Be they kettle-cooked, baked, fried, formed and even puffed, potato chips are still gold medal winners in the snack race.

“The snack and chip category are growing quickly with unique products; it is our goal to offer more unique varieties of chips to consumers,” says Paul Albrecht, vice president of Houston-based Simply7 Snacks. “The chip aisles are crowded with various products, making it difficult to find space for new entrants. The development of more unique products that aren’t just me-too versions of existing chips will help to expand the category and options for consumers.”

Albrecht says the snack category is well positioned for success. “The outlook is very good,” he points out. “Even in tough economic times, snack foods can be an inexpensive luxury. As the economy continues to improve, and consumers recognize the benefits of a healthier and cleaner diet, the natural and organic snack category should grow quickly.”

Many trends are emerging and impacting sales in the baked snack category and influencing the ingredients and varieties available. Alvaro Trinidad, senior brand manager, Lance Sandwich Crackers, Snyder’s-Lance, Charlotte, N.C., says the top contenders are more whole grain, all-natural, better-for-you products, sodium reduction and sensible snacks for the whole family.

In the potato chip category, natural, simple ingredients are key, says Faith Atwood, marketing manager-Cape Cod Potato Chips at Snyder’s-Lance. “Cape Cod has always used only all-natural ingredients and makes a point to explain to consumers what they are eating,” she says. “This demand for no-nonsense food positions Cape Cod [products] as a desirable snack option. Consumers also want better-for-you options and want to feel good about what they’re eating, which is why Cape Cod uses canola oil, which is low in saturated fats. We have also added more varieties to our 40% reduced-fat line, including our most popular flavors.”

People are looking for clean ingredient profiles in the products they consume and are becoming more serious and more conscious as to what they are putting into their bodies, adds Joel Warady, chief sales and marketing officer at Enjoy Life Foods, Schiller Park, Ill., which produces gluten-, dairy-, soy- and peanut-free baked goods.

Warady says it used to be that his company’s products were only preferred by those with Celiac disease, a gluten intolerance Celiac disease, gluten intolerance or food allergies. “The size of this community continues to grow,” he says. “More people are seeking products to meet their food sensitivity needs. Consumers who have no issues with food sensitivities are also seeking better-for-you products, and they continue to look for great-tasting products with the clean ingredient profile. They also seek all-natural products and products using nongenetically-modified organisms (GMO) ingredients.”

In March, Enjoy Life Foods debuted a salty snack called Plentils, which are crunchy lentil chips. “It’s our first foray into the salty snack/chip category,” he says. In development for more than two years, Plentils are the only lentil chip certified as gluten-free, he notes. “They are also free of the eight top allergens,” Warady explains.

The Plentils line consists of four flavors: Light Sea Salt, Margherita Pizza, Garlic & Parmesan and Dill & Sour Cream. Three of the four are dairy flavors without dairy, are nonGMO and have 40% less fat than an average potato chip. “Plentils is our first true crossover product,” says Warady. “Rather than launch them simply as gluten-free and allergy-friendly for a targeted community, we launched them as a great-tasting, better-for-you chip. Period. We call them ‘Chips with Benefits.’”

Culinary experience

Atwood also says consumers are looking for a culinary experience. “They’re searching for a way to bring restaurant food to their table,” she adds. “With the Chef’s Recipe varieties, the ingredients are as fresh as they would be in [a] restaurant and are chef-created, not just chef-inspired.”

An example is the company’s new Chef’s Recipe Feta & Rosemary, Chef’s Recipe Red Pepper & Roasted Garlic, Waffle Cut Sea Salt and Waffle Cut Seasoned Pepper, all of which were launched in January and are all-natural, gluten-free and made with canola oil. The Waffle Cut versions are also lactose-free.

More new chips include Kettle Style Whole Grain Chips, which feature toasted grains with 17-18 g. of whole grains per serving. Flavors include Italian Herb & Cheese and Three Cheese. “The whole-grain chips have expanded Cape Cod to the natural section in grocery stores, but still maintains the same attributes of the kettle-cooked potato chip, such as the hearty crunch and all-natural ingredients,” she says.

Packaging for a number of Cape Code products clearly indicates “all-natural” callouts. “Consumers have responded positively to this,” Atwood says. “We ship our entire salty snacks product line in returnable cases and provide distributors with incentives to return the cases. We also promote smaller size bags (0.5 oz) as good lunchbox options and as a portion-controlled snack for those watching fat and calories.” To make the chips, the company uses canola oil, which is low in saturated fat. “Our greatest opportunities for growth are converting flat-chip consumers to kettle-cooked chips, further expanding our distribution and leveraging demand for products such as our 40% less fat line,” she says.

