Snacking is really evolving this year, serving as a meal substitute in daily eating, rather than just ‘a quick bite.’

As some snacks become healthier, or at least attempt to, others are becoming better-for-you, while others still are turning to fun and unusual flavors to lure customers. And, despite a highly competitive market and a still underachieving economy, snacks are hanging tough.

Specifically, cracker and popcorn sales were hit especially hard, with fairly flat figures or declines, according to Chicago-based research firm IRI. Even many of the national brands saw decreases over the last 52 weeks, ending April 20. Meat snacks, nuts and trail mixes fared better, perhaps because of the protein trend.

Snackers are also snacking more often, and many of the snack foods they enjoy are replacing meals. Snacking occasions are becoming more like meals. And more meals are becoming snacks. How can that be?

Well, today’s grab-and-go mentality, changing work demands, commuting, increased school activities for kids, social interaction and raising families are all contributing factors.

“We continue to see growing interest from consumers looking for snacking options that are low in carbohydrates, but still high in protein,” explains Barry Novick, founder and president of Kitchen Table Bakers, Syosset, N.Y.  “More consumers want options they can bring on-the-go and that will curb cravings, but won’t leave them feeling guilty for snacking.”

The Hartman Group indicates that we’re snacking more frequently, as snacks represent more than 50 percent of our eating occasions, with as many as five occasions a day versus the requisite three square meals of years’ past. About 80 percent of snacking takes place at home.

“Given these factors, traditional views of mealtime can pretty much be thrown out the window,” says one of the Hartman studies. “The imprint of these dynamic cultural changes is the blurring of the boundaries between ‘snack’ and ‘meal.’ There are cultural and psychological drivers lying beneath the emerging new eating landscape, and three occasions have the most impact in the food industry: Immediate consumption; alone eating; and snacking.”

Private label snacks are hot!

Yet consumers aren’t very loyal to any particular brand anymore.

According to a new Deloitte survey, America’s household brands are losing ground, as consumers are pushing their shopping carts past many national brands without a hint of regret in doing so, according to Deloitte’s ( American Pantry Study of more than 375 brands across 30 product categories.

“Private-label brands continue to receive the lion’s share of the total salty snack aisle space, but are not necessarily product innovators,” notes Luke Mapp, director of marketing, at Mikesell’s Snack Food Co., a Dayton, OH-based regional chip company. “Rather, they’re product duplicators. But innovation and being first to market can help offset the space losses seen at the shelf level.”

Seven in 10 shoppers (71 percent) state that they’re spending less on food, beverages and household goods, but don’t feel as though they’re sacrificing much.

“National brands are pressured on all sides, from persistent consumer frugality and low brand loyalty to rival and store brand competition,” says Pat Conroy, vice chairman of Deloitte LLP and U.S. Consumer Products leader. “While consumers initially resented buying less-expensive products out of necessity a few years ago, they have changed their tune. They have shifted from a feeling of settling for lower-priced brands to settling in for store brands distinguished by high quality.”

The economy is forcing people to switch to less expensive store brands, says Mapp, adding, “and commodities have also remained very volatile in price fluctuations over the past few years.”

Meanwhile, Sally Lyons Wyatt, executive, client strategy and insights at IRI, reported in her State of the Snack Food Industry address at SNAXPO 2014 that the snacking universe is evolving.

“Opportunities abound with the right execution,” she says. “The battle for breakfast was intense in 2013, but there are areas of opportunity across the day and occasions to drive growth. In addition, the path to purchase has become increasingly complex, making precise communication inside and outside of the store essential to influence consumers at key decision points.”

Better-for-you lures consumers

Wyatt says 86 percent of U.S. consumers eat snacks, and they’re trying to go for healthier ones. And though core snack dollar sales climbed in 2013, core snack volume slid last year, especially in the salty snack, snack bar and cracker categories. Inflationary pricing trends contributed to the dollar sales increases, she notes.

“Snack sizes are growing,” she adds. “And the quest for hunger satisfaction is driving savory snack growth.”

The other main evolution in snacking is that consumer scrutiny of all food products has hit an all-time high.

The much-in-demand snack market is being greatly influenced by what Packaged Facts calls “healthy snackers,” who wield a lot of market power.

Out of the 50 million consumers who snack between meals (and cite salted snacks as their favorite), the healthy snackers are a veritable army of 14.2 million, Packaged Facts reports. Yet these consumers exercise often, and don’t see a conflict between craving a chip (an option traditionally landing in the unhealthy camp) and pursuing a healthy snacking diet.

“Consumers are demanding not only healthier options, but healthier options that taste good,” emphasizes Haley Thomas, director of sales and marketing at Ballreich Bros. Inc., a Tiffin, Ohio-based regional chipmaker that specializes in a variety of potato chip flavors.

Ballreich launched sweet potato chips last September as well as three fun flavors of potato sticks in March.

“The sweet potato chips are all-natural and loaded with a sweet, salty flavor,” Haley explains. “The potato sticks are nostalgic, tasty and fun to eat. But that’s the hottest trend in the industry right now: Healthier products that taste good.”

According to Faith Atwood, marketing manager for Cape Cod Potato Chips, Hyannis, MA, (a Snyder’s-Lance company), Americans consume an average of 11.2 million lbs. of potato chips during the Super Bowl alone. That’s a lot of potatoes and, possibly, a lot of fat.

