Note to Snack Foods: Get Well Soon

Twin-screw extruders are key as processors crank out better-for-you 'salty' snacks.

By Bob Sperber, Plant Operations Editor

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What's driving the snack foods business? Beyond the price-consciousness dealt by recession's hand, the trend toward better-for-you snacks is having lasting implications on the choices consumers make and, in turn, those the industry makes to cater to them.

From 2005 to 2009, healthy snacks stole an 8 percent share from traditional, indulgent fare, ending 2009 with 37 percent of the market and eroding indulgent snacks' share to 63 percent, according to a 2010 presentation by Sally Lyons Wyatt, senior vice president at Information Resources Inc. (IRI) at the recent Snaxpo conference. According to IRI, 74 percent of consumers "are trying to eat healthier."

Products today tout myriad wellness attributes, such as low or no fat, zero trans fat and reduced sugar, calories and sodium -- as well as the presence of whole grains. Grain-related claims have seen the highest growth rates (25 percent) in IRI's research, followed by low fat (16 percent), low sodium (7 percent) and low calorie (3 percent).

Correspondingly, salty snacks led all other categories with a 7 percent gain per IRI, which is in keeping with recessionary trends toward at-home entertaining. This dovetails with the 19 percent of consumers who said it's worth paying more for gourmet snacks.

While traditional continuous-run salty snacks – led by potato chips – are still the top U.S. snacks, the growth in active lifestyles and health-consciousness is changing the foods adults eat and pack for their kids.

"We're focused on bringing consumers more better-for-you products in a more portable format," says Jim Wiegmann, executive vice president of Shearer’s Foods, Brewster, Ohio. The question is, will the trend continue?

"We've seen a shift toward better-for-you products three or four times in the last 20 years or so, and then it would die out," says Dan McGrady, vice president of technical services for Wyandot, Marion, Ohio. The Atkins diet, which advocated a high-protein and low-carb diet, "died-out before most of us could even get up and running with it," he says. "But I think this latest foray is sustainable. There seems to be broad, genuine consumer interest in healthful snack offerings, provided the products don’t fall short on taste."

Or as Wiegmann puts it, "Snacks are like a fashion category. If you don't have new and cool stuff for the consumers – new substrates, new flavors, new formats – they'll get bored and go off someplace else."

Production advances
Coming up with new formulations and functions requires new process technology.

In recent years, snack food processing and packaging have made great strides as weigh feeders, vision systems, conveyors and material handling systems have become faster, more cost-efficient and even quieter (in the case of vibratory conveyors). Better plant designs and line layouts, too, reduce product drop-points to minimize, for example, breakage of chips in the bag.

The big bottleneck, says Wiegmann, is packaging equipment, which is "relatively expensive" compared to fryers and baking units. "So it’s not uncommon to see a manufacturer buy a great big 4,200 lb.-per-hour fryer, and then realize how much money and time and effort still needs to be put into the packaging side," from conveying to weighing heads and bag-makers, which are an especially critical "choke point."

Due to the demand for extruded salty snacks and the growth of whole-grain and other "better-for-you" products, Shearer’s, Wyandot and others have heavily invested in twin-screw extrusion technology. This is big iron, not something in which companies invest lightly.

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