Today, when you add up all the meals and snacks and tally it with the fact that many of us simply have the munchies, few people go without eating for more than a couple of hours. Easy and convenient access to an abundance of tasty food has led Americans to consume more than 500 extra calories per day than they did about 40 years ago -- before the onset of the obesity epidemic.
This well-documented fact makes the attempt to blame everything on snacks, especially carbohydrate-based snacks, a weak argument. It could however indicate that what we are eating isn't very satisfying — giving us "less bang for our calorie buck."
Building healthier snacks may be a way to rein in some of those calories and provide a little more energy to move — and that would be a good thing. Moreover, the concept of eating small and frequent meals, after a dip in popularity, is getting a fresh look from nutrition experts lately. It seems the strategy to keep blood sugar stable by eating six times a day, using planned snacks, is not without merit.
The key is healthier snacks that still have the satisfaction factor. And processors have been catching on, employing systems and ingredients to replace calories (from fat or carbs), add satiety, lower sodium and boost protein, minerals and healthy fats and ramp up flavor. All this could be signaling a new attitude when it comes to snacking.
Beans are big
"We're definitely getting the 'Oz bump'," says Dave Foreman, CEO and founder of Beanitos (www.beanitos.com), Austin, Texas, in reference to Dr. Oz's promotion of Beanitos as a between-meal alternative to higher-calorie snacks. Warning that many nutrition bars can be loaded with calories, Dr. Oz recommended trying the high-fiber Beanitos as a source of between-meal protein.
Per the name, Beanitos' protein comes from beans, a source suddenly in vogue across a number of savory snack categories. And while not a complete protein, the beans in Beanitos are paired with enough other grains and seeds to give one serving of the chips 4g of complete protein.
It's no easy trick converting beans into a chip. Beans lack the sticky texture that makes it easy to work with. "We were determined to stay away from corn," says Foreman, who has done no small amount of experimentation with bean dough. "We used to boil the beans with salt in the water but realized that it was more effective to add just a little salt at the end for a taste 'explosion,' but from less sodium."
Other inclusions in the dough are flax seeds, which provide a source of omega-3 fatty acids. And there are plans to add varieties that use flour from trendy "ancient grains," such as quinoa and teff. These ingredients help such snacks tap into another huge market, that of gluten-free food choices.
A combination of black bean flour, navy bean flour and long grain rice makes up a recent entry into the bean chip boom by Beanfields LLC (www.beanfieldssnacks.com), Madera, Calif. The company, noting the movement toward allergen-avoidance, promotes its products as being "free of every one of the FDA's eight most common ingredients that trigger food allergies." It also derives a savory hit from spices and vegetable powders, including tomato powder.
The use of legume flours becomes a triple-trend tapper when it expands into the similarly fast-growing ethnic category. The fresh take on the basic baked chip is reminiscent of an older ethnic savory snack, roasted chick peas that are still available at specialty stores. Lentils, rich in iron, minerals and fiber, have typically been used as the basis for soups and stews. Lentil chips remind one of baked lentil flour chapattis, which are popular items at many Indian restaurants.
Bay State Milling (www.bsm.com), Quincy, Mass., recognized this trend and put more efforts into providing ethnic-directed and organic grain products to processors, as well as the technical and product development services to help processors employ the new ingredients.
Dakota Prairie Organic Flour Co. (www.dakota-prairie.com), Harvey, N.D., which specialized in mainstream as well as ancient/heritage grains (such as spelt, kamut, amaranth, quinoa, millet, teff, flax, buckwheat and sorghum) expanded its production to include legume-based flours from peas, lentils, beans and chick peas, as well as soybean, nut and tuber starches and flours and flours from tapioca and coconut.
With ethnic dishes taking on more popularity as consumers look to expand their choices, adding an ethnic twist to healthy and gluten-free allows chip makers to achieve rapid market penetration. Houston-based Simply7 Chips (www.simply7snacks.com) makes salty, crunchy chips from staples such as lentils and chick peas, once common predominantly to the cultures of the Middle Eastern and Subcontinent. For example, hummus, a dip based on puréed chick peas, once available only in small specialty stores, is now a common dip in virtually every supermarket, with multiple brands and varieties filling the shelves.
A traditional savory snack when used as a dip or spread for vegetables or pita bread, hummus goes well with chips, too. But at Simply7, they've converted the dip into the chip in the form of innovative all-natural hummus and lentil chips that break the mold of old traditions. Traditional hummus includes tahini (ground sesame seed) as part of the formula. Sesame provides a source of essential fatty acids and also calcium and B vitamins.
"Lentils aren't just for soups and hummus doesn't have to be just a dip," explains Rashim Oberoi, president of Simply7. As with black beans and pinto beans, chickpeas (garbanzo beans) are rich in soluble fiber and protein.
Flourless but not flavorless
Higher protein and fiber chips are joined by other innovative takes in traditional staples. "I have always been passionate about eating well and staying healthy, says Alison Levitt, M.D., owner and founder of Dr. In The Kitchen (www.drinthekitchen.com). The Minneapolis company produces Flackers, a "natural reinvention of the traditional cracker" made with sprouted flax seeds.
