pretzel_bodyPretzels in various guises are growing in popularity and in sales. They’re taking new forms, are stuffed with fillings and are being flavored with special coatings or seasonings. They’re being reformulated to be gluten-free, trans-fat-free and lower in calories and sodium.

Despite the economy being no fun and games, this is a time of opportunity for snack marketers, according to market research firm SymphonyIRI Group, Chicago. The chances are tempered only by the industry’s ability to understand and address the needs and wants of consumers. Snacks play various roles in consumers’ lives, and in the last several years, SymphonyIRI says, largely in response to a prolonged economic rollercoaster ride, those roles are changing. They continue to change today, as the economy slowly takes the merry-go-round out of the recession.

“We see two major trends emerging and shaping the snack foods category,” says Shannon Gilreath, assistant marketing manager at Farm Rich Products Corp., St. Simons Island, Ga. “Nesting is one. With a tight economy, more consumers are cooking and entertaining at home. As people look for ways to minimize household expenditures, they’ll look for quality products that are affordable but have the tastes and quality they want to serve friends and family. We see this trend continuing throughout 2011 and driving demand for frozen snacks that fit these parameters.”

Around for hundreds of years, pretzels have certainly stood the test of time, becoming one of America’s favorite snacks. Studies show that about 52% of Americans are watching their diets and are eating healthier than they did a year ago, says Gilreath.

“In fact, the U.S. population in general is becoming more health-conscious and looking to lose weight and improve nutrition. Consumers still want indulgences, but want something that is healthier and/or better for you. This means that people who purchase in our category are most interested in seeing healthier versions of frozen snacks such as whole-grain, low-sodium, low-calorie and low-fat options/versions.”

Lip smackin’ snackin’
Consumers who seek healthier snacks can also look in the freezer case, as Rich Products’ Farm Rich brand updated its popular pretzel snack with the introduction of Farm Rich Stuffed Pretzel Bites, a bite-sized pretzel snack stuffed with cheese.

Stuffed Pretzel Bites are soft pretzel pieces filled with cheddar cheese that go from freezer to oven (or microwave) to plate in minutes. One serving of Stuffed Pretzel Bites (three pieces) has 110 calories, 3 g. of fat and no trans fat.

Designed as a wholesome snack or appetizer for anything from an after-school treat for hungry kids to a hassle-free party item, Stuffed Pretzel Bites are a healthier alternative to chips or French fries, the company says. Convenient and easy-to-prepare in minutes, the mini cheese-stuffed soft pretzel bites come out of the oven or microwave warm and ready to eat.

“We know that consumers want pretzels and view them as a healthier choice,” says Gilreath. “We pride ourselves on bringing a wide array of interesting products into the marketplace that are tried-and-true. This product takes cheese and cheese sticks to brand new heights, giving consumers a more fun, exciting way to satisfy their cheese craving. Pretzels are a great carrier for cheese, so [this product] naturally lends itself to Farm Rich’s portfolio.”

Gilreath says snacking is trending toward the presence of positives and the absence of negatives. “Presence of positives would refer to fresh, low-calorie and balanced ingredients and the absence of negatives would be no trans fats, non-greasy and no high-fructose corn syrup,” she says.

At a suggested retail price of $6.99 per 34- to 38-piece bag, Farm Rich Stuffed Pretzel Bites enable consumers to serve family members and friends warm, tasty, better-for-you products without putting a dent in the budget. The product is available nationwide at Walmart and grocery stores.

“We took the best of the soft pretzel concept and created our own cheesy, bite-sized snack with flavor that will appeal to the entire family,” says Jennifer Meetz, director of marketing for Farm Rich. “They’re so quick to make, anyone can enjoy them at a moment’s notice, even on their busiest days.”

Meetz says that pretzels have emerged as a big trend in the snack food category, and are set to take the lead. In fact, a Mintel 2010 Frozen Snack Study showed that consumers prefer mini hot snacks with cheese filling for added flavor, and that stuffed, cheese-filled products will drive future growth in the frozen pretzel category.

Likewise, J&J Snack Foods, Pennsauken, N.J., introduced Superpretzel soft pretzel mini hot dogs to its Superpretzel soft pretzel line. Wrapped in gourmet pretzel dough, the mini dogs are 100% all beef and are pre-formed from frozen, so they’re heat and serve. Suitable as snacks, appetizers or kids’ meals, they come packed in 6- to 10-count bags per carton.

