Packaging enhancements, a twist on shapes and ingredients and many new flavor combinations continue to win over consumers. But everyone still wants that crunch. Snack companies are listening to shout-outs for less sodium, fat and formats other than potato chips

When it comes to chips, several things are happening all at once. “The nongenetically modified organisms (nonGMO) movement is huge in all food categories—not just snacks—but the increase in better-for-you snack options is growing considerably,” says Luke Mapp, marketing director at Mikesell’s Potato Chip Co., Dayton, OH. “While traditional snacks still capture a larger market share, there’s only modest growth in this sector, while better-for-you snack options are seeing considerable growth, but in a smaller piece of the overall pie. People are more concerned about the health aspects of the foods they’re eating, so there’s a movement toward local, fresh food and product transparency.

“They also want to know where their food comes from and what’s in it, and these consumers are not opposed to paying more for foods they believe match up to their preferences. This creates opportunities for smaller, local companies that can innovate with creative, healthier snack items.”

Most food industry experts and leaders agree, healthier snacks are a huge focus. “The single hottest trend right now is better-for-you,” Mapp agrees. “In the past, chips have been viewed primarily as an indulgence item, but as snacking occasions increase and sitdown meals decrease, people want to snack on items they feel are better for them. Snacking as a whole is continuing to grow. Snacking at home is also growing. This has helped offset declines that would have been more obvious due to the economy issues.”

Adds Marc McCullagh, brand manager for Salem, OR-based Kettle Brand, a Diamond Foods brand, “We continue to see a growing number of consumers looking for clean snacks with real ingredients. We’re answering that call by making our commitment to real ingredients really stand-out, bringing the Real Sliced Potatoes name and gluten-free certification to the front of pack.”

When it comes to kettle chips, Kettle Brand from San Francisco-based Diamond Foods, also has a new entry called Real Sliced Potatoes. Available since Memorial Day, this chip combines unpeeled potatoes that are sliced thick and toasted for a very big crunch.

“Emerging trends on the snack side now include nonGMO-verified and gluten-free-certified products,” concurs Roya Rohani-Cuetara, vice president of marketing at Balance Foods, San Francisco, and now the maker of Risi Papas Caseras kettle chips and Poptillas crispy snacks.

The boldly flavored Poptillas come with 25% less fat because they are popped instead of fried. Made without cholesterol, preservatives, high fructose corn syrup, trans-fat, artificial flavors or colors, the popped tortilla chips contain whole grains but are gluten-free. The Risi Papas Caseras brands bring Mexico’s cuisine to chips as well as a variety of mouth-watering indigenous chilies from Mexico: Habanero; Serrano; and Adobadas. The chip flavors provide spicy combinations of sweet, tangy, zesty and fiery.


Healthy but tasty

Also driving snack sales is the emphasis on real ingredients and clean profiles, echoes Joe Papiri, vice president of sales and marketing, at Snak King Corp., City of Industry, CA. “Products today should have simple ingredient legends,” he says. “A big trend is the fact that some snacks can substitute for a meal. Also, there are many occasions to sell products if they appeal to on-the-go consumers for their nutrition and taste.”

Snak King is launching a product called Purple Popgrains, a compression-popped chip, featuring three ingredients: Purple corn; expeller-pressed sunflower oil; and sea salt.

“Consumers are demanding not only healthier options, but healthier options that taste good,” emphasizes Haley Thomas, director of sales and marketing at Ballreich Bros. Inc., a Tiffin, OH-based regional chipmaker that specializes in a variety of potato chip flavors. Ballreich launched sweet potato chips last September and three fun flavors of potato sticks in March. “The sweet potato chips are all natural and loaded with a sweet, salty flavor. The potato sticks are nostalgic, tasty and fun to eat. But that’s the hottest trend in the industry right now: Healthier products that taste good.”

Thomas points out that, “with the tightening economy, consumers are also demanding more affordable options. Manufacturers and retailers who can achieve this demand without sacrificing taste will win the hearts of many.”

