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Snack Processors Race to Increase Capacity, Meet Growing Demand

Feb. 2, 2024
With consumers racing time, snack processors are rushing to help them replace their meals with flavorful, healthy and value-added snack products.

As time-starved consumers seek shortcuts and convenience when eating at home, the rise in snacking has continued to grow — often, it seems, at the expense of the well-prepared meal. Although the Covid-19 pandemic may have lessened consumers’ social and professional obligations, the stressful feeling of not having enough hours in the day has returned with a vengeance.

Frito-Lay North America and the Quaker Oats Co. (both owned by PepsiCo Inc.), in their fifth annual U.S. Snack Index (www.fritolay.com/snackindex), confirmed the sentiment, saying, “A lack of time to prepare, eat and enjoy meals — especially among parents and younger generations — will blur the once-clear line between ‘snacks’ and ‘meals’ in 2024.”

According to the survey, which sampled 2,000 U.S. adult consumers in early December 2023, 80% feel as though their days have fewer hours than there actually are, and 60% expect demands on their time to increase in 2024. It also found the average American has only 52 minutes per day to prepare, eat and enjoy their meals — and one-third of those surveyed had even less time, less than 30 minutes, to embark on that culinary journey.

In response, meal preparation will continue to take a hit, as the report believes Americans will ditch the marinating, chopping, roasting and baking in favor of simple meals that require little effort and dinners revolving around their favorite snack products. More than half of respondents said they “proudly use snacks as a key ingredient in no-prep dinners,” the Frito-Lay survey said. The top reasons for including snacks were that they yearned for the snack and also were simply too busy to cook.

Snack processors, meanwhile, continue to look at what these time constraints are doing to consumers’ grocery baskets and budgets, and how the demands are changing manufacturing. Jason Evans, chief operations officer at Nature’s Bakery (www.naturesbakery.com), says portion control will continue to be sought after by snack consumers in 2024.

“We’re seeing an increase in consumer demand for healthier snacks that don’t compromise on great taste and also offer diverse portion options,” he explains. “Consumers are more health-conscious and busier than ever, so they’re seeking brands that offer smaller-sized options that take the guesswork out of snack selection.”

Nature’s Bakery, owned by Mars Inc., is a processor of fig, oatmeal, brownie and other baked snack bars. It recently launched Fig Bar Minis, a 100-calorie version of its Fig Bar product line, and Evans says the company will continue to follow consumer trends and react through product development as needed.

Identical trends exist in the salty snacks world as well, and processors there are working to take advantage as well, says James Marino, CEO of Jackson’s Chips (www.jacksonschips.com), a Muskego, Wis.-based processor of sweet potato chips.

“Being able to package in all sorts of small bag formats, from a 0.75-oz. to a 1-oz. or 2.5-oz. bag, depending on the snacking occasion, has helped us respond to the portion control trend,” he says. “That’s the thing: Snacks are now being consumed everywhere and purchased everywhere from vending machines at work to the airport, or from a convenience store.”

It’s an ongoing change, fueled by strong emotions and feelings around the snacking occasion, as Denise Lefebvre, senior vice president of R&D for PepsiCo Foods (www.pepsico.com), said in the U.S. Snack Index report.

“While Frito-Lay and Quaker’s latest Snack Index confirms that time is scarce, the data also reinforces the fierce passion that consumers have for their food preferences,” she explained. “As we look to 2024, we have a tremendous opportunity to continue meeting the evolving needs of our consumers.”

For Jackson’s Chips, the evolution of consumer demand for healthier choices plays a big role in why the company kettle-cooks its chips in non-seed oils. Marino says that better-for-you ingredients have become a must-have for many consumers today.

“Over the last 5-10 years, there’s been a real evolution in terms of people’s awareness around inflammation and its negative effects on the body, which is really an indictment against the use of seed oils,” he says. “Consumers are trying to make choices around finding foods that don’t cause high inflammatory responses today.”

Processing to meet demand

On the meat snacks side of the business, it’s all about consistency, explains Nelson Gaydos, outreach specialist for the American Assn. of Meat Processors (AAMP) (www.aamp.com).

“Making sure your non-meat ingredients are correct (for example, parts per million for nitrite and/or nitrate) and accurate is a big ‘keep you up at night’ type of issue,” he says. “Confirm with your suppliers that all allergens are identified and/or potential allergens are declared.”

