Crunch and flavor have always been gold and silver medalists in the cracker and crisp game, but because consumers are looking for more healthful snacks, there have been interesting developments with these products.
Product lines featuring whole grains, functional ingredients, lower fat and no gluten are lining the shelves.
Nutritional credentials of crackers and crisps also remain in the winner’s circle, but taste and flavors take precedence, the latter a burgeoning feature. Discretionary income is also at a premium with today’s consumers, though cracker sales are up. According to SymphonyIRI Group, a Chicago-based market research firm, in the 52 weeks ending April 15, 2012, dollar sales of crackers in U.S. supermarkets, drugstores, convenience stores and mass market retail locations, excluding Walmart, totaled more than $4.76 billion. This represents an increase of more than 5.7% from the prior year. Also impressive, unit sales were up almost 3% during this same period.
The category and consumer preferences for that matter have been moving toward less-processed products and more natural ingredients. “We’re just seeing a continuation of that, especially as consumers become more educated about nutrition,” says Lonnie M. Williard, vice president of marketing at The Mediterranean Snack Food Co., Boonton, N.J.
As with other snacks, cracker and crisp production has evolved. In the beginning, these items were fried. Then, to promote a healthier nutritional profile, manufacturers began offering baked lines. Now, the trend is all about popped production.
“Manufacturers are always looking for ways to make snacks that will be healthier,” says Christine Brown, director of marketing for Natural Snacks, maker of Michael Season’s snack line in Addison, Ill. The popped snack products are produced from a pellet and results are dependent on what is popped. “Our popped snacks use less oil, involve special equipment and implement a process that reduces fat by 35 to 50% versus traditional fried products,” she says.
Incorporating vegetables into traditional crackers and crisps has become common. These items are perceived as healthier by consumers. Natural Snacks introduced popped black bean crisps this year in three flavors, including sea salt, nacho and roasted red pepper. “We are adding vegetables and looking at adding fruits in popped snacks,” Brown says. “We also are looking to add servings of antioxidants to increase the nutritional profile of our product lines, which are geared to health-conscious consumers.”
Natural Snacks’ new sea salt popped black bean crisps include only four ingredients. “We foresee the healthful cracker
segment expanding, with volume building and growth continuing,” Brown says. “People are paying more attention to how snacks are processed.”
Natural Snacks created a black bean crisp to further increase the nutritional benefits of its line with more fiber and protein. “Most popped items are all-natural due to a healthier product profile,” Brown says. “Potatoes and beans are popular with the popping production method. Also, popped hummus is big.”
KLN Enterprises, Perham, Minn., is teaming with national chains to bring baked crisps and air-popped potato crisps to consumers “on-the-go,” who tend to eat out, but are still looking for a nutritious option as a side, says Randy Johnson, vice president of sales. “We don’t use artificial colors or seasonings and have reduced the sodium in our potato chips,” he says. “We also have a line of gluten-free and all-natural air-popped and baked potato crisps, all of which are free of monosodium glutamate (MSG).”
KLN’s newest items include Baked Crisps (May 2012) in “unique, exciting” flavors and five new Air-Popped Potato Crisps—three that are potato-based and two are that are sweet potato-based. They are also gluten-free, all-natural, MSG-free and have 0 g. trans-fat. “Our products could compete in the cracker category and the bulk category and we are working on developing some items that would apply to early day snacking,” Johnson adds. “The outlook is positive for snacks. With more people living an active, on-the-go lifestyle, snacks in convenient packages have become increasingly popular. With the traditional sit-down meal disappearing due to the fast-paced lifestyle of Americans; the snack industry is gaining ground and will continue to grow.”
TH Foods, Loves Park, Ill., recently launched a new popped veggie crisp line that includes real vegetables such as edamame. “There was a lull of innovation a few years ago, but there has recently been a resurgence,” says Claire Cretors, president and operator of Cornfields, Waukegan, Ill., which produces the Skinny Sticks brand. “Our industry is taking more risks. We are focusing on creating unique items and changing the processing methods.”
This is on-trend with the increased focus on minimally-processed foods.
“In cracker and crisp manufacturing, companies are becoming more creative with production to stay ahead of the trends and be innovative,” Cretors says. “Today’s new products are not overly processed and offer more nutritional benefits, because it’s what is on everyone’s mind. Consumers are looking to put something good in their body, and we can help through unique processes.”
Cornfields produces veggie chips and crisps, which provide a healthier profile than traditional snacks. “It seems the trends in crackers and crisps are focusing on all-natural, gluten-free and whole grain products,” she adds. “In addition, items with less calories and fat are big, which is evident by the increased visibility of calorie counting servings.”
Specifically, there is now a core group of consumers interested in nongenetically modified organisms (GMO) cracker and crisp products.
“The GMO aspect has been impactful for us,” Cretors says. “Retailers and consumers are more aware of staying away from genetically-modified foods, and this is crossing over into the crisps category.”
