Like Olympic triathletes, snack nuts are able to compete with other edible treats on several levels and come out on top. They’re nutritious (good sources of protein, fiber, vitamins and minerals), versatile (usable in endless applications or consumed by themselves) and flavorful (plain or seasoned). No wonder more consumers are incorporating them into their diets.

“Healthier snacking is a trend that continues to gain momentum,” says Howie Sher, founder of What-A-Ya Nuts?! nut clusters. “The ‘you-are-what-you-eat’ adage has never been louder. Consumers are looking to brands to provide better-for-you options that deliver on great taste and hunger satisfaction.”

Sher introduced the line last August in St. Louis, to “allow consumers to ‘Snack in Sanity,’ with a nut product that blends unique flavors in an “all-natural” way. “Our approach is different in that we offer sweet and savory varieties in a new food form, baking the natural flavors into the nut clusters, not dusting heavy seasonings on top, which can often be overwhelming,” Sher says.

What-A-Ya Nuts?! nut clusters come in four varieties: Jalapeño Hysteria, almonds, pecans and sunflower seeds packed with real dried jalapenos; Maple Cinnamon Madness, almonds, cashews and pepitas covered with real maple syrup and cinnamon; Cracked Parmesan Pepper, almonds, cashews and sunflower seeds paired with garlic, cracked pepper and parmesan; and Stark Raving Chocolate, almonds, cashews and sunflower seeds paired with real chunks of chocolate.

The bold and bright packaging quickly catches the eye. The brand name and logo, placed as a conversation bubble, position the product as a better-for-you snacking alternative that delivers on taste and satisfaction with its unique flavor profiles.

A 4-oz. package of What-A-Ya Nuts?! nut clusters sells for $4.99 in select specialty shops, theaters, hotels and convenience stores in the St. Louis area; in major St. Louis area grocery stores; in Schnucks, a regional supermarket chain; and on

“[The snack nuts category] is a popular and highly-competitive category, and the key to success is recognizing consumer habits and preferences,” says Sher. “People are responding well to What-A-Ya Nuts?! because the name is catchy, and the product is a better-for-you option that packs amazing taste in a new form.”

Nutty about flavor combos

Consumers are also responding positively to Santé Specialty Foods’ Santé Nuts—so much so that the Santa Clara, Calif., company introduced new flavors in larger packaging at the Summer Fancy Food Show in June.

Launched in October 2011 as a new brand after being sold under a private label since in 2005, the line currently comprises Candied Pecans, Sweet & Spicy Pecans, Roasted Salted Pecans and Cinnamon Pecans in 1- and 4-oz. sizes for $1.99 and $5.99, respectively; Cardamom Cashews in 1.25- and 5-oz. sizes for $1.99 and $5.99, respectively; Candied Pistachios in 1- and 5-oz. sizes for $1.99 and $5.99, respectively; Garlic Almonds and Chipotle Almonds in 1.25- and 5-oz. sizes for $1.99 and $4.99, respectively; and Candied Walnuts in 4-oz. bags for $4.99.

The all-natural products are gluten-free, kosher and made by hand in small batches. They’re sold nationwide in specialty grocery chains, gourmet food shops and wineries. “Growth in the specialty nut sector has been strengthened, thanks to a continued desire for healthy snack options, as well as continued innovation that has hit consumers’ sweet (and sweet/savory) spot,” says COO Denise Robinson. “Interesting combinations of nuts with a wide variety of international spices and healthy fruits—superfruits such açaí berry, Omega 3-rich hemp and chia have added to the sectors appeal.

“The total nuts, seeds, dried fruits and trail mixes market has been growing 4.3% per year since 2009, totaling $4.1 billion in 2011. Of that market, roughly 17%, or $701 million, are specialty/gourmet purchases, which is the sector in which Santé competes,” Robinson continues. “This category continues to outperform the overall snack market in two key ways: By increasing market share and countering consumer price sensitivity. The specialty/gourmet snack nut, seeds, dried fruits and mixes segment has moved up in the category rankings from number 20 in 2010 to number 13 in 2011. And product innovations have enabled manufacturers to maintain prices despite overall downward price pressure from the economy. We expect this growth to continue in 2012, as manufactures continue to innovate and consumers continue to respond.” 

Planters, a Kraft Foods Global Inc., brand, Glenview, Ill., knows a thing or two about developing innovative products that address consumers’ interest in healthier snacks. Earlier this year, the company teamed with Men’s Health magazine to introduce Planters NUT•rition Men’s Health Recommended Mix, a nut mix specifically designed for men’s wellness needs. The mix features peanuts, almonds and pistachios, and is a heart-healthy snack. It also contains 6 g. of protein; six vitamins and minerals, including antioxidant Vitamin E, thiamine, niacin, magnesium, manganese and copper; and is a good source of fiber.

The mix in a 10.25-oz. can and six 1.5-oz. individually packaged portions sells for $6.99, and in a single-serve pack for $1.49. Other 2012 introductions are Planters Dry Roasted and Salted Almonds, Dry Roasted Pistachios, Sea Salt and Black Pepper In-Shell Pistachios and Pistachio Blend with pistachios, peanuts, almonds and cashews.

