This little piggy...

Low-carb phenomenon chips away at salty snacks, buoys pork rinds

Salty snacks account for slightly more than half of total U.S. snack sales. Rising some 23 percent from 1998 to 2003, the $21.1 billion salty snack market has experienced moderate growth, but it's not impervious to the shift in consumer behavior.

Consumers have embraced low-carb lifestyles, and it doesn't look like this is simply a passing fancy. Mintel, a research firm based in Chicago, found in    a recent low-carb survey that more than 50 percent of respondents say they are on, admit to having tried or are planning to try the Atkins, Zone or South Beach diets.

e calculated that in 2003, low-carb became a $15 billion market, and it could possibly reach $30 billion in 2004," says Dean Rotbart, executive editor of LowCarbiz newsletter and magazine (Yes, there is a magazine for low-carb aficionados). "I don't know how anyone can say that this is just a fad," he continues. "The reality is that low-fat is dead."

Reduced- and low-carbohydrate products are being introduced at an incredible rate. In the past two years, more than 1,000 new products bearing low-carb claims -- including more than 100 from Ronkonkoma, N.Y.-based Atkins Nutritionals -- nestled snuggly on supermarket shelves to the delight of carb-counting consumers. A growing number of those products are salty snacks.

And a preview of the new low-carb product introductions at the upcoming Food Marketing Institute Supermarket Convention makes one wonder if everyone in the
U.S. is a closet low-carb dieter/snacker.

Potato chips are
America's favorite snack and remain the best selling salty snack, posting some $6 billion in annual sales, according to the Snack Food Association, Alexandria, Va. But the low-carb frenzy contributed to a dip in market share from 30.5 percent in 2001 to some 28.6 percent in 2003. Snack product developers, who are extremely innovative and quick to respond, aim to reverse flat sales with low-carb versions, new shapes and flavors in potato and tortilla chips.


Rinds on the rise

On the other hand, sales of savory snacks rose by 4.4 percent to reach $4.5 billion in 2002, according to ACNielsen, which credits the gain to continuing consumer interest in meat snacks and pork rinds -- smoked, flavored and crunchy fried bits of pork belly skin.

Pork rinds posted the largest gains in snacks last year, according to Chicago-based market research firm Information Resources Inc., which tracks sales at grocers, drugstores and mass merchandisers such as Target, but not Wal-Mart or convenience stores. For the 52 weeks ended Jan. 25, sales of pork rinds rose 39 percent to $125 million.

Interest in pork rinds last year led to the introduction of cinnamon and cheddar varieties, and chipotle lime pork rinds are due out this year, reports the Seattle Times.

With about 80 calories, 9 grams of protein and 5 grams of fat, pork rinds are an ideal snack for on-the-go consumers. The Frito-Lay unit (
Plano, Texas) of PepsiCo boasts the No. 1 selling pork rind in grocery and drugstores , Baken-ets. Sales last year approached $39 million, according to IRI. Baken-ets are made by contract manufacturer Rudolph Foods Co., Lima, Ohio, as are at least 50 other brands. Chicago-based contract manufacturer Evans Food Products is also a large supplier.

Rich Rudolph, president of Rudolph Foods,  says that pork rinds are naturally low-carb. "They taste good, unlike some low-carb products that are challenged from a taste standpoint," he says.

"The neat thing for us is that we've been around for a while, but the category was underdeveloped," Rudolph continues. "Interest in low-carb is getting us more respect. Pork rinds are nutritionally better than previously thought, they taste great, go well with salsa dips, and we find that once consumers try our product, they stay with it. We are seeing a new level of growth."

Increasing demand has pushed Rudolph Foods' current pork skin production to a nearly 2 million pounds each week, or 100 million pounds annually. Rudolph's future also includes the launch of Bacon Snaps, a new microwaveable pork rind snack with 70 percent less fat -- tasty and healthful, too. 

Similar success is being tasted at Gram's Gourmet, a Pflugerville, Texas, business that opened in 2002 literally in the kitchen of Julee Dennis. Pork rinds were a favorite part of Dennis' low-carb diet, which helped her shed 100 pounds. 

Last year's sales neared $1 million and are on target to hit $3 million this year, so Dennis is moving to a commercial operation. 

As for the low-carb craze, Rudolph says he believes carb-awareness is with us indefinitely. "Consumers will continue to balance their carbohydrate and fat intake," he says. "We are excited about the future."



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