Potato chips and chocolate? Snack manufacturers and bakeries are experimenting with unique combinations to satisfy consumers’ desire for
a snack with the perfect sweet-savory blend.

Whomever put peanut butter and chocolate together for the first time was ahead of the curve. Sweet and savory products are the latest trend in new ingredient combinations for many segments within the snack and bakery aisles.

Creative cookies

Cookies are one segment that’s getting a boost out of the combination of sweet and savory ingredients. Cookies and Corks, Falls Church, Va., has been one of the bakeries leading the way in creating cookies with savory notes.

“We see a lot of consumer interest in products with a savory twist,” states Laura Englander, vice president of sales and marketing. “People are more accepting of unique flavor combinations as long as they aren’t too far-fetched.”

People have been accepting of the company’s most popular cookie offerings, Zesty Lemon and Sea Salt Chocolate Oatmeal. Originally found in the company’s Cookies and Corks line, the combinations have been used to launch its more portable CookieZen Bites.

“[The cookies] have a reduced level of sugar, and we use kosher salt in the dough,” says Englander. “Aside from keeping the cookies from being overly sweet, the reduced sugar really lets the flavors of the cookies shine!”

In addition to the varieties offered in the CookieZen Bites line, consumers can turn to the original Cookies and Corks line to sample Shortbread, White Cheddar Rosemary, Peanut Butter Chocolate, Parmesan Thyme, Ginger Molasses, Espresso Chocolate Peanut Butter and Apricot Sage cookies.

Benefits in bars

Bar manufacturers have been experimenting with sweet and savory options for quite a while. Familiar combinations of peanut butter and chocolate and salty/sweet peanuts are a staple in the category. However, General Mills’ Fiber One brand is checking out some new options with its Fiber One Protein Bars.

“The product is available in two flavors and provides a unique combination of taste and nutrition,” states Katherine Zonino, associate marketing manager of the Minneapolis-based company.

The Caramel Nut and Coconut Almond varieties contain at least 6 g. of protein and 130-140 calories per bar. Both bars are coated in chocolate, which provides the sweet touch to the bars’ savory insides.

Some bar manufacturers are stepping into bold flavors as well as atypical ingredients to offer sweet and savory combinations. Tropical Foods’ ReCharge bars, made from its most popular snack mixes, certainly fit this bill.

“We are seeing sweet where you wouldn’t expect sweet and savory [and] where you wouldn’t expect savory,” states Chad Hartman, director of marketing. “Consumers are willing to try unexpected flavor profiles.”

The Charlotte, N.C., company’s offerings include the Diet Delight Bar, Student Food Bar, Sweet Heat Bar and PB&J Bar. “Sweet Heat gives an unexpected spicy flavor to your energy bar, and PB&J tastes like the sandwich it is named for,” says Hartman.

Tropical Foods’ best-known products are its snack mixes, now being offered in convenient on-the-go packaging. “We’ve taken five of our most unique mixes and packaged them in standup, resealable bags,” adds Hartman. Options include PB&J, Sweet Heat, Sienna Cream Crunch, Cajun Harvest and Mango Tango. “Mango Tango is a sweet mix with a hint of spice highlighted by chili lime noodles, coconut peanuts and, of course, dried mango,” explains Hartman.

Chip flavors on the move

Chips are one market segment that has been steadily increasing its sweet and savory options. “It wasn’t long ago that the snack aisle was basically standard, plain and sour cream and chive potato chips, pretzels and tortilla chips,” says Steve Sklar, executive vice president of marketing for Inventure Foods Inc. “Now you see all kinds of creativity down that aisle. Consumers are looking for something different–they want to be challenged to try new flavors–and certainly the sweet and savory combination is a winning one.”

In January, the Phoenix-based company unveiled a new line of Vidalia Sweet Onion Petals. Made with Vidalia onion puree, the crunchy snacks are an unlikely entry into the sweet and savory category.

“They have a slight hint of sweet as a result of the sweet Vidalia onion puree, but they are very much a salty snack food,” explains Sklar.

Inventure Foods is also experimenting with its Boulder Canyon line of natural kettle chips. Options include Olive Oil, Malt Vinegar and Sea Salt, Hickory Barbeque, Parmesan and Garlic, Sea Salt and Cracked Pepper, Jalapeno Cheddar, Spinach and Artichoke and Red Wine Vinegar, which Sklar says strikes a perfect balance of salty and sweet.

The company isn’t stopping there, however. Sklar also hints that a salty chip with chocolate is currently in the research and development phase. “It’s really pushing the traditional snack-chip boundary, but we believe it’ll resonate really well with consumers who are drawn to salty/sweet flavor combinations,” says Sklar.