However, Papiri says snack foods have traditionally done well in good economies and bad. “We’re actually seeing demand for some of the higher end formulations that sell for premium prices,” he points out.

According to Faith Atwood, marketing manager for Cape Cod Potato Chips, Hyannis, MA, (a Snyder’s-Lance company), Americans consume an average of 11.2 million lb. of potato chips during the Super Bowl alone. That’s a lot of potatoes and, possibly, lot of fat.

“It’s second only to Thanksgiving as one of the biggest food fests in American culture, and what you choose to serve at your party can be just as important as which teams are playing,” Atwood says. So the company has rolled out reduced-fat flavored chips that mimic the taste profiles of its original kettle-cooked chips. The 40% Less Fat variety is a favorite among kettle chip enthusiasts, Atwood says, and delivers the same taste and crunch as the Original variety.

“Whether you’re hosting or bringing a dish to share, Cape Cod Chips add a distinctive taste and flavor to your big-game snacking experience,” she adds. The potato chips are all gluten-free, preservative-free and kettle-cooked in 100% canola oil.

Earlier this year, Cape Cod introduced a Limited Batch Back Bay Crab Seasoning flavor and a Limited Batch Asiago Cheese & Italian Herbs flavor of its potato chips. Made in small batches for a limited time, the chips scored big on flavor.

Consumers are now serving chips with things like aioli, instead of the usual snack accompaniments, as well as Cape Cod’s double-sliced waffle-cut chips, which are sturdy enough to stand up to the creamiest of dips. Its New Buffalo Cheddar Waffle Cut chips and Sea Salt Waffle Cut chips can even be smothered with nacho toppings.

Also new as of May is the brand’s 40% Less Fat Aged White Cheddar & Sour Cream. “We’re always looking for enticing new flavor combinations that complement the hearty texture of our kettle-cooked chips,” says Atwood. “After listening to consumer feedback and evaluating food trends, we developed the new flavors to deliver the full taste and crunch that make our chips distinct, while continuing to deliver ‘on-trend’ flavors in the ever-changing snack food category.”

The two latest varieties have a distinct cheese flavor and are extra hearty. The waffle-cut chips can stand up well to creamy dips, such as a ranch or spinach dip. The 40% Less Fat Aged White Cheddar & Sour Cream chips blend Cheddar, Monterey Jack and Swiss cheeses with a hint of sour cream. Every crunchy chip has rich, creamy flavor and 40% less fat than most leading potato chips. The new chips retail for $3.79 and can be found at major retailers or online.


Big names versus private-label

One trend on a downward spiral is brand loyalty. Rather than remain loyal to certain brands, many of today’s consumers are more open to trying various options to meet their needs for price, quality and taste.

“We’re a regional potato chip company with a loyal following, but still, our biggest challenge continues to be competition from the national brands with larger advertising budgets,” admits Mapp. “Customers tell us our quality is better, and we pride ourselves on producing the best product for them. Yet national brands have a near monopoly grip on the snack category, making it difficult to compete on pricing.”

Mapp says that the economy has forced many chip lovers to switch to less expensive store brands, and that has been a challenge. “So we focus on supporting our core Mikesell’s branded items with marketing and communications initiatives,” he says. “Quality still remains the number-one characteristic of a product standing the test of time, with price now being a very close second.”

Rohani-Cuetara says Balance Foods is able to help startup businesses get a taste of the snack food industry by creating their innovative concepts in its R&D department. In fact, Balance recently finalized a new item made with quinoa for private-label distribution. “We help them create private-label products,” she says. “We have been developing new products for both international renowned brands, and new entrepreneurs around the world starting their own businesses.”

Snak King spends quite a bit of energy focusing on private-label products, Papiri says. “The challenge for the brands is keeping the innovation fresh,” he notes. “Private-label has adopted a fast follower game plan that may even innovate off the emerging platforms.”


