Healthy Snack Trends to Chew On

By Amanda Baltazar, Contributing Writer | January 3, 2017

Consumers are seeking more positive attributes and fewer ingredients from their snacks and nutrition bars.

Seeking innovation in new food and drink products? Look no further than the healthy snack and nutrition bar market.

Snacks make up 11% of meal occasions in the U.S., according to Nielsen, and manufacturers are responding by offering small, portable, convenient products that address consumer demands head-on.

Americans concerned about their health are evaluating products for both what they contain and also what they don’t. They’re looking for clean labels and are becoming careful readers of ingredient panels.

“People are looking for purity and authenticity,” said Darren Seifer, executive director of the NPD Group, Port Washington, NY. “They are giving the ingredient list a quick glance to see if there’s anything they don’t recognize—or anything they do recognize as not natural. They want simple, recognizable ingredients.”

Savory Bites
Now that the health-conscious American public has turned its back on sugar, manufacturers have perked up and taken notice, producing snacks with less sugar and a decidedly savory bent. Additionally, according to a 2015 survey by market research company Canadean, 54% of consumers say they’re trying to eat as many vegetables as possible.

Kashi has launched savory bars with two flavors: Basil White Bean & Olive Oil and Quinoa Corn & Roasted Pepper. Meanwhile, Larabar has launched organic Superfoods bars in three savory flavors: Coconut Kale Cacao, Hazelnut Hemp Cacao and Turmeric Ginger Beet.

Smaller companies are also going savory: Mediterra has come out with a savory bar line that includes Kale and Pumpkin Seeds, Bell Peppers and Green Olives, and Sundried Tomato and Basil. And from Ginger’s Healthy Habits there’s veggie trail mix in two flavors (one includes sugar and maple syrup), made with raw veggies, nuts and seeds.

On the meatier side, from Wild Zora there are new Meat & Veggie Bars in flavors such as Mediterranean Lamb with Spinach, Rosemary & Turmeric. Wilde Boldr offers slow-roasted meat bars (beef, turkey, chicken), “made from ingredients you can find in your kitchen.”

“Taking bars into a spicy flavor profile is another way to telegraph to consumers that it’s something less inclined to be guilt producing,” said Tom Vierhile, Canadean’s innovation insights director. “These could be a side dish for lunch. With a savory profile they’re almost taking the place of chips and there are some nutrients in them as well,” he explained.

“A couple of these will do the job for lunch and you’re not going to have a sugar crash later on,” said Carl Jorgensen, director of global consumer strategy and wellness at Daymon, a global consumables retail consultancy in Stamford, CT. “I think there’s a lot of room for bars in this savory direction.”

The rise in savory snack bars is no surprise. “Since snack foods are playing a bigger role in our daily lives they are not solely indulgent any more,” said the NPD Group’s Mr. Seifer. “Health is playing a much bigger role than it did, and as such we’ve seen savory snack foods increase in consumption, and at the same time, sweet snacks have declined.”

Nothing But Fruit
The savory bar market may be heating up, but fruit has also been gaining the spotlight.

KIND offers Pressed by Kind, four types of bars that contain nothing but fruit (two also contain vegetables/chia), and That’s It has That’s It bars, which also contain just fruit alone.

Even though consumers are avoiding sugar, the sugar in fruits is acceptable, said Jordan Rost, vice president of consumer insights with Nielsen. “Nothing is inherently bad and consumers accept that fresh produce is a good source of nutrients.”

Bars that are nothing but fruit also appeal to consumers on another level, Mr. Rost added: They have very few ingredients, so have very clean labels.

Chipping Away At Alternatives
Bars aren’t the only area of the snack food market witnessing innovation. Chip-like products are on fire with an array of alternatives, as well as new flavors.

First, there’s pre-popped popcorn, which has seen soaring sales for the past four years. In October, sales had increased 17% over the previous year, up from 12% the year prior, according to Nielsen.

NatureBox offers Pop Pops, which are partially popped in two flavors; Open Road Snacks has Poplets, which the company said “deliver a satisfying crunch and a great corn center taste with more fiber and less fat and calories.” In October, Ips Snack launched Ips Pop popcorn that includes whey protein in two flavors.

In terms of flavor, consumers can find everything from sriracha to sweet-and-sour buffalo and pineapple-habanero.

“Popcorn is a great vehicle for flavor,” said Mr. Jorgensen. “It’s clean and simple and it’s so easy to add interesting flavors to it. It’s also a permissible indulgence.”

There’s a lot of innovation in the popped chips market, too, he added, “and I think they’ll be taking a lot of market share away from deep fried potato chips.”

These products are made from a batter, rather than a potato, so it’s easy to add flavors, Mr. Jorgensen noted. “Every brand’s portfolio needs to have a range of traditional through more adventurous flavors.” This is so standard flavors ensure sales and unusual flavors generate excitement and help position the company as trend-forward, he explained.

“The adventurous flavors are where brands can run around in hopes of getting a homerun that will turn into a perennial favorite. It’s a relatively low risk way to innovate,” he continued.

In alternative chips, vegetable protein is strong, appealing to vegans and vegetarians especially. And according to the NPD Group, about half of adults said they’re trying to get more protein into their diets.

Saffron Road’s Bean Stalks include bean flour, green peas, red pinto beans, white cannellini beans and potato starch, and are available in sea salt, cheddar or barbeque flavors.

