This summer, with London hosting the Olympic Games from July 27 to Aug.12, we’re carrying the torch ignited from our June issue’s 2012 State of the Industry Report on the bakery market to our July issue’s 2012 State of the Industry Report on the snack market.

Our annual snack report looks at quite a medal-worthy time for snacks, which have been changing dramatically lately in terms of the trends, product performance and packaging initiatives. Our pages begin with an overview and move into potato chips, crackers and crisps, tortilla chips, pretzels, nuts and trail mix, jerky and meat snacks, popcorn and pork rinds.

Here’s something to chew on: The London 2012 [Olympic] Organising Committee (LOCOG) has revealed details about what foods will be served to the millions of spectators and thousands of athletes during the Games this summer. Countless snacks and more than 14 million meals will be served across 40 locations during the Games in the largest peace-time catering operation in the world.

More than 800 spectator concessions featuring more than 150 different types of dishes will showcase the diversity and quality of British food, with a focus on affordability. Economics seem to prevail with snack makers this year, too. The economy, busy lifestyles, a decline in formal lunchtime eating occasions and much more are creating new market segments and strong growth in the snack food market.

 We have uncovered noteworthy market share and product category reports and have interviewed various snack industry product leaders, manufacturers and marketers that will fill you in on what they believe is in store for the snack food industry this year and beyond.

Research suggests a relay race on snacks versus meals. More of us eat lunch at our desks and spend much of our evenings playing computer games. The snack market is enjoying strong growth because of this, and has launched a range of new products that are positioned to address these changing lifestyles. An increasing lack time has been a main driver behind a shift away from traditional mealtimes. Meal consumption is now more fragmented, with frequent smaller “meals” taken in more diverse locations.

Packaging is moving beyond basic functionality with several kinds of value-added features that amp up convenience, product quality and freshness and eco-friendliness. Portability and portion control are big factors, as on-the-go and multitasking relative to eating and snacking are on the rise. So are better-for-you product introductions.

Categories and brands are aiming to grab more market share when manufacturers and retailers align clever packaging with emerging consumer attitudes and trends. Manufacturers and retailers must understand what will matter most to consumers and which packaging innovations can deliver benefits that actually impact behavior.

And as evidenced by what I spotted at the National Confectioners Association’s (NCA) Sweets & Snacks Expo held in May at Chicago’s McCormick Place, snacks are in top shape as one of the fastest-growing food categories in the marketplace. “Innovation is an essential part of the confectionery and snacks industry,” says NCA president Larry Graham, who notes that in any given year, about 30% of all confectionery sales can be attributed to products introduced in the previous 24 months. “Last year, there were nearly 4,800 new candy and snack items launched in the U.S., many of them making their debut at the Sweets & Snacks Expo,” he says.

According to the NCA, snacks that offer a good value and an affordable indulgence, new flavor combinations, added nutrients and “natural” ingredients are in big demand.

“Snack products coupled with confectionery items are the fastest-growing powerhouse in the grocery store,” comments Tim Quinn, Expo chairman and vice president of trade development for Mars Chocolate North America. “During this challenging economy, retailers are looking to the strength and staying power of candy and snacks to stabilize sales and increase profits. In 2011 alone, these categories accounted for 9% of all store sales and experienced a phenomenal 11% increase.”

Various snack makers are launching crossover products that may look conventional but taste much different—potato chips that are flavored like a dill pickle or hot dogs with everything on them, for instance. Saltine crackers have been transformed into whole-grain saltines and some snack items are being covered with Greek-style yogurt. More snacks designed especially for kids came into view, and healthy chips are being made from unconventional ingredients. Sweet onion-flavored snacks, vegetable chips and crisps and popped corn cake snacks are also newcomers to the snack lineup.

Thin is in where tortilla and potato chips are concerned, meaning that the thickness of the chips is being thinned out for a lighter, even crunchier, lower-calorie twist. Gluten-free pumpkin seed and multigrain tortilla chips were shown, and gluten-free snacks with improved and tastier flavors are more readily available.   

So take a look at the gamechangers and fast sprints going on in snacks right now. A snack or two may come in handy when you watch this summer’s Olympic Games.