Cornfields’ products are all-natural, so the company doesn’t use modified or engineered ingredients. “We use whole grain corn meal instead of germ corn meal and whole wheat instead of bran, for example,” Cretors says.
Cornfields’ focus is on simple, pure and clean ingredients that start with a natural perspective. “These include positive attributes like whole grains, but these products have to taste good. No one wants to compromise on taste,” says Jim Garsow, director of marketing at TH Foods, which produces baked rice crisps, sesame, corn and rice snacks.
Spectators are also noticing an increased focus on nutritional credentials and claims, which is becoming increasingly important to more consumers, such as nonGMO-verified, kosher-certified, gluten-free and vegan-friendly.
“We are seeing continued interest in more authentic, cleaner ingredients, particularly with an emphasis on vegetable- and legume-based offerings, and less processed, simpler, all-natural foods,” Williard says. “Savvy, health-conscious consumers are reading labels, not just looking at the front packaging. To leverage that trend, brands need to back up their marketing and other claims with solid nutrition.”
Although it’s still one of the small semi-finalists in the crackers and crisps market, there is growing consumer interest in allergy-free versions. This is in line with the growth in cleaner labels and wholesome ingredients.
“In particular, we’ve seen continued interest in gluten-free offerings,” Garsow says. “The growth trend there has continued very strong, with the latest 12-week data showing the category sales of rice and alternative grain crackers up 30%. Sales have risen more than 20% over the last couple of years.”
The key consumers of crackers and crisps with healthier profiles are those looking to control calories, eat right and also eat a crunchy snack that will be satisfying. “Those with a healthy and active lifestyle, in particular, appreciate the nutritional benefits and the convenience of a snack like ours,” Williard says.
The Mediterranean Snack Food Co. offers products geared toward those with certain dietary restrictions, such as Celiac disease or diabetes. The company’s Baked Lentil Chips contain more than 200 mg. of potassium and 4 g. of protein, along with 3 g. of fiber per 1-oz. serving. Its Lentil Crackers have 5 g. of protein per serving and 110 calories. Both lines are also positioned as a light snack for those seeking a healthy and active lifestyle.
“Consumers are looking for delicious snacks that offer nutritious, wholesome options that won’t sacrifice taste or crunch,” Williard says. “They are looking for healthier snack alternatives that help them maintain their diet, support their active lifestyle and provide nutritional benefits rather than snacks high in fat and filled with empty calories.”
Snacks still have to taste good, so there has been a branching out with cracker and crisp flavor profiles, such as bolder seasonings or more ethnic and sophisticated flavors.
TH Foods recently introduced an extension to its multigrain cracker line, adding new flavors that include white cheddar and roasted vegetables. “These lines did well, and we are rapidly expanding distribution,” Garsow says.
The company also developed its Seven Grain product and will introduce a new cracker line geared for children. Cheddar Cheesy Crisp and Grammy Crisp, a gluten-free whole grain cracker in a cinnamon sugar variety, were developed for a younger demographic and those watching their weight. This line has twice the piece count compared with traditional crackers. “These products will be positioned for the entire family, rather than being more adult-oriented,” Garsow says.
Today’s cracker and crisp flavors are focusing on authenticity, such as using tamari soy sauce as a flavoring and a substitute for sea salt. These lines tend to be more sophisticated where flavors are concerned and are skewed more toward authentic or ethnic cuisines. These flavors also incorporate whole grain offerings and added fiber, in addition to functional ingredients that may include Omega 3 and flaxseed.
“It’s the bold flavors that are popular, such as rich cheese, in addition to hot seasoning that are trending back,” Cretors says. “Plus, one of the biggest growth categories is mixing sweet with salty, which started in the popcorn category.”
Cornfields recently introduced new products under its High End Skinny brand. The product’s whole ground corn base has a straw shape and delivers the nutritional value of 19 g. of whole grains. It has 40% less fat than potato chips.
The Mediterranean Snack Food Co. recently launched HummuZ crispz, an all-natural, gluten-free line that will hit store shelves in September. Baked with garbanzo beans or chickpeas, these are a lighter-than-a-cracker product that’s sturdier than a chip. It is meant to be served with hummus or salsa. Three Mediterranean-inspired flavors are available: Roasted Red Pepper, Roasted Garlic and Olive Tapenade.
“We also offer Lentil Crackers, which contain 5 g. of protein and no trans-fats. This line is all-natural, gluten-free and non-GMO verified,” Williard says.
In addition to more functional ingredients and creative production processes, the industry can expect a continued push toward more ethnic, more globally diverse and exotic flavor profiles in the cracker and crisp segment.
“As travel and the Internet brings the world closer together, consumers become even savvier in their culinary habits and willingness to explore,” Williard says. “Of course, we’ll see continued interest in more authentic, cleaner ingredients, particularly with an emphasis on vegetable and legume-based offerings, and less processed simpler crackers and crisps.”