How to Build A Healthier Savory Snack

May 20, 2010
When an irresistible force like the craving for a snack meets an immovable object -- say, the need to eat more healthfully -- something's got to give. That something could be the look and feel of traditional savory snacks.

The savory snack industry is expected to grow by $10 billion by 2012, according to Business Insights. At the same time, consumers are seeking more natural and organic ingredients, spices and exotic ethnic touches while clamoring for fewer additives such as MSG, hydrolyzed proteins and hydrogenated oils. Oh, and make them healthier, too.

All of those factors are good news, showing America's continuing love affair with savory snacks -- as long as snack manufacturers can meet those needs without sacrificing crunch and flavor.

What could say savory snacks better than chips? But not necessarily potato chips. Several manufacturers are putting a new face on what surely is the definitive snack staple. One new face is appropriately named Sensible Portions, the premier brand of World Gourmet Products Inc. (www.sensibleportions.com), Wayne, N.J.

The Sensible Portions line presents a wide array of "better-for-you" snacks, including "all-natural" choices such as multigrain crisps, pita crackers and pita chips. In addition to featuring convenient packaging that provides built-in portion control, the processor includes functional ingredients such as whole grains, soy protein, vitamins, iron and fiber. Not invited are trans fats, saturated fats and cholesterol. Sensible Portions provides a healthier feel to snacking that also is highly marketable.

Another bold, new face in chips comes via a focus on alternatives to wheat and corn flour, specifically beans. Doug and Dave Foreman, owners and founders of Bean Brand Foods Inc. (www.beanitos.com), Austin, Texas, were early adopters of this approach. They mix pinto beans or black beans with whole grain rice and flax seed to create bean dough that they cut into a round shapes, bake and flash fry in pure vegetable oil.

Note to Manufacturing: The Total Package

Once you've developed the new snack -- including how to get functional ingredients into the recipe, and solved the technical challenges of taste, texture, freshness, safety, and convenience -- there's another step: shelf life.

How do you keep your product fresh for the 45-60 days from the line to the truck and then on the shelf … and wherever else it may await use. Los Angeles-based Corazonas Foods (www.corazonas.com), turned to an increasingly popular solution: creative packaging.

"Corazonas uses top-of-the-line moisture and oxygen barriers in our packaging film that delivers the strongest seal available," says CEO Ramona Cappello. "In fact, we have to serrate the edge or notch the film or no one could open the bags! Plus, we nitrogen-flush the bag before sealing to remove oxygen and deliver a great fresh crunch, for up to nine months after packaging."

The result is a unique, fiber-rich chip — Beanitos — that has high amounts of omega-3 fatty acids. "It's hard work to make a bean-based chip that also tastes great," says Doug Foreman. "It took us two years to get the Beanitos formula just right."

Corazonas Foods Inc.'s motto is "heart-healthy snacks." The Los Angeles company debuted a reduced-fat potato chip with plant sterols (CardioAid from ADM) in early 2008. The phytosterols have been clinically proven "to inhibit the absorption of cholesterol in the small intestine by up to 50 percent, which in turn can lower LDL blood cholesterol by up to 15 percent," the company claims.

The flavors are novel as well: Italiano Four Cheese, Spicy Rio Habanero, Mediterranean Garlic & Herb, Pacific Rim Barbecue, as well as Slightly Salted. Later came a line of tortilla chips, also with phytosterols, and this year saw the debut of oatmeal squares (cereal bars) with phytosterols.

Ever since George Crum created the ultra thin, crispy, fried potato to spite a critical customer in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., in 1853, these chips have been going back to the kitchen for improvement. Michael Season's potato chips are reduced in fat and spiked with Mediterranean flavors with no preservatives, trans fats or saturated fats.

"Our customer base is expanding; they are looking for better-for-you snacks," says Michael Seasons, president of Natural Snacks LLC  (www.seasonssnacks.com), Addison, Ill. "People still want to indulge, but they also want to take the guilt out of snacking. More and more, people are becoming aware of the importance of nutrition and starting with good eating habits. With recent focus on what schools are serving to our children, and our nation's issue with obesity, I believe it [healthy eating] will be the norm."

Keeping it natural
Getting a healthy savory snack to taste "just right" is an R&D project that takes many variables into account. "The trend overall is to insert as much efficacy as possible into the snack food item without impacting, taste, color or longevity," says George Pontiakos president and CEO of BI Nutraceuticals (www.botanicals.com), Long Beach, Calif. "To follow that trend effectively entails meeting numerous technical challenges. For example, probiotics are becoming more popular, so the challenge is maintaining the active component because probiotics tend to be fragile."

Companies such as Balchem Corp., Danisco and Ganeden Bioetch have developed microencapsulated probiotics that can survive the harsh environments of processing, allowing for their effective use in finished snack products.

"We see a lot of interest in antioxidants, too" Pontiakos continues. To meet demands for a new and functional antioxidant, the company released its Rose-Ox antioxidant product, a highly concentrated carnosic acid ingredient derived from rosemary and uniquely processed.

Antioxidants from rosemary serve a dual role in savory snacks. They not only preserve and protect from off flavors or rancidity, options exist for them to enhance flavors of savories as well.

"Using natural antioxidants in savory snacks can be seen from two different perspectives," says Ohad Cohen, CEO of Vitiva (www.vitiva.eu), Slovenia. The company makes dual-functionality rosemary extracts, such as Natural AOX, for use in food and beverage products. "Natural antioxidants can be utilized as processing aid for savory snacks, providing necessary protection for the fat components most savory snacks contain, and extending product shelf life naturally by replacing commonly used synthetic antioxidants. This makes such snacks carriers for natural antioxidants, which also increase the nutritional value, making them value-added, healthier products."