“With increasing concern over health issues like obesity and type 2 diabetes, pressure is growing on consumers to incorporate health and wellness concerns when making snack choices, which is helping alternative snacks like those made from chickpeas gain traction,” explained Mr. Vierhile.

Another factor is that younger customers especially are more interested in health. According to a 2016 Canadean survey, 57% of consumers said health and well-being is important, but for consumers aged 25 to 34, that figure jumped to 65%.

Chic-a-Peas sells Baked Crunchy Chickpeas in four flavors while other offerings come from Sensible Portions (Veggie Chips and Veggie Straws) and Peeled Snacks (Peas Please—organic puffed snacks made with pea protein). Then there’s Veggie Harvest from SunChips, a Frito Lay brand. These are made from dried yellow peas and claim to have 30% less fat than regular potato chips. 

“Natural varieties of salty snacks are growing much faster than the category as a whole,” said Mr. Rost. “People are finding a way to have their cake and eat it too—they want something indulgent but not horribly so.”

Drinkable Snacks
Convenience and portability are key elements of snacking today. Some manufacturers are capitalizing on this trend with drinkable snacks.

Chobani has launched Drink Chobani and Dannon has launched an Oikos beverage promoted as “protein on-the-go.” These are making small ripples in the industry. According to Canadean, in the period of 2014 to 2015, per capita consumption of drinkable yogurt was up 7%. This growth, the company said, is mostly coming from younger consumers.

There are several factors behind the popularity of these drinks, according to Mr. Vierhile: they’re re-sealable; they’re low in sugar (about half that of a can of soda), and they’re high in protein. In 2015 a Canadean survey revealed that 20% of American consumers “always” check nutritional labeling for protein content; 26% say the same about sugar.

“Protein’s star is continuing to rise ... [so] the trend is bullish for yogurt, especially drinkable yogurt, which also has strong potential as a portable snack,” Mr. Vierhile said.

Yogurt’s not the only thing consumers are drinking on the go—squeezable fruit drinks are coming to the forefront. Companies in this category include GoGo squeeZ, which has yogurt and apple products, and Munk Pack, which hit shelves in the spring of 2015. Munk Pack’s oatmeal/fruit products are marketed as a cereal alternative, and the company is quoting some gaudy growth numbers, citing 450% growth in conventional grocery.

“Given the decline in boxed cereals, our thesis was that busy consumers would increasingly reach for more convenient, yet healthy, products,” said Michelle Glienke, co-founder of Munk Pack. The products, she explained, are resonating with both adults and kids, as well as athletes seeking quick nutrition.

These have potential, according to Mr. Vierhile, though he admitted that pouch packaging may not appeal to adults since it has a perception of being used for baby food. “It will be interesting to see if product marketers can change that perception,” he said.

“I think we’re just seeing the beginning of drinkable snacks,” noted Mr. Jorgensen. “I think we’ll see a lot of growth in them—the formats make them very flexible; they’re very convenient and portable. It fulfills all the requirements and hits all the right buttons for the trends we’re seeing. And like popcorn, yogurt’s such a bland start that you can add just about anything to it. I predict that next up, we’ll see savory yogurt flavors, which is a more traditional way of eating yogurt.”

Bugging Out
An increasing population and dwindling food sources mean many forecasters believe consumers will be eating more insects in the future. A report out last year from Persistence Market Research predicted that the global edible insects market will expand at a CAGR of 6% between 2016 and 2024.

This trend is already visible in the marketplace with more products on store shelves. Bitty Foods’ Chiridos air-puffed chips are made with lentil flour and cricket flour, and Six Foods offers Chirps “eat what bugs you” brand cricket chips in three flavors.

However, buggy snacks aren’t going to be topping the charts just yet.

“There’s still a hurdle to get over … [but] if it helps consumers be healthy they might accept it,” said Mr. Rost. “It might be generational—younger consumers are more open to new flavors and types of food, so I wouldn’t rule anything out, though transparency is important.”

“This is very interesting from an ingredient standpoint,” said Mr. Vierhile. “You can use other types of protein—like pea protein—that don’t have the baggage of insect protein.” Additionally, “there’s a big environmental case to be made for insect protein,” he noted.

More Trends to Chew On
Meat snacks continue to grow at 3% annually, which exceeds bar growth overall, but is down from the double-digit growth of the previous two to three years. Consumer demand for protein and savory products is driving this. Companies are offering meat snacks in unusual flavors and different formats. Epic, for example, offers a meat trail mix in bison-chia-bacon-raisin and pulled pork-pineapple flavors.

Consumers are also seeking fiber so grain-based bars remain popular.

Strong growth is coming from companies that are not in the top 100. These smaller companies often have strong connections with Millennials, who are also open to trying new products. Younger generations often aren’t as trusting of larger corporations as their parents are, said Mr. Seifer. Plus, sometimes Millennials just want to feel they’re supporting start-ups. Another check mark for these companies: they’re usually U.S.-based, which appeals to many consumers.

Products are also getting thinner and crispier, such as Mary’s Gone Crackers’ Thins line and Open Road Snacks Sinfully Thin popcorn. Even Wheat Thins, which have been on the market for decades, are now available as Wheat Thins Even Thinner. They’re 14% thinner than the originals and a person could eat 22 rather than the former 16 for the same calorie count. “With this, consumers are tricking themselves, but in a very clever way—not replacing things, just slimming things down,” said Mr. Jorgensen.