Snacks have come to occupy a premier place in the American diet that carries nearly as much weight as any of the "three squares" we allegedly structure our diets around. In many instances, "snacks" really should be thought of more as "substitute meals." But there's a schizophrenic effect to snacks — they fall on either side of healthy fill-ins and indulgent munch.
According to research group Global Industry Analysts Inc., world snack food sales will top a third of a trillion dollars by 2015. "The main factors fueling the market are income levels and consumer perceptions and demographics," reports the group's analysts. "The market is highly fragmented and intensely competitive, with an abundance of industry players in all categories from small to large."
Looking at the two sides of the snack coin, health and indulgence, means different ingredient needs are called into play. Cheese, bacon and spice are the thrust for savory snacks on the indulgence side, and chocolate is the perennial force for sweet snacks. Healthy snacks cast a wider ingredient net when it comes to their constituents.
One of the biggest ingredient trends in snacks, and an ingredient that covers both of the bases outlined above, is nuts. When used in moderation as part of a well-balanced diet, this high energy food can supply more than just taste. Nuts contain the essential linoleic and linolenic fatty acids, dietary fiber, phytochemicals, vitamin E, and are an excellent source of protein and important minerals such as calcium, iron and zinc.
Almonds are one of the most popular tree nuts in America and are sold in about 40 different forms. According to the Almond Board of California, the positive perception of almonds continues to grow among consumers, with this nut outperforming all other nuts by receiving high marks for attributes such as "healthiest," "crunch appeal" and taste. The board also noted that with all of the dietary research that has been done to date and the promotion of the health benefits of almonds, the general perception of consumers and health professionals now is a very positive one.
Source: Blue Diamond Growers
Even as new and innovative uses for almonds appear on the horizon, the global demand for almonds continues to increase by 10 percent annually. "Besides the traditional use of chopped, diced and sliced almonds in cereals, granolas and bars, almonds have also been introduced as core ingredients in popular snack foods," says Jeff Smith, director for Blue Diamond Growers, Sacramento, Calif.
Two examples of such snacks using nuts as a base ingredient delivering taste and crunchy texture are Nut-Thins and Nut Chips. They are baked snacks and have several marketing advantages, such as zero grams saturated fat, no trans fats and being gluten-free. Nut Chips also contain whole grains from brown rice flour. Other nut-derived ingredients such as hazelnut meal and pecan meal have been incorporated successfully into two other Nut-Thins snack products.
"We've seen good demand domestically for almonds in snack bars, fiber bars as well as mixed nuts and granola mixes," says Lori Coburn, director of Hughson Nut Inc., Hughson, Calif. "A specialty ingredient recently developed and generating increasing interest from the food industry is almond bran. Almond bran is 100 percent almond skin, and so is gluten-free. Because many healthful benefits of almonds are in substances found in the outer skin, almond bran was created to provide a product with these healthful benefits, and without the calories of fat."
According to Coburn, almond bran provides almond flavor and nutrition in a concentrated form as a rich source of dietary fiber, almond sterols and essential minerals such as magnesium, calcium, phosphorus and potassium. "In fact, the total antioxidant capacity of almond bran is more than 13 times greater than that of almonds alone," declares Coburn. "Almond bran also contains nearly four times the levels of dietary fiber and has a high concentration of phytosterols — for example, 20 times the amount of stigmasterol," adds Robert Miltner, Nut-rition's vice president. "Almond bran is also a highly effective prebiotic, supporting the growth of probiotic bacteria in the digestive tract."
Salt of the Earth
Although the need for lowered sodium in the diets of healthy people is controversial, consumer demand, continued pressure from the self-appointed watchdogs and increased market pressure continue to keep sodium reduction pressure on the food industry. According to the International Food Information Council Foundation's 2012 Food & Health Survey, 57 percent of Americans actively compare sodium in foods and choose the item with the lowest amount.
"We have completed some consumer research over a year ago regarding their perceptions of sea salt," says Jackie Van Norden, product line manager of food processing for Cargill Inc., Minneapolis. "It was noted that 48 percent of consumers believe sea salt has less sodium than 'regular' salt and 53 percent believe that it has more taste intensity than 'regular' salt. We have seen the trend of adding sea salt to confection items for the past several years. This goes beyond dark chocolate and includes milk chocolate, caramel and baked items as well."