Building a Healthier Savory Snack

Crispy, salty, crunchy … savory snacks are healthier than ever. But what’s next? Manufacturers and ingredient companies are working together to help build the next generation of savory snacks.

By David Feder, RD, Technical Editor

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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.”

Attractive additions

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.”

I’m 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 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.

– 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.

“Cracker companies are getting into chips — for example, Kraft/Nabisco Garden Harvest Toasted Chips — and chip makers getting into crackers, such as Frito-Lay’s True North nut crisps. [The result is] healthier chips and crackers, not fried but baked, and low in fat but with good texture. Also, clean label products are important.”

She points out differences in textures are achievable – or reversible – when new nutrients, such as whole grain and fibers, are added to recipes. “This is where our starch texturizers and process knowledge can help snack manufacturers,” she says. “It’s possible to achieve similar textures through a different process, so if one cracker is fermented [yeast risen] and another is chemically leavened, we have the ability to balance the formulation, snack texturizing starch, process and moisture to target similar textures.”

Whole grains have become a big part of the trend toward healthier snacks. The Whole Grains Council, a part of Boston-based Oldways Preservation Trust, has seen double-digit growth in companies using the Whole Grain stamp on their products.

Not without challenges

Late July’s Dawes admits there are technical challenges in building healthier savory snacks. “Finding ingredients in the form we need them is one,” she says. “We require all our vendors to meet a series of requirements. Not just kosher and organic but sometimes vegan and lactovegetarian, plus sustainability, Fair Trade, and [submission to] third-party audits.

“But we still find a lot of really wonderful suppliers to work with,” she continues. “At the end of the day, you have to be really close to your suppliers. I’m feeding these products to my children and other people’s children. I feel very strongly about having that connection.”

Sometimes, though, ingredient challenges are not met. “We wanted to include enrichment in some of our new products, yet it was impossible to find a multivitamin powder that met all our criteria,” she explains. “I eventually found a calcium carbonate we were comfortable with but I had to scale back. Since I couldn’t find a multivitamin powder to match our criteria, I just had to formulate around it. Sometimes there just aren’t the ingredients out there that will accomplish what we want to do.”

A new generation of ingredient manufacturers understands such obstacles. “We find most of our customers fortifying their products with vitamins and minerals, antioxidants, essential amino acids, proteins and natural and organic ingredients that give their product a more natural quality,” acknowledges Emilio Gutierrez, vice president of technical services for BI Nutraceuticals, Long Beach, Calif. “Incorporating supplements into food can often be much more challenging — you have to deal with unpleasant odors, bad tastes and unpleasant mouth feel that could turn consumer off your product.”

Gutierrez says other ingredients that pose problems for flavor and texture include herbs such as ginseng, green tea, guarana, kola nut and yerba maté; proteins, such as whey; branched-chain amino acids, such as L-valine, L-leucine, L-isoleucine; and bulk fiber, such as psyllium and oats.

Acrylamide is still an issue in many fried snacks, but it’s being overcome. “Acrylamide is formed upon heating of foods by reaction of the inherently present amino acid asparagine and carbohydrates,” explains Hugo Streekstra, senior scientist for enzyme application at DSM Food Specialties Inc., Parsippany, N.J. Acrylamide is a suspected carcinogen, and most food manufacturers are trying to reduce acrylamide levels in their products.

According to Streekstra, formation of acrylamide is prevented by conversion of asparagine into another amino acid that is commonly present in food, aspartic acid. As a result, asparagine is no longer available for the chemical reaction that forms acrylamide. DSM’s PreventASe mitigates the formation of acrylamide in foods, including savory snacks, by up to 90 percent and is approved for use in the U.S. and other countries.

After several years of research, flavor scientists at Edlong Dairy Flavors, Elk Grove Village, Ill., in 2008 developed flavor technology that eliminated the need for added diacetyl in dairy flavors and end-products.The Ed-Vantage line maintains the mouthfeel, aroma and buttery flavor that are characteristic of diacetyl-containing products without added diacetyl.

For those with food or allergy sensitivities, healthy snacks are those without glutens and other allergens.

“The [challenge] from the gluten-free market is to produce products that can replace gluten functionality,” says Gum Technology's Prenzno. Gums like xanthan and guar are suitable ingredients for this function. Coyote Brand Stabilizer ST-101 — a “synergistic blend” of xanthan gum and guar gum — is one example. It binds moisture (reducing staling), improves cell structure, increases dough pliability and improves freeze/thaw stability in savory, gluten-free products.

The gluten-free trend is showing strong and steady growth, but early products suffered from the “healthy can’t be flavorful” presumption. That’s being overcome by folks like Mary Waldner, founder and leader of product development and brand strategy for Mary’s Gone Crackers, Gridley, Calif.

Waldner started the company following her personal struggle with Celiac Disease “after finding a shortage of nutritious, gluten-free options that tasted good.” Yet her crunchy, paper-thin crackers became a hit beyond Celiac sufferers — so much so, Mary’s Gone Crackers Original was awarded a gold medal for “the most outstanding cracker” last year at the National Assn. for the Specialty Food Trade product awards.
“Gluten-free is still a growing market,” Waldner says, “and our technical challenge at Mary's Gone Crackers involved creating a new category of food, using unusual equipment, [even] creating one machine for ourselves, and so becoming more and more efficient at figuring out how to make our products.”

Today, companies such as Mary’s Gone Crackers, Late July Organic, Dr. Kracker and others have proven it’s possible to build a successful company on a healthy savory snack line by keeping flavor first yet staying innovative in execution.

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