Pairing sweet chocolate with a salty chip is something that Simply 7 Snacks, Houston, has also been experimenting with in its latest product, Pomegranate Chips.

“This revolutionary new line combines the crunch of traditional chips and the slight sweetness and health benefits of the pomegranate, all with delicious, all-natural spices and seasonings,” states Paul Albrecht, vice president. [Read more about Simply 7 Snacks, Snack Food & Wholesale Bakery’s 2013 Snack Manufacturer of the Year, in the February 2013 issue.]

While consumers can purchase a Dark Chocolate option on select holidays such as Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day and Christmas, they can snack on the Sea Salt, Black Pepper and White Cheddar varieties year-round.

Of course, chip manufacturers don’t need to go to the extremes to get into the sweet and savory category. They can easily get there with a sweet potato chip. And while that may not be an unusual ingredient to use, the manufacturer using it is: General Mills’ Green Giant brand. The Minneapolis company, best known for its frozen vegetables, is testing the snack market with its new Multigrain Sweet Potato Chips in Sea Salt flavor and Roasted Veggie Tortilla Chips in Zesty Cheddar flavor.

“Snacking is on the rise, and particularly better-for-you snacking,” says Michelle Barbeau, marketing director. “The veggie snacking segment has seen tremendous growth. Consumers are looking for value-added benefits and great taste, which our new Green Giant Vegetable Chips deliver.”

Perking up popcorn

Another snack that’s offering the sweet-savory snacking combo is popcorn. It’s a blank slate that many manufacturers are experimenting with, using bold flavors and unique ingredients.

Too Haute Cowgirls, Carbondale, Colo., has been creating imaginative popcorn confections since its inception. “For us, it’s pairing foods and spices that are outside of the traditional American culture and incorporating them in unexpected ways to move consumers away from ultra-sweet confections to more exotic flavor dimensions,” states Amy Tarrant, partner.

The company’s latest sweet-savory creation—Have Bacon Will Travel—was released in May 2012 and features a maple pecan buttercrunch popcorn base with a milk chocolate drizzle and hickory smoked bacon throughout. Too Haute Cowgirls’ other offerings include Blisters on my Buttercrunch, Fistful of Fleur de Sel, Mutton Bustin’ Milk Chocolate—made with peanut brittle, toasted nuts and milk and white chocolate; End of the Trail Mix; The Good, The Bad and The Peanut Butter—caramel corn tossed with peanuts, cashews, pretzels, white chocolate and peanut butter and dusted with sea salt flakes—Chili Con Chocolate; Bareback Buttercrunch; and Cowgirl Coffee.

Too Haute Cowgirls also offers specialty options for holidays. For Valentine’s Day, the company featured its My Darlin’ Valentine offering—caramel corn in dark chocolate with dried cranberries and macadamia nuts.

Sweet and salty popcorn combinations are quite familiar to FunkyChunky Inc., Edina, Minn. The company offers Chocolate Popcorn—made with caramel, chocolate, cashews, almonds and peanuts; Sea Salt Caramel with chocolate and cashews; Caramel Corn; Candy Cane, a combination of popcorn, peppermint drizzle, caramel, macadamia nuts and candy cane pieces; and Chip-Zel-Pop, popcorn, potato chips and pretzels combined with caramel and chocolate. FunkyChunky also has a specialty option to honor its founder.

“This past year, FunkyChunky lost the founder and inventor of FunkyChunky, Ronni Feurer, to breast cancer,” says Tore Swenson, director of sales and marketing. “In her memory, we modified her first product offering, FunkyChunky popcorn, by changing the white chocolaty drizzle to pink chocolaty drizzle and named it ‘Ronni’s Popcorn.’ Ten percent of the proceeds go to a local organization called Hope Chest that helps women battling breast cancer afford treatments.”

Popcorn with nuts and chocolate is one thing, but popcorn with bourbon is a whole new entry in the sweet-savory category. Metropolitan Bakery, Philadelphia, offers two options for the grown-up palate: Metropolitan Bakery Bourbon-Infused Popcorn and Metropolitan Bakery Stout with Smoked Almonds Popcorn. Not only is the company experimenting with ingredients found at liquor stores, it’s also crossing oceans for its Metropolitan Bakery Spiced Peanut Butter Popcorn.

“We take Indian flavors like curry and cayenne and mix them with caramel and peanut flavors, and we have a complex, sophisticated and not-overly-sweet flavor that really works,” says James Barrett, head baker and co-owner.

Snack manufacturers and bakeries may only be scraping the tip of the iceberg when it comes to sweet and savory blends of consumers’ favorite products. As consumers embrace these multidimensional flavor profiles, most companies will be expanding into new and inventive ingredient combinations to give consumers the perfect sweet-savory experience.