It’s no surprise that many new products include almonds. According to Harbinder Maan of the Almond Board of California, Modesto, Calif., almonds lead all nuts in new product introductions. The board’s manager for North America and global category marketing explains that California produces more than 80% of the world’s supply of almonds, with the state literally doubling its output of the crunchy, flavorful nuts in the last five years. This year’s crop is expected to weigh in at 2 billion lb.

“The domestic market, as well as the export market, is eating more [almonds],” Maan says. “So we’re having no problems finding a home for the increase in almonds.”

Almonds’ high protein content—a handful has 6 g., according to Maan—which makes nuts a good ingredient for many products, and they can pick up a flavor, but not overpower it. “You have a skin that helps to adhere to those kinds of flavorings, and you have a nut that doesn’t overwhelm those flavors,” she says. “In fact, it complements it.”

People also like the fact that almonds are natural and nutritious, and have a pleasant taste and crunch. 

Macadamia nuts have numerous nutritional benefits, too. They’re high in protein, calcium, potassium, dietary fiber and monounsaturated fats, but low in sodium. They also have no cholesterol. Duck Creek Macadamias in Newrybar, New South Wales, takes Australian-grown macadamias, roasts them, covers them in orange-flavored, dark chocolate and dusts them with Belgium cocoa powder to create Orange Obsessions, the newest flavor in its Obsessions line. Other flavors in the line are Mocha Obsessions and Ginger Obsessions. 

The gourmet treats are available at national gourmet food retailers and online for $19.80 for a 230-g., limited-edition jar.

Triathlete of nuts

Still, even triathletes likely seek out spicy snack nuts occasionally to give their taste buds a workout. Holy Cow, LLC’s February release, Sweet Miss Keet, features a bold flavor the combines mesquite smoke, pineapple and other barbecue-inspired spices.

According to the Irving, Texas, company, the highly-seasoned peanuts, part of the Lord Nut Levington brand, are roasted, certified kosher and packaged in an 8-oz., resealable canister that sell for $4.99-$5.49 in mass markets and gourmet stores nationwide.

Just south of the Texas border, Huatees—Cacahuates Japones or Japanese peanuts—are the snack of choice for many Mexicans. According to Julio Muniz, a partner in Miami-based Huatees, the father of the snack was of Japanese descent, but lived most of his life in Mexico.

Muniz and his partner, Salvador Segura, are bringing a healthier version of the flavorful snack north of the border. “We care about traditions and, at the same time, we know that staying healthy is important,” Muniz explains. “So we developed a unique recipe that takes this traditional Japanese peanut snack to a whole other level. Our snacks are crafted with rich oleic acid and [Texas-grown] peanuts, [and contain] 0% trans-fat, low sodium and 0% wheat flour.”

Huatees are available in Original, a mildly salty shell that is toasty and crunchy and has the subtle sweetness of agave; Salt & Lime; Spicy Lime; and Chipotle. A 7-oz., resealable, standup bag will retail for around $5. Muniz and Segura are still talking to distributors and hope the product will be in stores in late August or early September.

Hitting the trail (mix) 

Like snack nuts, trail mix offers consumers a nutritious, portable snack that can be enjoyed at home or on-the-go, says Karen Foley, senior vice president of sales for Nature’s Habit, a division of Tulocay & Co., Napa, Calif. “[However,] consumers are also eating more on-the-go by replacing mealtimes with munchies that are good for you and provide added benefits like fiber.” 

Introduced in August 2011, Nature’s Habit Granola Trail Mix contains a variety of ingredients that make it a heart-healthy snack and a good source of fiber and protein, such as nuts, fruit and chocolate.

Consumers can choose from five blends: Almonds & Pecans; Cocoa, Cherries, Almonds & Pecans; Cranberries, Cherries, Raisins, Almonds & Pecans; Blueberries, Mangos, Almonds, Pecans & Seeds; and Banana Chips, Almonds & Pecans.

Each variety comes in a 4-oz., resealable pouch and is retail priced at $2.79.

“We entered the ‘healthy snack category’ in 2011 and only see great growth potential,” says Foley. “We see not only growth in fruit-and-nut granola mixes, but also in items that are savory and [have] interesting flavor profiles, including sweet-and-savory combinations. We see this is especially important in taking very mainstream flavors, such as potato chip flavors, and redeveloping them into healthier alternatives. 

“Portability is key. And we are targeting moms, since they [also] make many of the meal substitutions for their families, especially for kids. Granola trail mix snacks can keep kids full and give them something that is a bit healthier than snacks of the past.”

SunRidge Farms in Royal Oaks, Calif., has been offering only all-natural and organic products since it was founded some 30 years ago. “That’s all we do, that’s all we want to do, that’s all we’ve ever done,” says national sales director Mark Devencenzi. “Trying to get better-for-you products to the consumer is a huge goal of ours. In fact, we believe we had the first organic trail mix, which came out in the early ’80s.”

