segments is an example pointed to by Suzanne Mutz-Darwell, marketing manager for National Starch Food Innovation, Bridgewater, N.J.