Whole grains are catching on in a variety of snacks—chips included. Frito-Lay says that its recently introduced SunChips 6 Grain Medley Snacks boast 21 g. of whole grain per serving. With rich, full flavors, the line of multigrain snacks from PepsiCo’s Frito-Lay division was launched in March, in Parmesan & Herb and Creamy Roasted Garlic flavors. The SunChips 6 Grain Medley multigrain snacks were inspired by “real food flavors and are made with a combination of six flavorful grains, including corn, wheat, oats, brown rice, buckwheat and quinoa,” according to the company. They can be enjoyed with a variety of toppings and dips or as a delicious snack all on their own.

“For many, snacking offers a welcome break from a busy day, and consumers are looking for snack options that fit into a balanced lifestyle,” says Tony Matta, vice president of marketing, at Frito-Lay North America.  “Consumers today are looking for snacks that provide whole grains and fiber, and are made with all-natural ingredients, while tasting great. SunChips 6 Grain Medley multigrain snacks offer a delicious taste experience inspired by real foods, containing 100% whole grains and all-natural ingredients—no artificial flavors, preservatives or monosodium glutamate (MSG).”

Beans as ingredients

Flavors are important but Natural Snacks, LLC, Addison, Ill., also focuses on the process of making snacks. “We are looking at how our snacks are made, i.e., baked, popped, etc., and the texture of the chips/crisps is a focus,” says Christine Brown, director of marketing. “They are appealing to a larger audience.” It’s also looking at packaging in terms of incorporating nutrition facts on the front of the package, “especially when it comes to our vending items.”

Another major trend is the development of chips made from alternative ingredients (beans, rice, etc). This category is expanding quickly to give consumers a healthier option when they are looking for salty snacks to enjoy. This year, to provide portion control, maintain its better-for-you appeal and offer busy on-the-go consumers a handy snack, Natural Snacks introduced Michael Season’s Popped Black Bean Crisps, which are not only reduced-fat, but are a good source of fiber and have protein. They also are described as all-natural, low in sodium and gluten-free.

“We have always been in the better-for-you category,” Brown says. “The majority of our products are reduced-fat and low in sodium, so we adhere to many of the dietary guidelines already. I believe that consumers will trend more and more to snacks benefiting them—the simpler the better. We are making our ingredients list smaller. The new Popped Sea Salt Black Bean Crisps have only four ingredients.”

Brown adds that some of the greatest opportunities for growth in the chip category relate to “no-salt-added” items. “Our Unsalted potato chips in a lot of regions are our number-one seller,” she notes.

Beanfields Bean & Rice Chips from Beanfields, LLC, have 4 g. of fiber in every 1-oz. serving, about as much as a half cup of raisin bran. The unsalted chips are made with only beans, rice and safflower or sunflower oil. Says Roy Glidden, vice president of sales and marketing for the Los Angeles-based company, beans and rice are staples of the Hispanic diet, and are low in sodium, free of every one of the Food and Drug Administration’s eight most common ingredients that trigger food allergies and have plenty of fiber to fill up even the hungriest consumers.

Fast-paced nonGMO

NonGMO-verified products continue to be one of the fastest-growing segments in the natural and organic food sector and along with gluten-free products continue to boom despite the weak economy, commanding more than $1 billion in annual sales. “Three years ago, people seeking nonGMO ingredients were outliers,” says Warady. “Today, nonGMO is discussed daily by consumers in the natural market. Two years from now, it will be an attribute that the average consumer seeks, no different than low-sugar or low-salt. For these reasons, and the fact that our entire product line meets these requirements, our sales are up dramatically for the first six months of 2012.”

Drawing on its vegan and nonGMO farming roots, family-owned Beanfields, says it supports sustainable farming practices and invests in food security to ensure viable and nutritious crops for generations to come. The Nacho flavor is its latest product extension. It’s a chip that brings all the flavor of cheese without dairy. The chips come in a 6-oz. bag that retails for $2.99-$3.99. A 1.5-oz. snack size sells for $1.19-$1.49.

The cheesy-tasting snack alternative is suitable for those who suffer from lactose intolerance and are looking to avoid dairy or maintain a vegan lifestyle. “Gluten-free and nonGMO are huge drivers for our category,” says Beanfields’ Glidden.

“They aren’t just fads; these are significant concerns that consumers have about their health and the safety of the food they are eating,” adds Albrecht. “We make all of our products with gluten-free and GMO-free ingredients, because we want our consumers to understand everything they are eating and feel safe while doing it.”

