American consumers love snacks. In 2013 the dollar value of the savory snack category was estimated at $21.8 billion. While the potato chip and its salty neighbor the tortilla chip are unlikely to make any list of healthful superfoods—a recent survey indicated that most consumers want to cut back on those—sales continue to head up, if at a modest pace.
The $21.8 billion top line represents a 3.3 percent increase from 2012, according to a January Mintel Group report, "Chips, Popcorn, Nuts, and Dips." One major player, PepsiCo, owns 40 percent of the snack business in the U.S., so how does the rest of the pie stay relevant?
“Smaller, niche brands are able to connect directly with consumers who may be seeking unique snack offerings that are both healthy and authentic,” the Mintel report reads. “Strong interest in the nut segment led to manufacturers such as Blue Diamond Growers and Roll International experiencing some of the largest year-over-year sales increases of any brand.”
Perhaps because consumers may find more nutrition in the nuts and trail mix sub-segments, those are the fastest-growing facets of the snack category. Potato chips, however still make the loudest crunch. With a $7.6 billion ring estimated by Mintel for 2013, chips own 34.8 percent of the snack market.
Mintel's data, does not include crackers, but in that arena new sodium replacement ingredients can be combined with whole grains for a snack that's lighter in guilt. Those specialty flavor enhancers have been in the market long enough to evolve and extend, and they are finding more applications.
Regardless of what they are eating, consumers are snacking more frequently, having increased their number of snacking occasions each day. Nearly half of Americans (47 percent) purchase salty snacks and dips for snacking throughout the day, and 35 percent are buying more snacks while eating fewer regular meals, Mintel says.
For the period of 2008-2013, Mintel's report recorded 53 percent growth in better for you snacks such as nuts and trail mix. The Chicago based research group expects that curve to accelerate, with 61 percent growth predicted from 2013 to 2018.
The (less) salty snack
Potato chip lines have for decades included baked versions with significantly lower fat than their fried brand-mates. While better-for-you products command a smaller share, it is not insignificant, and snack makers continue to innovate along these lines.
Kettle Brand, Salem, Ore., produces a Sea Salt flavor that is available in reduced-fat version with 40 percent less fat.
“Our Sea Salt Reduced Fat Potato Chips use the same select potatoes, natural oils and kiss of sea salt as our original chips.,” the company's website reads. Reducing fat consumption offers peace of mind to many consumers, but trans fats aside, sodium reduction is now the holy grail for avoiding the junk food label.
Reducing sodium once meant a corresponding drop in flavor, but that is not longer the case. Several ingredient manufacturers offer sodium replacements, and their potential applications are growing, says Janice Johnson, applications technologist for Cargill's salt products division, Minneapolis.
“FlakeSelect was launched at an IFT Show back in 2011,” Johnson says. “It is a patent-pending technology, where we take sodium chloride and potassium chloride and combine them using a roller application that actually smashes them together.”
This smashing process is superior to simply blending the two, Johnson says. “It is much more homogenous, and there are no hot spots, which is especially important for topical applications.”
FlakeSelect, and similar products like Soda-Lo from Tate & Lyle, Hoffman Estate, Ill., rely on the physical modification of crystal shapes to enhance utilization of salt. The Cargill product employs a flake shape, while Soda-Lo has a more rounded shape. In both cases, more of the salt comes in contact with the tongue, so that more salt flavor is delivered per volume of use.
Cargill's Johnson says the FlakeSelect line is getting a lot of use in both crackers and chips. “What a lot of manufacturers are doing now is reducing sodium but not calling it a low-sodium product,” she says. “Kraft makes public proclamations that they want to reduce sodium by X percent, by a certain date, so they are making efforts to reduce it in their formulas where they can.”
The sodium analogs are also easy to use.
“We make a flat crystal, which provides better flavor utilization [than ordinary salt] and it also adheres to the surface better,” Johnson says. “This is especially helpful in that it helps maintain a balance in sweet/savory application.”
Soda-Lo, which is made entirely from sodium chloride, recently received a 2013 Asian Manufacturing Award for Innovative Food and Beverage Ingredients. That was the fifth time Soda-Lo has been recognized by the global food and beverage industry within a 12-month period since its launch in September 2012.
Meanwhile, Sensient Flavors LLC Hoffman Estates, Ill., offers a portfolio of natural flavor solutions for healthier savory products. The natural flavor systems allow manufacturers to reduce sodium by 25-35-percent or more per serving and to replace monosodium glutamate (MSG) in a variety of formulations. Sensient's savory products are made primarily from proprietary yeast extracts.
These various salt replacements also have cross functions that allow them to assist in leavening for baked goods, including crackers.
Keeping it fresh
Like confections, and ice cream, savory snacks are often driven by novelty or innovation. So companies large and small work hard to keep flavors new and exciting.
Herr Food Inc., Nottingham, Pa., makes chips and other snack foods and specializes in unique flavors. The Herr's lineup include Baked Ripple cut with Cinnamon and Sugar, a potato chip based on Old Bay seasoning and star-shaped chocolate covered pretzels.
Kettle Foods, whose premium all-natural products are ubiquitous at Whole Foods Markets and other high-end retailers, prides itself on innovative flavors. Among the company's latest flavor offerings are newest are Maple Bacon and Cheddar Beer.
Kettle's Sweet and Salty flavor contains 120mg of sodium, plus 2g of sugar. Regular Sea Salt is 115mg of salt, or only 5 percent of the RDA, for a 1-oz. serving.
A similar portion (30g) of Cheez-It Originals, from Kellogg Co., Battle Creek, Mich., contains 230mg of sodium.
Snacking crackers were once pretty basic, but not anymore. The venerable Cheez-It has benefited (or perhaps suffered, depending on your perspective) from SKU proliferation in recent years. Cheez-It Zings come in a new Queso Fundito flavor. The Cheez-It Duoz, introduced a few years back, offers combinations such as Smoked Cheddar and Monterey Jack in the same box.
Crackers also can earn a healthful image through the use of whole grains and even seeds. A recent consumer website analysis from Consumer Reports rated Kashi Original 7 Grain Sea Salt Pita Crisps, also from Kellogg, as a top choice for anyone seeking a healthful cracker. These crackers offer five grams of fiber from the Kashi seven-grain flour, and just 3 grams of fat, and 180 mg of sodium.
Nuts offer a load of protein and measurable fiber, and they don't come in just two flavors (salted and unsalted) anymore. Blue Diamond Growers (www.bluediamond.com), Sacramento, Calif., now sells almonds in a variety of packaging configurations with flavors like Wasabi Soy, Caramel Machiato, and Raspberry.