Furthermore accurate temperature control and fat-to-lean ratios are critical to consistent, quality production of meat snacks. Consistent mixing, stuffing and addition of ingredients with proper attention to detail can make an enormous difference between safety and failure.

“Technology can definitely improve consistency, but you can have all the latest technology at your disposal and if your employees aren’t communicating and working with each other, it’s all for nothing,” Gaydos says. “Training is a big part of that, and so is ensuring that it is done not just by word of mouth and hands-on showing, but also by written documentation to avoid ‘the telephone game.’ ”

Of course, getting skilled workers in the door to the processing facilities continues to be a challenge for all segments of the snack industry, and Marino says Jackson’s has had to adjust to continue to thrive.

“The cost of our inputs are definitely coming down relative to what they were a year ago, but the one thing that has not eased in the equation is labor,” he says. “There’s an imbalance of skilled labor, and that’s a challenge we see continuing to exist. So, you have a choice to either deal with less skilled labor or pay up disproportionately for the truly skilled labor that is available.”

Jackson’s has invested in the labor needed to operate the plant as efficiently as possible. However, like many processors, the company has automated the process where it could in order to attempt to sidestep the labor shortage.

“Our operation is very automated from front to back, and there are opportunities to further automate in the future,” Marino says. “But, making sweet potato chips, we have to engineer traditional kettle-chip equipment that’s made for white potatoes in order for it to work for our specific process.”

In September, Jackson’s announced the addition of 10,000 sq. ft. of new processing space, comprising two new high-capacity kettles and two additional high-speed packaging lines and seasoning systems — allowing the company to nearly triple its pounds per hour production capacity and run up to four different products simultaneously.

Jackson’s had its eyes on improving the ability to cut the sweet potatoes better in order to reduce the manual labor on that end and invested in packaging technology on the back end to accommodate the need to respond to the various packaging sizes the company wanted to offer.

“The increasing flavor profile demands and the different bagging formats were a huge consideration for us,” Marino adds. “We have the flexibility to run multiple different flavors and bag sizes in different combinations, which is a significant capability for us moving forward, and it allows us to maximize the productivity of the equipment.”

Nature’s Bakery, for its part, announced a plan to build a production facility in the Salt Lake City, Utah, area in January 2024. The plant, which is scheduled to initiate operations in July 2025, represents a $237 million investment in the future of the snack bars brand and its employees. Evans says the new facility will give the Nature’s Bakery team much-needed solutions to meet increased demand from consumers and retailers.

“Nature’s Bakery is a self-manufacturer, and our operations team has had to navigate inventory constraints and production limitations,” he explains. “As our business continues to grow, we’re focused on scaling production with a new bakery facility in development that will help us drive greater capacity.”

For employees of Nature’s Bakery, training is crucial to keeping the company’s facilities operating at top efficiency, producing at the quality specifications required even with new equipment and technology coming on board. Training must be effective and continuous, and Evans says it is at the foundation of the manufacturing process.

“New equipment must be energy-efficient to support our sustainability goals and reduce operational costs,” he says. “Further to this, as new technology emerges, data analytics and monitoring for process improvement through automation is key to meet our efficiency and productivity standards — and most importantly, our quality control standards.”

The U.S. Snack Index from Frito-Lay and Quaker believes that the snack category will be focused almost as sharply as the processing of those products needs to be — with consumers unwilling to cheat on the value of snacking.

Taste will continue to drive all consumer decisions (74% of consumers said they refused to sacrifice taste when selecting snacks), while snacks containing protein or giving an energy boost remain highly attractive to more than half of the consumers surveyed in the report.

About the Author

Andy Hanacek | Senior Editor

Andy Hanacek has covered meat, poultry, bakery and snack foods as a B2B editor for nearly 20 years, and has toured hundreds of processing plants and food companies, sharing stories of innovation and technological advancement throughout the food supply chain. In 2018, he won a Folio:Eddie Award for his unique "From the Editor's Desk" video blogs, and he has brought home additional awards from Folio and ASBPE over the years. In addition, Hanacek led the Meat Industry Hall of Fame for several years and was vice president of communications for We R Food Safety, a food safety software and consulting company.