Snackers should celebrate. This is their year. In this issue, our annual State of the Industry report on the snack market uncovers all sorts of news on what’s trending in snacks, both from the perspective of snack manufacturers, as well as marketers, brand leaders and industry researchers. You’ll find everything from trends and analysis to product performance and sustainability and packaging initiatives. We start with an overview of the market and move into chips, tortilla chips, pretzels, nuts and trail mix, jerky and meat snacks, crackers, crisps, puffs, popcorn and pork rinds.

A market share analysis accompanies each of the product categories, courtesy of leading market research firm, IRI, Chicago, and our interviews with various snack industry product leaders, marketers, executives and plant managers. We’ll also tell you what’s in store for the snack food industry for the rest of the year and beyond and provide a wealth of information for producers and suppliers alike. Our thanks again go to Ryan Stredney at IRI, as well as to all of our sources for this report.

Some of the findings: The big one is that snacking is indeed continuing to change. Consumers are so busy and on-the-go, they’re snacking at an unprecedented rate. They’re also substituting snacks for meals; want wholesome snacks with clean labels, bold flavors and good taste; and are demanding tasty and nutritious, allergen-free, gluten-free versions. Like last year, snacks are evolving into healthier products with bolder flavors, more whole grains, less fat and sodium and new shapes.

And as usual, we found plenty of food for thought at May’s Sweets & Snack Expo and the National Restaurant Association’s (NRA) annual expo at Chicago’s McCormick Place. Sponsored by the National Confectioners’ Association (NCA), Sweets & Snacks awarded 45 new confectionery and snack products across nine categories with its Most Innovative New Products distinction, which shows that snack makers are not only innovating, but that snacks are one of the fastest-growing product categories in food.

Among the snack winners was Gourmet Basics’ Slim Chips in White Cheddar, and in the savory category, Pop! Gourmet Popcorn in Sriracha. More new baked, puffed, popped and extruded chips, sticks and crisps are hitting the market, in vegetable-based and tried-and-true corn, rice and potato varieties.

We also spotted plenty of hybrid snacks, such as ridged, multigrain chips that team oats and potatoes, flax, sesame and caraway seeds and others coated in myriad ingredients, such as honey mustard, cracked pepper, peanut butter, white chocolate and so much more.

New gluten-free and allergy-free snacks continue to be introduced, and the NCA indicates that they’re part of the more than 5,000 snack and confectionery items rolled out each year in the U.S.—an incredible figure and more than in any other food category.

Also an indication that the economy is slowly recovering, the NRA’s 95th annual show—held before and concurrently with Sweets & Snacks—posted positive growth in both attendee and exhibitor numbers for the third year in a row. The show grew by an additional 2% in 2014, bringing registration to a whopping 63,876, an increase of 10.5% since 2011. Total square footage also increased by 5.7% and the number of exhibitors jumped by 4.3%, totaling 612,170 and 2,168, respectively.

“The energy and excitement at this year’s NRA Show [and the International Wine, Spirits & Beer Event] could be strongly felt at every venue—and reflected the ongoing optimism among restaurant and hospitality professionals,” reports Sam Facchini, 2014 NRA convention chair and co-founder/co-owner of Metro Pizza. “Our industry is poised for another year of growth, and operators came out in full force to find the products, services, information and contacts that will help them capitalize on increased consumer spending in the next year.”

So as snacks and restaurant dining evolve and escalate, we delight in the fact that snacks are more prominent than they ever were and are starting to get some respect. Blurring eating occasions on a whole new level, from the frequency and time of day in which they’re enjoyed to goals and desires, many snacking influencers are impacted by age and life stage. Understanding how all the pieces fit together is critical, so take a look at our collection of reports here, as they will assist you in better serving and satisfying your target consumers. Snack on.