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Note to Snack Foods: Get Well Soon

Sept. 12, 2010
Twin-screw extruders are key as processors crank out better-for-you 'salty' snacks.

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.

Twin-Screw 101

About five years ago, the extrusion pilot plant manager for Clextral (www.clextral.com), Tampa, Fla., sat five look-alike samples of cheese curls in front of a new hire. "I thought a cheese-curl is a cheese-curl is a cheese-curl," says Mike Shaw, now eastern regional sales manager for the extruder company, "but I was wrong. Even with a cheese-curl –  a pretty standard product across the industry – she showed me how one product coming out of a twin-screw can vary widely from another in terms of texture and mouthfeel."

Adjustments to the machine resulted in one sample that "was crunchy and dissolved quickly in your mouth. Another one was chewier, and another one was crunchy and left a residue of 'tooth-pack' in the mouth," he recalls.

Extruded snacks can be expanded or non-expanded. Expanded cheese curls, potato sticks or hull-less popcorn can be done on a relatively simple short-barreled machine with perhaps three barrels. Non-expanded snacks such as multi-grain wavy chips or flaked cereals would more typically require a longer-barrel machine – with barrels transport (screw conveying), mixing, barrels, high-temperature cooking, lower-temperature heat (also called "cooling"), reverse elements in which some screws in the barrel push some of the flow back for greater pressure, and so on.

The longer, more sophisticated machines provide greater control – so, for example, gradual cooling prevents the product from expanding. This method of thermo-mechanical cooking uses heat and pressure from the shear of the screws to provide the state-of-the-art in flexibility to help the processors achieve success with broader formulations and greater product differentiation.

Once a cooked, the pressurized snack passes through the die that forms its shape. Then it’s further baked or fried and seasoned or otherwise flavored to suit the product formulation. But it's inside the extruder that minute changes can make seemingly identical products perform very differently from one another.

All in all, extruders play a vital role in the high-growth area for snacks, those following the better-for-you trend.

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.

As a result, contract manufacturers with twin-screw technology are playing a significant role in the better-for-you landscape. Food processors of all sizes, especially brand marketers for whom production isn't a competency, hedge their risk by turning to contract manufacturers rather than investing in twin-screw extruders.

For the Inventure Group, Phoenix, it’s meant producing salty snacks under the TGI Fridays and Burger King brands.

"This whole better-for-you category has increased as a percentage of our business," says Steve Sklar, Inventure's senior vice president of marketing. In addition to those two restaurant brands, the company's regional salty snack brand, Boulder Canyon, has been adding varieties such as a Rice & Adzuki Bean chip, touted to have higher fiber, vitamins and proteins. "We’re working on introducing more multi-grain products, as well as low sodium and lower fat ones."

Processors also invest
Highly diversified in the salty snacks arena, Shearer's, has six plants producing traditional potato chips, kettle-style chips, tortilla chips and other sheeted products, pretzels and a variety of extruded snacks from cheese puffs to new whole-grain snacks. The company has its own brands, but most business is contract manufacturing for customers from small marketers to Fortune 100 brands.

Look to the Future

Beyond fiber and in particular whole wheat, says Jim Wiegmann, executive vice president of Shearer’s Foods, sees sodium reduction as a wave that "without a doubt is starting to break" and will result in many new snack offerings over the next few years. "It's a great-big trend, especially keeping in mind our aging population."

Accordingly, the salty-snack category may need a new name. Just as the term "dietetic" died, he says, "I think the nomenclature will change as the big brand holders move from salty snacks to 'savory snacks.' "

Snack nuts and seeds "went up in sales much like pork rinds went up during the low-carb craze, but they have been backpedaling since" and were not a strong performer in the recession. But he sees signs they may find new use in innovative substrates that are part of different snack food forms "where they're not the sole snack food."

While celiac sufferers do not represent a large market, he says more people are becoming gluten-intolerant. "It's certainly not going to be a long-term mass segment, but as people find out more and more about it, I think you’re going to see it as a growing concern" that impacts even savory snacks.

Despite all the innovation, not all brand-marketers scream "better for you" on the package. Many sodium reductions and whole-grain additions are being done with little hoopla, Wiegmann says. "They're not saying it on the front of the package, they're just doing it."

The company this summer began operations at its sixth plant, in Massillon, Ohio, which claims to be the first snack food processor to gain platinum certification under the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program, which establishes guidelines for sustainable, environmentally friendly buildings.

Wiegmann says the company has invested "heavily" in twin-screw technology from extruder manufacturer Clextral "for its ability to make not just today's product, but tomorrow's… the ability to use different substrates together. It's just a smokin' process. It's magical!" he says. "When you think of all the little tweaks you can do with heat and pressure inside those barrels… how far we've come from the old 1980s single-barrel extruders to what we have today."

For example, conventional cheese puffs come off a single-screw machine – a twin-screw would be a waste of capital. But try to run whole-grain products on a single-screw and, says Wiegmann, "You'd clog that puppy up in a heartbeat. It just would not work."

Wyandot's McGrady says that while he can run a degerminated corn – just the starch component – all day long on a single-screw extruder, whole grains are "very, very difficult" to process without a twin-screw because of the floury endosperm component that's present along with the bran, and oil in the grain. A twin-screw unit can handle that, as well as many other products that come its way – and in flat, round, even wavy shapes, even different colors for different substrates.

"It's a machine that imparts energy into a dry blend or a substrate, if you will. It’s also a very effective mixer. And, from a processing standpoint, what you end up with is a technology that is able to form a food matrix out of flours, grains, meals and other components that you can shape into many forms, from a sheet to form a chip, a puff, a cereal piece, flat bread, shapes – even jelly chew shapes," says McGrady. While a single-screw can produce "garden variety" cheese puffs, the twin-screw has broader capability to handle blends of oats, rice, corn, wheat, and other fine flours.

What's next? Wyandot is pushing into functional foods, such as vegetable and fruit powders on chips, and antioxidants such as anthocyanins, which are found in blueberries and, closer to home, blue/purple corn.

At this July’s Institute of Food Technologists’ Food Expo, the Center for Innovative Food Technology and the Ohio Dept. of Development awarded research funding to Wyandot, Cincinnati-based supplier Sensus and Clextral, the Tampa, Fla.-based extrusion technology provider, to cooperatively develop a high-antioxidant/high-anthocyanin purple corn snack food that shows promise for its health benefits.

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