Thrills and taste
Perry Abbenante, vice president of marketing for Snack Factory’s Pretzel Crisps brand, says consumers want healthier options when it comes to snack foods. “They seek better-for-you, all-natural alternatives to traditional snack food favorites such as pretzels, potato chips, corn chips and cheese curls. Consumers are willing to try the newest innovations as long as they know they are getting more than just a tasty snack. They want a snack that will not only curve their appetite between meals, but feature healthful benefits and nutritious, high-quality ingredients.” They’re marketed by Skillman, N.J.-based Snack Factory, which makes a host of thin and crunchy pretzels that double as crackers and pair well with dips and meats, cheese, fruit and vegetables.

“Consumers want more for their money and when it comes to snack foods, they are seeking more from their favorite brands than just a quick bite. They are looking to snacks as meal replacements—snacks that offer balanced nutrition and convenience,” Abbenante says.

“They also want new, vibrant flavors to appeal to their adventurous sides and keep their taste buds excited,” he adds. “Flavor notes such as bold and spicy are a real crowd pleaser. You can find them across the board in the snack food category.”

The Snack Factory is becoming one of the fastest growing snack companies in the United States. The savvy use of product development technology and social media are boosting its momentum. Its sales grew 15% last year to more than $50 million, Abbenante reports. The tasty, low-fat, low-calorie product is the primary growth driver.

“When it comes to creating new Pretzel Crisps flavors, we’ve recently enlisted the help of a technology company that specializes in marketing innovation software and services to streamline the new product development process,” he says. “They’ve played an integral role in identifying favorites among consumers, from color to packaging concepts to flavor descriptors. With their help, we’ve been able to determine which new flavors to add to our brand portfolio.”

This month, the Pretzel Crisps line will expand with the launch of new indulgent and deli-style bold and spicy offerings. “This will be the first new product announcement since last year when the brand introduced two new flavors to the Pretzel Crisps deli-style line and launched the Modern Classics Pretzel Crisps line,” Abbenante adds.

It also launched new items in its bold and spicy category—Jalapeño Jack and Chipotle Cheddar. Inspired by the successful Buffalo Wing flavor, the new extensions are the perfect addition to the Pretzel Crisps portfolio. “We’ve seen tremendous sales growth in just the last year as a result of our offerings. Our data…shows a continuous trend of phenomenal growth with triple digit numbers in many of our key markets,” he notes. Some of this is due to the ways in which the company engages with consumers on Facebook, Twitter and its website, he says.

A new Dark Chocolate & Peppermint Holiday Indulgents flavor will also be launched in the deli section, and shippers will be created, so that the product can be placed in different locations throughout the store.

New primary packaging doesn’t hurt, either. The full product line packaging revamp now reflects the innovations inside the bags with brighter colors, an updated logo and sparkling new photography that showcases Pretzel Crisps’ stackably thin goodness. The new packaging also has more capacity and includes 20% more crisps per bag.

Here’s something else that’s good-for-you in the snack carnival: Expanding its line of organic pretzel offerings, Snyder’s of Hanover, Hanover, Pa., introduces Organic Whole What Pretzel Nibblers in stores nationwide. They sell for $3.49 for an 8-oz. bag. Certified USDA-organic, these Nibblers are made with organic whole wheat flour, organic blue agave syrup, organic expeller-pressed sunflower oil and organic rosemary. The unique nibbler shape makes them a portable, pop-in-your-mouth snack, according to Snyder’s of Hanover. With 2 g. of fat per serving and 120 calories, the new whole wheat nibblers join the Organic Pretzel Sticks in Honey Whole Wheat, 8 Grains and Seeds and Whole Wheat and Oat as its latest organic pretzel offering.

Meanwhile, Snyder’s of Hanover’s York Peppermint Chocolate Pretzel Sandwich snacks feature a York peppermint pattie filling. Its flavored pretzel pieces bite-size morsels are bursting with an array of unique varieties, including Sea Salt & Cracked Pepper, which join Cheddar Cheese, Hot Buffalo Wing, Jalapeño and Honey Mustard & Onion. The pieces come in 2.25-oz. bags.

The company also launched two new gluten-free 100-calorie multipacks: Eatsmart Naturals Garden Veggie Crisps and Gluten-Free Pretzel Sticks. Each multipack bag containing 0.75 oz. has 100 calories. The large eight-count multipack has a suggested retail price of $4.99.

The Garden Veggie Crisps are made with sunflower oil and 40% less sodium, as well as real potatoes, tomatoes and spinach. The Gluten-Free Pretzel Sticks have a real crunch and only 1.5 g. of fat per serving.

Another twist on pretzels includes FixMix pretzels from Gracious Gifts, Edina, Minn. FixMix pretzels are crunchy pretzel nuggets drizzled with buttery caramel and a combination of dark, milk and white chocolates.

