Chips On Conveyor

Simple Technologies Coming Back in Snack Processing

Jan. 20, 2023
As the better-for-you snack foods market continues to grow, processors can use simple technologies, like dehydration, to meet customer demands.

The global healthy snacks market amounted to $85.6 billion in 2021 and is expected to grow at a rate of 6.6% annually between 2022 and 2030, according to a report published by Jan Conway at Statista at the beginning of this year. As such, the market should reach $152.3 billion by 2030.

It is no surprise that, during the pandemic, snacks were one of the most dynamic categories in the consumer goods industry; at the same time, consumers generally expressed higher expectations regarding their foods’ nutritional value. As COVID restrictions continue to lift, consumers are prioritizing their health and looking for better-for-you varieties.

When it comes to manufacturing these snack foods, what options do food processors have?

“Snack foods continue to evolve,” says Sarah Masoni, director of the product and process development program of the Food Innovation Center at Oregon State University. “The thing that I always tell myself as a food developer is that ‘healthier’ is a term that has relevance to the person it is being applied to or the snack food that is being explored,” she says.

The four areas that food companies focus on to make healthier snacks include reducing sugar, reducing sodium, reducing fat and increasing protein — each of which can lead them down a path of success or destruction. “Success if you achieve repeat buyers,” Masoni says, “and destruction if there are no repeat buyers.”

She also notes that the terms “healthy” and “snack” are at a nexus of trends. Both words lead people down paths that have been ingrained since childhood. For instance, was the mid-morning snack in school a carton of milk or a package of orange-colored crackers?

“Decisions are made based on experience, and when people think of a snack, they don’t always think ‘healthy,' ” she says. Case in point: Masoni says her husband’s idea of a snack is a slice of cheese in the wrapper and hers is a banana. Someone else may think of diet soda as a snack and another might munch on salty potato chips.

In a crowded snack market, where specialty chips, pretzels, puffs, straws, popcorn, meat crisps and other salty snacks hold 20.4% share, better-for-you ingredients and flavor innovations are standouts, according to Mintel’s Trending Flavors and Ingredients in Snacks report.

Cauliflower, beans and legumes are being featured in the form of chips, crackers and puffs. Mixing in seeds and vegetables that provide micronutrients or reduce sugars, carbs or calories presents opportunities to balance health with the fun side of snacking, according to the report. These ingredients are piquing consumer curiosity, with 77% of shoppers interested in trying some type of alternative ingredient.

When asked which specific ingredients they would be interested in trying in a snack, the report reveals that pumpkin seeds were most popular (38%), followed by cauliflower (35%), chickpea (33%), black beans (32%), plantain (29%), kale (26%), edamame (25%), lentil (22%), chia (21%), hemp seed (19%) and seaweed/kelp (18%).

“Satiety may be a place to hang a hat for [healthy] snacking,” Masoni says. “If a snack is filling, has a balance of protein, fat and carbohydrates, and is pre-portioned, it might end up being a winner.”

To accomplish this satiety in a better-for-you manner, food processors might bake, toast, puff or dehydrate their snack foods. Dehydrated or air-baked snacks are healthier than those fried in oil, which increases the saturated and unsaturated fats in the snack and increases the caloric value.

Keep it simple, equip for processing

The simplest technologies are making a comeback in food processing, Masoni says. Dehydration is the No. 1 simplest form of food processing and it has the favor of being the process that tends to give a long shelf life—in some cases, multiple years. With good packaging, Masoni says that dehydrated foods can last almost forever.

“Creating a process for dehydration that is scalable, repeatable and sustainable would be great for a better-for-you snack, and better for the world, too,” she says.

What makes dehydration equipment unique, and how do dehydrators differ from conventional ovens? An industrial dehydrator uses a much higher volume of air, which increases heat transfer and reduces processing time, says Kevin Van Allen of CPM Wolverine Proctor.

In food dehydration, the air is heated to the desired drying temperature, then circulated over the product to absorb moisture. Instead of exhausting the hot, moist air, a dehydrator draws the air over the cold coil of a refrigeration system. Moisture is condensed from the air and drained away.

Then air is drawn over the hot coil of the system to reheat and then sent back over the wet product. This cycle repeats until the product has reached the desired moisture content. This process uses only the energy necessary to operate the refrigeration compressor, blower and circulating fans.

Van Allen says CPM works together in its lab on small-scale equipment with customers to develop a dehydrating process for their products. First they find the process conditions that give the most desirable snack from a taste perspective, which determines the moisture of the product. Then based on these process parameters, they design a machine that offers flexibility.

“Customers can control temperatures, air velocity and time. By varying these parameters, they can control the final moisture of their snack products,” Van Allen says.

Depending on snack volume, industrial dehydrators are available in batch and continuous units. At CPM, Van Allen says that batch units are usually used by processors for testing or small-volume specialty products, and continuous machines are custom-made for any capacity and can process tens of thousands of pounds per hour.

Snack trends, tips to make them

Masoni says that she sees all sorts of foods coming through Oregon State’s Food Innovation Center. As for trends in the healthy snack food segment, “We have seen lots of keto foods over the last few years, organic foods remain strong and single-ingredient-focused snacks like seaweed are always making their appearances.” She notes that the energy bar category has done well and continues to grow.

She says it is important to remember that people take snacking very personally, and they tend to consume different types of snacks depending on their activity as well as their culture.

When asked what tips she would give snack food processors to help select processing and cooking technologies suited to the better-for-you snack foods segment, Masoni offers the following:

  • Keep it simple.
  • Use as few ingredients as possible.
  • Use an antioxidant to protect the fats in the snack.
  • Create a package that makes your snack look cool when someone is eating it.
  • Work for the trifecta balance of sugar, fat and salt.
  • Keeping the snack munch-able is super important, someone should want to eat more than one portion.
  • Slip in some healthy ingredients that parents would want their kids to have in a snack.
  • Start new snack ideas in a small market to make incremental changes or do proof of concept before a larger launch.
  • Always create food products that you are proud of, that have a good story, and that taste good and look good.

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