"I believe that 'good food is wise medicine' — which is also why I developed Flackers," says Levitt. "As a medical doctor I feel flax seeds should be part of every health and longevity diet. Flackers are filled with heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids and fiber, which helps to normalize cholesterol and promote optimal digestion. In addition, Flackers contain antioxidants, protein and many vitamins and important minerals."
Gluten-free, non-GMO, vegetarian and certified organic, the crackers contain 5g protein and 7g fiber per serving.
Another sprouted snack, Way Better Snack is organic, low-sodium chips from Islandia, N.Y.-based Live Better Brands LLC. They combine old-fashioned stone-ground corn, potato starch and flour from sprouted brown rice with ground sprouted seeds from flax, quinoa, daikon radish, chia and broccoli. The oils are high-oleic and all ingredients are certified as non-GMO, gluten free, whole grain and kosher.
Jim Breen, company founder, says he "started with a vision to create a better snack" and, "in exploring concepts for healthy new products, [was] led to germination (sprouting) as a way to reincorporate nutritious ingredients into popular snacks such as tortilla chips."
Live Better's use of high-oleic oils touches on another aspect of tantalizing snacks that are better for you. Processors struggling with the (in many ways erroneous) notion that fat = unhealthy, shifted instead to better-for-you sources of fat. Looking to the boom in use of omega-3s, they applied them to chips and crackers to boost the health profile while preserving the crunch and satiety that oil brings to a good chip.
As a healthy, savory snack, popcorn has enjoyed a steady climb in popularity, in part due to its dual nature as both a whole grain and a gluten-free snack. "We are certainly seeing an upward trend in the popcorn category -- both our private label [products] as well as our own brand," says Claire Cretors, president of Cornfields Inc. (www.cornfieldsinc.com), Waukegan, Ill. "There are a number of studies on the benefits of antioxidants found in the hull of popcorn, and this has certainly helped the category."
Research on the benefits of whole grains has been at the forefront of nutrition news for more than a decade now, with scores of studies establishing that including whole grains in the diet can help lower the risk of a number of diseases, including cancer, heart disease and digestive disorders. Cornfields' Chicago Mix Popcorn uses all natural ingredients, combining cheese popcorn with a sweet caramel corn made in copper kettles.
"It's truly the old-fashioned way;" says Cretors. "We use brown rice syrup as opposed to corn syrup in our caramel, and the combination of savory and sweet has really been a hit."
Less shake, more bake
Although it's been reported lately that science is showing less of a need for reduced sodium, the demand for the category of low-salt products remains high. Salt replacers and enhancers need extra consideration when it comes to savory snacks since that's the very craving they strive to fulfill. Plus, salt has a number of functions beyond flavor, including microbial control, fermentation regulation and strengthening of textural properties in flour-based formulations. But salty snacks are the biggest contributor to sodium in the American diet.
Nu-Tek Salt Products LLC (www.nu-teksalt.com), Minnetonka, Minn., applies a balance between the two paradigms with its combinations of sea salt as a way to get more salt impact from less salt and combining it with potassium chloride, a popular salt substitute but one which consumers tend not to favor when it is used by itself due to a metallic aftertaste.
Nu-Tek's ingredient system minimizes this off-note and allows "significant sodium reduction with little to no impact on taste or functionality."
Cheese, easily the most popular flavor in savory snacks, finds its challenge in bringing that powerful taste without the concentrated calories found in this high-fat dairy product. But cheese, in addition to its popularity as a flavor, also acts as a perfect top note to cover up any slight off-notes that might remain from use of various legume flours or salt replacers and as an enhancer of mouthfeel characteristics.
"The first thing that comes to mind [with cheese] is masking and mouthfeel flavors that are perfect for better-for-you snacks," says Jennifer Tracy, director of customer marketing for Edlong Dairy Flavors (www.edlong.com), Elk Grove Village, Ill.
"Masking flavors are perfect for applications that use soy, pea or other proteins that might have 'beany' notes, as well as anything that has a sodium alternative, which could have metallic notes," explains Tracy. "The masking flavors help round out the profile flavor of the food."
The company's extensive line of cheese flavors for applications that have reduced or no dairy ingredients "contribute rich, fatty notes typical of dairy commodities without contributing anything to the nutritional profile, so consumers can enjoy the taste they love without compromising on the healthiness," she adds.
Edlong offers a full variety of savory flavors for use in snacks to enhance the flavor profile without adding any dairy. Flavors include Asiago, Cheddar, Smoked Applewood Cheddar, Cotija, Feta, Italian, Manchego, Nacho, Panela, Parmesan, Pepper Jack, Romano and Swiss. In snacks and seasonings, they boost the overall impact without modifying the nutritional panel.
Bringing snacks to the forefront was not the difficult part — Americans have shown that grab-and-go quick-fix fillers are the rule more than the exception today. With the tech know-how and creative approach to remaking old familiar favorites like chips and crackers in a new and healthy image, ingredient experts and food manufacturers are meeting the new paradigm and keeping the savory in while removing the guilt.