Inspired twisters
While gluten-free diets top the charts of menu trends, Kim & Scott’s Gourmet Pretzels, Chicago, says that gluten-free consumers are playing the fishing game, hunting for delicious meal alternatives. “We’re seeing trends of healthy and convenient,” says Kim Holstein, president and chief inspiration officer. “Also, we see trends of meal morphing, the combining of snacks and meals. But the single, hottest trend is the impact of health and wellness in the frozen aisles. The all-natural aisle is emerging and expanding into other areas of the store.”

In January, the company nationally launched a new line of gluten-free soft Bavarian pretzels at a suggested retail price of $6.49. Packed in an 8-oz. carton, the gluten-free soft pretzels were two years “in the baking.” Kim & Scott’s provides a great soft pretzel experience and a hand-twisted appeal. Whole Foods stores in various regions carries the product and can also be purchased on the company’s website at and at the company’s Chicago café, Café Twist.

“These days, people are really looking to get the most for their money. They want a great value and they care about quality. Because of the economy, more people are shopping at the grocery store versus eating out,” says Holstein. “People might use a snack as a light meal. We are exploring organic opportunities.”

The new gluten-free soft pretzel boasts a blend of five ancient grains, including sorghum flour, millet flour, quinoa flour, amaranth flour and teff flour. In addition to rice flour, the ancient grains offer more fiber, and therefore, are a healthier pretzel, says Scott Holstein, COO and founder of Kim & Scott’s. “Some gluten-free products rely solely on rice flour as their alternative grain,” he adds. “Ancient grains allow us to bake a more nutritious food, something gluten-free dieters often need and want.”

The company has baked nut-free gourmet pretzels in a nut-free facility for the past 15 years. Now, not only can consumers with nut allergies enjoy the soft snack, but also those with other dietary constraints can enjoy it too. Kim & Scott’s looks forward to its nut-free and gluten-free pretzels not only selling in frozen grocery aisles, but also ballparks. “There are great opportunities for growth for innovative, healthy and delicious food…that’s also convenient,” says Kim Holstein.

Gluten-free and allergy-conscious cuisine was included in the top 20 food trends this year, according to the “What’s Hot in 2011” survey, produced by the National Restaurant Association, Washington, D.C. “We’re always looking to bake new flavors and not only tempt the taste buds, but also satisfy dietary restraints,” continues Kim Holstein. “Every one deserves to enjoy flavorful soft pretzels and with the addition of our gluten-free pretzel, the soft pretzel can be a mainstay in everyone’s kitchen.”

The company also downsized its packages, which use less paperboard. “As a result, our delivery trucks can hold more cases,” she says.

Combinations of fun
Combos baked snacks now feature a Buffalo Blue Cheese Pretzel variety. The crunchy, cheesy, oven-baked snack incorporates real cheese and a spicy chicken wing flavor with tangy blue cheese. At $1.99-2.29 for a 7-oz. bag, the new entry is nationally available from MARS Chocolate North America, Hackettstown, N.J. MARS says that Buffalo wings are so popular with consumers that the flavor was a perfect fit. “We are always looking for new flavors that provide a ‘substantial’ snack to satisfy consumers,” says Craig Hall, general manager of ice cream and substantial snacks category at MARS. “The pretzel category is growing, so it made sense to combine these flavors into another great savory baked snack,” he says.

Utz Quality Foods, inc., Hanover Pa., collaborated with Disney Consumer Products, Burbank, Calif., to launch co-branded snacks in the shape of iconic Disney characters, starting with a pretzel assortment shaped as the Cars movie racer, Lightning McQueen. Available in grocery stores, club stores, mass merchandisers, dollar, drug and C-stores since late April, the shaped pretzel items come in a 14-oz. flex bag, a 22.5-oz. clear plastic barrel containing 45 single-serving-sized bags and a 17.5-oz. sack, containing 35 individual-serving-sized bags.

The co-branded snacks offer a “healthier alternative for parents looking to provide kids with ‘better-for-you’ snacks,” says Dylan Lissette, Utz executive vice president and chief operating officer. They have 100 calories or less per serving, are low fat and have no trans or saturated fat and no cholesterol. “These shaped pretzels will become part of the Utz Snacking Smart line, where a logo on the front panel of the package makes it easy to identify the product as a healthy snack option,” Lissette adds. “Products that carry this logo meet the zero trans-fat, no saturated fat and no cholesterol criteria.”

The chance to collaborate with Disney was part of the company’s ongoing goal to provide fun, delicious and healthier snack foods for customers, according to Lissette. “Now more than ever, we know that parents are much more knowledgeable about what they purchase and are interested in finding ways for their children to snack healthier,” says Lissette. “And to be able to provide that type of healthier snack in favorite Disney character shapes that their kids want gives parents the best of both worlds.”

Editor’s Note: To learn more about these and other new products in the pretzel aisle, go to and check out our online new products section.