“It’s second only to Thanksgiving as one of the biggest food fests in American culture, and what you choose to serve at your party can be just as important as which teams are playing,” Atwood says.

So, the company has rolled out reduced-fat flavored chips that mimic the taste profiles of its original kettle-cooked chips. The 40-Percent-Less-Fat variety is a favorite among kettle chip enthusiasts, Atwood says, and delivers the same taste and crunch as the Original variety.

“Whether you’re hosting or bringing a dish to share, Cape Cod Chips add a distinctive taste and flavor to your big-game snacking experience,” she adds. The potato chips are all gluten-free, preservative-free and kettle-cooked in 100 percent canola oil.

Earlier this year, Cape Cod also introduced a Limited Batch Back Bay Crab Seasoning flavor and a Limited Batch Asiago Cheese & Italian Herbs flavor of its potato chips. Made in small batches for a limited time, the chips scored big on flavor.

It’s not just the chip itself that manufacturers need to take into consideration though. Consumers are now serving chips with more non-traditional toppings like aioli, and Cape Cod’s double-sliced waffle-cut chips are sturdy enough to stand up to the creamiest of dips. Its New Buffalo Cheddar Waffle Cut chips and Sea Salt Waffle Cut chips can even be smothered with nacho toppings.

And, in the case of popcorn, for example, manufacturers are shifting their focus to its intrinsically healthier attributes.

Suffering a setback during the recession, the popcorn industry saw shoppers cutting back on nonessential purchases. But today, shoppers are going back to this snack classic, though they’re purchasing a different popcorn than they did pre-recession.

“They’ve become more health-conscious,” says Adriane Little, a category manager at Boulder Brands, Boulder, CO. “The popularity of popcorn heavy in fat, salt and artificial ingredients is waning, and in its place are a plethora of gourmet and natural popcorns sure to satisfy any connoisseur.”

Mark Singleton, v.p. of sales and marketing, at Gaslamp Popcorn, Lima, Ohio, agrees.

“The popcorn category will continue to grow,” he says. “Consumers want to find healthier alternatives to their usual savory or sweet snacks. Popcorn can be considered guilt-free snacking, and consumers want more of these options.”

Is simple best?

The same can be said about chips, pretzels, crackers/crisps and tortilla chips of all kinds.

“Simple ingredient lists will win the game,” agrees Meyer Futersak, ceo of American Farmer Brands LLC, Cedarhurst, NY. American Farmer’s Sweet & Salty Kettle Popped Corn contains just popcorn, sunflower oil, sugar and salt; similarly, its Light and Skinny Kettle Popped Corn for the health-conscious contains the same ingredients, but cuts 10 calories per serving.

And Snak King is launching a product called Purple Popgrains, a compression-popped chip, featuring just three ingredients: Purple corn; expeller-pressed sunflower oil; and sea salt.

Consumer trends for better-for-you snacks are influencing snack manufacturers across all categories, and many snack brands are listing their healthful benefits and non-genetically modified organisms (non-GMO), gluten-free and kosher certifiers on their packaging labels, to allow consumers to easily make a healthy choice at the store shelf, explains Virginia Bryant, marketing and brand associate at 479°, a San Francisco-based popcorn producer.

Fabulous flavors lure consumers

Snack flavors are all over the map this year, as sriracha, smoky chipotle, jalapeno and various other pepper flavors have become popular, as well as spicy twists on familiar favorites and gourmet cheeses such as Asiago and blue cheese.

And combination flavors like like salty and sweet, toasted sesame and seaweed, and Asian flavors with ginger, as well as the ubiquitous bacon flavor. Even ketchup and dill pickle chips are not just a fad, but are growing in popularity. Still, olive oil and sea salt seem to be one of the most widely available flavors.

“As food manufacturers, the biggest challenge for us is to make sure we keep up with what the consumer needs and expects,” says Cara Figgins, executive vice president of Partners, a Tasteful Choice Co., Seattle. “Consumers want to know what is in the food they eat, they want it to taste good, and they want it to add value to their lives by providing nutrition and making their lives easier.”

Says Mapp: “In general, consumers aren’t as loyal as they used to be and aren’t afraid to explore new brands and flavors. For this reason, our steadfast focus on providing the right quality and taste is key to keeping our customers happy.”

Bob Gould, marketing manager at Snyder’s of Hanover, says consumers crave variety and expect bigger, bolder, non-traditional flavors today.

“They are increasingly more welcoming of sweet and salty items in this traditionally savory category,” he explains. “Our recent innovations in our Sweet and Salty pretzel line are a great example of how we are listening to consumer feedback… consumers love flavor, so we plan to continue our flavor expansion and explore different ways to deliver on taste and variety.”

Mars also has delved into the Sweet and Salty side of snacks recently. The company launched two new Sweet and Salty Combos Flavors — Combos Baked Snacks Caramel Crème Pretzel, which delivers the nostalgic taste of caramel crème candy and a salty pretzel crunch, and Combos Baked Snacks Vanilla Frosting Pretzel, which takes the cake by bringing together the flavors of salty pretzel and vanilla frosting.

So like many other foods, snacks are evolving, innovating and coping with many consumer and customer demands for that extra-special “something.”

Snack manufacturers and marketers are certainly responding with new shapes, flavors, formulations and ingredients. No doubt, snacks are here for the long haul, many enjoying great success, while others keep pace on a rather uphill, rough and rocky road.


 This article originally appeared in Candy Industry Magazine’s sister publication, Snack Food and Wholesale Bakery.