SunRidge Farms’ newest offering, SunRidge Farms All Natural Berries & Chocolate Antioxidant Mix, was introduced in September 2011, and is made with chocolate stars, roasted peanuts, almonds, dried cranberries and cherries and other antioxidant-rich ingredients. A 6.5-oz. resealable, recyclable package has a suggest retail price of $4.35. The product is also available in bulk, a plus for budget-conscious consumers and families.

“As small as the world is getting and as varied as the populations are, the tastes and flavors of the different parts of the world are cross-pollinating and becoming more popular,” says Devencenzi. “Consumers are looking for our Thai curry cashews, Wasabi almonds and things of that nature in our trail mixes—they want a little bit of spice as well as good health.”

Navitas Naturals’ most recent addition to its line of organic Navitas Power Snacks, Blueberry Hemp, is made with dried blueberries (a well-known superfruit), organic hemp powder and ingredients such as chia, maca, sesame seeds and cashews. The bite-sized cubes have a healthy whole-food appearance, delicious flavor and rich, chewy texture.

Introduced in March, Blueberry Hemp Power Snacks are available nationwide at natural food stores, including Whole Foods Markets. An 8-oz., resealable bag is priced $8.99.

The Novato, Calif.-based company also offers two organic raw trail mixes: Mulberries Goji Goldenberries and 3 Berries Cacao Nibs Cashews. “There is a trend toward functional food trail mixes that contain nutrient-dense organic ingredients, including superfoods such as goji berries and real chocolate in the form of cacao nibs,” says president Wes Crain. “Our Navitas Trail Mix offerings posted strong sales in 2011, and are exceeding our expectations again in 2012, even before we head into the summer prime trail mix season. People are snacking more than ever, and snacks that offer meal-like nutrition are more appealing as people are now eating snacks throughout the day and even as meal replacements.”

Sahale Snacks Inc.’s Sahale Crunchers give consumers even more healthy eating options. The nut blends can be used as toppings and mix-ins for cereals, yogurts and salads, as well as eaten out of hand, according to the Seattle-based company. The line features Almonds with Cherries, Apples + Maple; Almonds with Cranberries, Sesame Seeds + Honey; and Almonds with Parmesan Cheese + Herbs.

The products will be available this month in supermarkets, natural and specialty grocers, Whole Foods Markets, Safeway and REI, as well as from Amazon. A 4-oz. resealable pouch has a suggested retail price of $3.99.

Whether consumers are looking for a healthy between-meal snack, a meal alternative or just a flavorful treat, new offerings from snack nut and trail mix manufacturers will leave them feeling satiated and energized, maybe enough to entertain the thought of training for the 2016 Olympics.

Seeds of Success

“Sunflower seeds, as a whole, almost deserve to be seen as a category unto themselves,” says Erik Havlick, vice president of sales, Thanasi Foods, LLC, Boulder, Colo. “It’s typically lumped into the nut seed segment within salty or savory snacks, but it’s such a huge component of that. If you’re looking at [convenience] stores, it’s second only to potato or tortilla chips in that salty category.”

And Havlick should know. Thanasi Foods’ BIGS sunflower seeds line, which includes co-branded products like BIGS Vlasic Dill Pickle Sunflower Seeds and FRANK’S REDHOT Buffalo Wing Sunflower Seeds are sold at more than 40,000 retail outlets in channels such as convenience stores, grocery, club, drug, military, concessions, specialty and sports venues throughout the U.S.

The company’s newest co-branded product, BIGS Hidden Valley Ranch Sunflower Seeds will be available at retail outlets this month. “Depending on which channel you’re looking at, ranch is typically your number-two flavor,” Havlick says. “It was one of the flavors in our portfolio that didn’t have a cobranded element to it. When we looked at the category, we felt that there was only one true ranch brand out there and that was the original ranch, Hidden Valley.”

BIGS Hidden Valley Ranch Sunflower Seeds are available in 5.35-oz., resealable bags in 12-count cases, 12-count clip-strips and BIGS variety pack display configurations; 2.75-oz BIGS “Slammer” tubes, grab-and-go sized bags available in 12-count counter caddies; and 0.7-oz. “Try Me” packs in 30-count counter caddies. The 5.35-oz. bag is retail priced at $1.89.

“Consumers are interested in quality [and] food safety,” Havlick says. “So when they see brands that they know and trust and are part of their overall diet—when they see those applied to categories that they do currently consume—I think that’s a value-add.”

Regarding trends in the snack nut category, Havlick says that, from a global standpoint, “we’re certainly seeing a trend toward less-processed foods, whether you call that all-natural or organic. Overall, the word ‘simple’ best describes what we’re seeing in terms of consumers want. From that better-for-you standpoint, that’s important.

“I also think that there’s this sort of comfort element. Americana or nostalgia is a bigger element to the consumer than we currently give the consumer credit for. I think we want reminders of things that make us feel comfortable, make us feel good. Ritual is an important part of this. One of the fun things about sunflower seeds is that they are a very social snack. People tend to share them wherever they might be. That’s important, and it dovetails with another large consumer trend—social networking. The notion of social endorsement from your friends, your community—whether that’s physical or virtual—plays a big role.”