Most of the stories about potato chips involve their invention pegged around 1853 by a cook named George Crum, who resided somewhere along the East Coast (many websites reference New York). The stories involve Crum’s fried potatoes being returned to the kitchen because they weren’t crunchy enough, so he ended up dumping the slices into hot grease and the rest, as they say, is history.
It’s obvious that potato chips are evolving and will continue to do so for many generations to come, with new yet familiar tastes, spicy flavorings and premium ingredients. Healthier, less “bad-for-you” options are already surfacing.
In these difficult times, as Chicago-based market research firm SymphonyIRI Group’s research indicates, consumers may not be snacking as much as they have in the past, still troubled with the economy and rising food prices. About 42% of the consumers surveyed by SymphonyIRI said they are spending less right now on snacks overall, while 30% are trying to make snacks last longer and are snacking less frequently. Another 25% are eliminating impulse snack purchases at the supermarket.
Snack manufacturers are feeling the pinch, too. The Snack Food Association, Arlington, Va., reports that more than 40 snack food executives met with members of Congress and key staff members in May, asking for help with soaring commodity costs as part of the association’s 2011 Legislative Summit.
Yet the potato chips sector grew 22%, claims a new report from Mintel, which also says that smaller segments like popcorn and cheese snacks showed the growth of 17% and 20%, respectively.
“People bought more chips during the recession because they’re a good value,” says Chris Haack, senior analyst at Mintel, Chicago. “As the economy gets stronger, we expect annual sales increases to slow, but we don’t expect markets to contract. New product innovations and the changed eating habits of many Americans will keep shoppers headed towards the snack aisle.”
In that regard, Natural Snacks, LLC, Addison, Ill., sees big demand for low salt/sodium and all-natural ingredients. “Consumers are more likely to purchase a better-for-you snack than junk food,” says Christine Brown, director of marketing. “Also, the way snacks are being processed is changing, from fried to baked to popped. We’re leveraging these trends with new products such as our line of kettle-cooked potato chips, which are reduced fat, low sodium and with the majority of them having zero g. of sugars.”
The cooked chips contain 40% less fat, she says. They are available in Lightly Salted, Unsalted, Honey BBQ, Sea Salt & Balsamic Vinegar and Jalapeño varieties. Launched in March, they come in a single-serve 2-oz. bag, as well as in 5-oz. bags that sell for $1.19 and $2.99, respectively.
Natural Snacks’ products are made with all-natural ingredients and no preservatives, artificial colorings, artificial flavorings, hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils, monosodium glutamate, wheat or gluten, Brown points out. “Consumers are looking for quality food without cutting corners for the best price. They are also looking for snacks that will minimize health conditions or manage health issues, such as low sodium, low sugars and low fat,” she says. “They want a benefit factor: Snacks that add protein/fiber/antioxidants. Our focus is to meet that demand. The numbers we are receiving indicate that organic snacks are experiencing 8% growth versus natural snacks, which are seeing 7% growth.”
Brown adds that Natural Snacks is expanding into local markets and also into the vending arena. “Our 100-calorie products meet the educational nutritional guidelines and our vending partners are growing in the ‘healthy vending’ category,” she adds.
Thus, the meager chip isn’t so meager any more. Snacks are moving toward healthier, often all-natural ingredients and away from indulgence. Both the healthier and the all-natural segments are growing, Brown says. “Consumers will also shop price before brand, so you need to give them all of that.”
Other projects Natural Snacks is working on include an aggressive search for compostable packaging. The company also started to see retailers minimize their private-label stock. “You respond to that by keeping pricing competitive, without compromising the quality of the product or the brand,” says Brown. “We are seeing nutrition keys on the front of packages. So, starting with our new kettle-cooked ripple potato chips, we are also adding this benefit to our packaging. It’s easier for consumers to see what the nutritional facts are.”