Live Better Brands, Islandia, N.Y., also shares concerns about GMOs, their relationship to food allergies and the unknown health implications of introducing those ingredients into the food supply. “We are proud that our line has met the high standards required to become nonGMO-verified,” states Jim Breen, president and founder of Live Better Brands, which makes products under the Way Better Snacks Brand, which Breen says has a “back to the basics” approach with uncomplicated ingredients. Way Better Snacks, which incorporate sprouted or germinated grains, seeds and beans, are certified gluten-free, 100% whole grain, kosher, low in sodium and contain no artificial ingredients.

New flavors and textures

Gender-specific products are a popular trend that manufacturers are grasping like a runner’s baton. Case in point are “man chips,” which, just like some of the trendy soft drinks, are aimed at red-blooded male appetites. One example is Ruffles Ultimate chips, from PepsiCo’s Frito-Lay division, Plano, Texas. The chips relay features specifically to male consumers, such as ridges twice the size and depth of those in the original Ruffles potato chips. Flavors include Original, Sweet ‘n’ Smoking BBQ and Kicking Jalapeno Ranch. The chips can be loaded up with companion dips in flavors like Beef ‘N’Cheese and Smokehouse Bacon. The new “real-food” flavors cycled out across North America in May except for the Beef ‘N’ Cheese dips, which become available this month.

Are men cheering on these chips? “Guys live for larger-than-life moments that fuel legendary stories they share for years,” explains Matta. “The Ruffles Ultimate line was created to fuel epic moments. It’s in moments like these, often over a bag of chips, where recounting the tale is almost as fun as being there the first time.” With flame-licking bag graphics, Ruffles Ultimate Potato Chips are available in a 1.875-oz. bag that retails at $1.09; a 2.5-oz. bag for $1.49; and an 8-oz. bag for $4.29.

If cheeseburgers, barbecue ribs, fried dill pickles and buffalo wings appeal to you, then KLN Enterprises, Perham, Minn., has potato chips (er, Tater Chips) flavored just like them. The company’s Larry the Cable Guy line, decked out in flannel-shirt-plaid-covered 8-oz. bags, provides such zingy flavor profiles, which the company cites as a major trend. For other fun flavors, KLN also offers Ketchup Thins, Dill Thins, Cheddar and Bacon and Baby Back Ribs (rippled) potato chips under the Barrel of Fun label, and even makes potato chips made with beer, aptly called Beer Chips.

Randy Johnson, vice president of sales, points out that KLN is enviro-friendly, uses recycled, corrugated display and shipping cases, and its production facilities are Green Globe-certified. “We can offer packaging made of compostable material and include [the words] gluten-free, all-natural, no MSG, reduced-fat and 0 g. of trans-fat on our baked crisp and air-popped potato crisp packaging,” says Johnson. “We have also done a sodium reduction on our potato chips and offer a line of gluten-free and all-natural air-popped and baked potato crisps.”

Johnson sees opportunities for growth through innovation and creation of value-added products. “Consumers look for artisan and gourmet kettle chips, unique flavors and more nutritious products, all of which we can offer,” he says. “The biggest challenge is developing the next cutting-edge base product and flavors that taste terrific, while maintaining healthy standards.”

Don’t hold the mayo

Thus, unusual flavors abound this year, and Frito-Lay has likewise caught onto the atypical flavors trend, sporting flavors from favorite sandwiches incorporated into chips under the Lays brand. Lays Classic BLT potato chips were launched nationally in April, in time for National BLT sandwich month. The flavors of toasted bread, bacon, lettuce and tomato, as well as mayonnaise, are all evident in the flavor. Yet, they’re gluten-, soy- and MSG-free and have no trans-fat.

The bags, incidentally, feature a picture of a BLT sandwich. The new product signals a trend in creating a single snack with the flavor of something completely different, such as a hot dog with everything on it. The BLT chips deliver the taste of a mouth-watering BLT sandwich paired with a crispy texture. The new chips also bow to the demand for bacon. Total bacon sales nationwide have been growing at a quick pace over the last decade, highlighted by an 11% increase from 2010 to 2011, says Frito-Lay.

“At Frito-Lay, our flavor experts find inspiration in all corners of the culinary universe,” says Ram Krishnan, vice president of marketing for Frito-Lay North America. “Lay’s Classic BLT-flavored potato chips prove that inspiration is sometimes closer than you think. Pairing a delicious sandwich with our tasty Lay’s potato chips is an American tradition that helped inspire us to create this new flavor: A simple indulgence that makes more sense together than apart, just like the BLT.”