Cohen adds that the same principle applies for probiotics, omega oils and other functional ingredients that can both complement and change perception of snacks, especially as a not-so-healthy daily choice for many people, especially children.

Not so long ago, hummus was an exotic dish found only in Persian restaurants. Now it's invited to many Super Bowl parties.
Sensible Portions has a line of savory snacks that "control calorie intake, satisfy cravings (guilt-free), and provide the body with a little dose of daily nutrition (vitamin C, iron, fiber, and other added nutrients)," says a spokesperson. Veggie Straws (also Chips) are made from garden vegetables and are baked, not fried.

But he goes on to caution that while many of these functional ingredients are non-influencing on product organoleptics, some of the trendy value-added ingredients — for example probiotics or omega oils — unlike rosemary oils are unstable, losing activity and deteriorating or oxidizing when exposed to high temperatures or long exposures. "Processors should be aware of processing limitations and organoleptic influence of such ingredients when deploying them in their products," Cohen warns.

There are many sources of functional ingredient extracts available, but many do not comply with European or FDA regulations, for instance where solvent residue or other contaminants are concerned. "It is important that manufacturers will not only judge the source by the price but also see that their sources comply with all food safety regulations," Cohen adds.

Convergence of criteria
Maintaining the taste and texture of the original product is critical to the success of healthy savory snacks. "We see a trend to use functional ingredients in variety of savory snacks usually as a brand extension of existing products," says Udi Alroy, vice president of global marketing for LycoRed (www.lycored.com), Orange, N.J. Lycored supplies a number of functional ingredients, such as tomato-based carotenoids that can provide both nutritional and color enhancement to savory products.

The LycoRed line of products also is employed to reduce the amount of sugar or sodium in foods, which is another important trend in savory snacks. "There are many technical issues for processors to consider when using functional ingredients. The taste and flavor of the nutraceutical ingredient may affect the end product. Processing and stability issues must be addressed," adds Alroy. "Other key issues for a new product development and product launch are cultural and a regulatory issues."

Rancidity is a major concern, as well as pathogen contamination when incorporating new ingredients into formulations. "Ensuring the efficacy load is stable is a true chemistry challenge, and ensuring the product is safe is a significant technical challenge as well," says BI's Pontiakos. "BI's Protexx Steam sterilization methodology is unique in that we treat the product in the whole form in an organic process, which is as effective as ETO [ethylene oxide] without color or taste change and we maintain volatile oil markers which is what provides the efficacy load.

"Everyone is trying to get pill load efficacy into a food source," he adds. "Consumers want to feel they are in control of their health, that they are participating in their wellness. And manufactures appear to be relevant and caring when they build healthy, preventive attributes into their products."

One cultural icon is increasingly becoming a popular mainstream savory snack and staple food. "We see lots of consumers discovering hummus is a delicious healthy snack they can easily incorporate into their eating habits," says Gitti Crowley, vice president of marketing for Tribe Mediterranean Foods (www.tribehummus.com), Taunton, Mass.

"And convenience is a key factor for the on-the-go consumer. Many are looking for healthy alternatives to what they find in the vending machines or other convenient stops. Hummus is a convenient food that can go anywhere; you just take off the lid and eat.

"We also get a lot of reports from moms who are looking for healthier snacks for their kids, and hummus is a great alternative," Crowley continues. "Packed with protein and fiber, all-natural hummus is a healthy snack moms feel good about."

Nuts for nuts
When it comes to healthy savory snacks, sometimes you feel like a nut. As do many consumers. The use of nuts in healthful, savory snacks has continued its rise, including a boom in the use of once-exotic nuts such as pistachios and hazelnuts. And staples such as almonds and cashews seem never to go out of style.

"Our new line of Planters Flavor Grove skinless almonds and cashews are roasted with real herbs and spices for an extraordinary flavor, making a tasty savory snack," says Basil Maglaris, associate director for corporate affairs at Kraft Foods Inc. (www.kraftfoodscompany.com), East Hanover, N.J.

Coincidentally, this month the food giant is launching, through its Back to Nature brand Gluten Free Rice Thin Crackers in two varieties: Multi Seed and Sesame Seed. "Back to Nature makes all products with simple ingredients, intriguing flavors and using no artificial flavors or preservatives," says Maglaris.

Blue Diamond (www.bluediamond.com) Sacramento, Calif., just released its line of Whole Natural 100-calorie almond portion packs in plain, sweet and savory flavors that include Low-Sodium Sea Salt, Salt & Vinegar and Bold Wasabi Soy. The company preceded that with the launch of new, ethnic-oriented savory flavored almonds such as Bold Salt & Black Pepper, Bold Lime 'N Chili, Garden Herb, Bold Habanero BBQ, Maui Onion and Garlic and Bold Jalapeño Smokehouse, all with a focus on minimum ingredients.

Ricky's Lucky Nuts keeps its label short and clean. The snack nuts are gluten-free and dry-roasted with all-natural ingredients and some organics, including organic cocoa, organic vanilla extract and organic coconut. Chef Paul Gelose, co-owner and founder of Ricky's (www.rickysluckynuts.com), Durango, Colo., says he is "fascinated by the ability of peanuts to both support and complement a vast array of spices and flavors."

To Chef Paul, the peanut isn't just a savory snack it's a canvas upon which to display works of art. "We're also delivering a healthy snack," he stresses. "We dry-roast with no added oil, no trans-fats and no cholesterol. Nearly 80 percent of the fat naturally occurring in peanuts is healthy unsaturated fat, which can actually help lower LDL cholesterol. Ricky's Lucky Nuts are a good source of omega-6 fatty acids that may help reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and are an excellent protein source."