Simply7 Snacks has also caught onto this ribbon-winning flavor trend. This month, it’s introducing Pomegranate Chips in four flavors: Sea Salt; Black Pepper; White Cheddar; and Dark Chocolate. “Chips made from unique ingredients is a huge trend right now, as is the interest in pomegranates and all of their superfood benefits,” says Albrecht. “Having the first pomegranate chip on the market, we are excited to offer consumers a new option for a food they love. In addition to the benefits inherent in pomegranates, these chips are low in fat and sodium, are made with gluten-free and nonGMO ingredients (like all of our products), and are kosher.”

The company also started listing product ingredient benefits on the back of its packaging, such as vegan and vegetarian, in addition to its seven core standards that describe the most important benefits of its products, Albrecht adds. “We offer healthy chips in delicious flavors that moms would feel comfortable feeding their families. For on-the-go consumers, we recently released a single-serve package of the Sea Salt varieties that will be available in many delis and foodservice outlets. Our Hummus Chips and Lentil Chips have half the fat of [conventional] potato chips at twice the serving size.”

The buzz on BBQ, kettle-cooked

Meanwhile, Wise Foods, Berwick, Pa., is hosting opening ceremonies on a snack the entire hive will like: Honey BBQ potato chips. The chips blend sweet honey and zesty barbeque flavors that continue to be a popular choice for consumers in the potato chip aisle. The sweet-and-spicy combination creates an irresistible flavor temptation. Recently celebrating its 90th year creating classic snacks, Wise says it uses the highest quality ingredients in the production of its snack foods. The 0.75-, 1.25-, 3.25- and 8.75-oz. bags for the new chips feature honey imagery prominently on the front panels. The chips contain 0 g. of trans-fat and cholesterol and are preservative-free.

The company has also launched Kettle Cooked Potato Chip, described as “a hearty-cut potato chip, seasoned with flavorful ingredients.” The chip comes in Original, Barbecue and Salt & Vinegar Kettle Cooked versions.

“In potato chips and kettle chips, taste is king,” says Jeff Binczyk, vice president of marketing and shopper insights at Shearer’s Foods, Massillon, Ohio. “Consumers simply want great-tasting products. If products also have healthier attributes (such as reduced fat), they are additional benefits. However, if the products’ healthier attributes compromise taste, consumers will be less likely to buy them.”

Shearer’s Foods sees the continued growth of kettle chips accelerating. “Consumers love kettle chips because they are crunchier and heartier than potato chips. They are also made in smaller batches, creating a consumer perception that kettle chips are cooked as part of an artisan process,” Binczyk says. This spring, Shearer’s Foods launched two major initiatives, including a restaging of its Shearer’s Potato Chip line, outfitted with new packaging, and it introduced two new potato chip flavors: Jalapeno Ranch and Tangy Queso.

“In addition, we are relaunching our Shearer’s Kettle Chip line with new packaging, as well as introducing two new flavors: Chipotle Lime and Chicago Style Hot Dog, based on the popularity of our Home Run Hot Dog Potato Chip,” Binczyk adds. The chips were recently featured on the Food Network show, Unwrapped. The new packaging [has] a simpler, minimalist design,” he says. “We see a proliferation of product attributes crowding retail packaging today, to the point where it makes the product less attractive for purchase. Based on this, we decided to move in a different direction.”

Vegetable chips made from sweet potatoes, taro, yucca, parsnip and others are big tournament winners right now as alternative snacks. Both Terra Chips and Good Health produce chips made from the more exotic vegetables, and hot and spicy as well as citrusy flavor combinations are reaching the championship round. “People want snacks that are really hot,” says Blair Lazar, president of Blair’s Death Rain chips, Highlands, N.J., which makes habanero chili-spiked chips that all have a heat scale rating. 

Textured chips are big this year, too. Consumers want a sturdy chip with substantial textural qualities. So Herr’s team of chip chefs has also created a winning chip for dipping, worthy of Team USA. “It’s so perfect for dipping, you could say it has a definite edge,”
according to the company. The Lattice Cut Kettle Chips have a distinctive crisscrossed cut that lets dips seep deep into their crispy crevices, delivering more flavors with
each bite.

Made from choice potatoes, thick-sliced and slow-cooked in small batches, then sprinkled with Sea Salt, Herr’s Lattice Cut Kettle Chips are a dipping chip that’s a cut above. If you like to dip, this is your chip, says Herr Foods. The Lattice Cut, Cooked Chips with Sea Salt are available in 1.875- and 8-oz. bag sizes.

Keeping in shape

No, it’s not popcorn, but chip’ins, from Popcorn, Indiana, which is actually based in Englewood, N.J., are what the company calls the first gourmet popcorn chip. Shaped in triangles and dressed in assorted spices and seasonings, the chips are available in Sea Salt, Jalapeno Ranch, White Cheddar and Hot Buffalo Wing and now, new Classic BBQ. There’s no mistaking the product in its 3- and 7.25-oz. brick red bags with black trim (in the case of Classic BBQ). The Classic BBQ flavor has a smoky richness and a craveable crunch.

“We launched the smoky BBQ chip’ins in February. chip’ins are air-popped and made from 100% all-natural corn and are never baked or fried, which makes them a healthier alternative to traditional chips,” says Hitesh Hajarnavis, CEO about the product, which contains whole grains. Full retail distribution of chip’ins will hit during the summer. They have 130 calories per 1-oz. serving, 4 g. of fat and 1 g. of fiber. No potatoes
are involved.

“We’re passionate about using high-quality, better-for-you ingredients in our
products,” Hajarnavis adds. “We created a series of icons on our packaging to help customers to easily understand the key benefits of whole grain, 0 trans-fat, gluten-free and 100% all-natural ingredients.”

Kettle-cooked chips are just as popular as ever, and in addition to Shearer’s Foods, other snack food manufacturers are adding more of them to their lineups. In fact, Boulder Canyon Natural Foods, Phoenix, debuted the Canyon Cut line of kettle-cooked, ridged potato chips last month. Canyon Cut line flavors include Totally Natural (original), Sour Cream & Chives and Honey Barbecue. The new kettle-cooked chips are priced at $2.99-3.29 per 6.5-oz. bag.

Most ridged potato chips are made in traditional, continuous-cook fryers. The new Canyon Cut line from Boulder Canyon is cooked in small kettles to provide a heartier crunch, just right for dipping. The kettle-cooked method also helps reduce fat per serving by as much as 30% compared to traditional potato chips, the company says. “The taste and texture of the kettle-cooked potato chips are hard to beat,” says Steve Sklar, senior vice president of marketing. “The hearty bite is signature to Boulder Canyon, while the ridge cut adds texture and one-of-a-kind crunch.”

Sklar says Boulder Canyon  strives to challenge the potato chip paradigm by offering unique and delicious flavors, such as Malt Vinegar & Sea Salt, Sea Salt & Cracked Pepper and Olive Oil. It also offers Boulder Canyon’s Vegetable Crisps,
Hummus Chips and Rice & Adzuki Bean Chips in its line, which consists of more than 20 different snacks.

And speaking of new-fangled flavors, this year, family-owned Deep River Snacks (a.k.a. Old Lyme Gourmet Co.), Old Lyme, Conn., launched two new “radical” flavors of its Kettle-Cooked potato chips across the U.S.: New York Spicy Dill Pickle and Aged Cheddar Horseradish. “We also updated our packaging graphics for the entire Deep River kettle chip line and added a new logo and the tagline, ‘Enjoy Life Naturally,’” explains Debbie Barden, marketing manager. “The new products add to our unique flavor profiles,” she says. “Both of them have just the right combination of flavors consumers have come to expect from Deep River Snacks. It’s not a little flavor, it’s full of flavor.”

Considering that the company already markets such flavors as Sweet Maui Onion, Zesty Jalapeno, Asian Sweet & Spicy and Rosemary & Olive Oil, it’s no surprise that Deep River takes flavors seriously. It also says it takes gourmet quality seriously, and its chips contain no trans-fat, gluten or MSG. Deep River creates its recipes for the snacks in-house and produces them at an undisclosed location in the Midwest.

The new meal

“Snacking is the new meal, and the more that companies can provide nutritious, great-tasting products in the form of a snack, the more consumers will find snacking their primary source of good nutrition,” Warady explains. “Growth in the potato chip market will come from marketers developing products innovative from a functional food perspective. It’s not enough to create great-tasting products,” he says. “Consumers want products that provide added health benefits.” Warady says he’s extremely bullish on the snack food category. “We believe that the definition of snack foods is evolving, and snack foods no longer mean junk food.”

With that in mind, manufacturers say keeping costs down remains a top issue, as raw ingredient prices continue to increase and fuel charges add to transportation costs. “Another challenge centers on regulatory changes, which can sometimes be a moving target, causing product attributes and ingredient profiles on packaging to be altered,” points out Binczyk. “But despite the economy, the category has grown,” he sums up. “Consumers of all ages enjoy salty snacks because these products have widespread appeal.”