Taking crunch to another level

Certainly, however, the crunch hasn’t gone out of chips of any kind. In addition to its popular Old Bay Potato Chips, replete with a blend of the sweet, hot and savory flavors of the popular seafood seasoning (from McCormick & Co.), Herr Foods, Nottingham, PA, is now adding the Old Bay flavor to two more snacks, its Old Bay Popcorn and Old Bay Cheese Curls.

But the 68-year-old, family-owned and operated company has a new thrill for consumers: It’s Herr’s Extra Crunchy Kettle Chips, which push the limits of heartiness an extra mile. The Extra Crunchy chips deliver bold flavors and plenty of crunch. Available in Honey Sriracha, Hearty Classic and Chipotle, they have 140 calories in a 1-oz. serving, zero cholesterol, zero trans-fat and 2 g. of protein.

Adventurous new flavors are where it’s at for Herr’s, which rolled out baked Ripple Cut Sweet Potato Chips late last year, and Kettle Cooked Cheddar Bacon Jalapeno Potato Chips last June. The latter teams three popular flavors to create a new kettle-cooked potato chip. Bacon is a sweet taste many Americans love, and many will eat 18 lb. of bacon in a year, according to Herr’s. The hot and spicy flavor of jalapenos has also grown in popularity and consumers enjoy that kind of kick in their favorite food, while cheese is always a favorite.

In May, Herr’s also introduced Good Natured Selects Baked Vegetable Crisps, gluten-free, baked, rippled chips in Regular and Ranch varieties that promote being a “tasty way to eat your vegetables.” Containing a half serving of real vegetables in every ounce, the chips are made with real carrots, bell peppers and spinach, and are a good source of vitamins A and C. Good Natured Selects are also available in a Baked Multigrain Crisp version, which debuted in April 2013 in three flavors. All items in the Good Natured Selects line have no artificial ingredients, trans-fat or preservatives. They come in 6.5-, 2- and 1-oz. bag sizes ranging from $3.99 to 35 cents.

And speaking of going an extra mile, General Mills, Minneapolis, is taking the Chex cereal brand into boldly flavored, uncharted chip territory, with the launch of Chex Chips. Seen at the Sweets & Snacks Expo in Chicago in May and launched this year in January, the new chips come in four “bold” flavors: A rather gourmet Caramelized Onion; fiery Cheddar Jalapeno; sweet Cinnamon and Sugar; and explosive Wasabi. The light and crunchy multigrain chips slightly resemble the checkerboard square shapes of Chex cereal, but in a giant, puffier size, the main selling point. They also claim to have 25% less fat than regular potato chips.

Packed in jewel-on-black-toned 1.5-oz. bags, Chex Chips retail for about $1.79 and are selling exclusively at convenience stores nationwide. The front of the package also reads, “Giant Chips. No Mix,” meaning this snack is without the pretzels, nuts and crackers found in Chex Mix.


Groovy flavors, groovy chips

New and/or unique flavors are also important trends, as chip consumers are looking for something different and interesting. “In fact, flavor seems to be the major spot for experimentation among snack makers and marketers lately,” says Mapp.

Launched in March, Cincinnati Style Chili Groovy Potato Chips from Mikesell’s can be paired with a bowl of Cincinnati-style chili as few other things can—three-way, five-way or any way at all. “In fact, we love it so much, we got to thinking that the zesty, spicy flavor would bring out the best in our signature chips,” explains Mapp. “It’s the world’s best chili flavor on the world’s best potato chip.”

Mikesell’s manufactures and/or distributes assorted snacks, such as potato chips, pretzels, puffcorn, popcorn, cheese curls and tortilla chips, in Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana and Illinois. While it has evolved in many ways over its 100-plus years in business, its dedication to producing the highest quality products has never changed. Mapp says from the potato to the premium oil used, quality is never compromised.

Also in March, the company launched Buffalo Puffcorn Delites, which combine two consumer favorites: The tangy taste of Buffalo wings; and light-as-air puffed snacks. There are no hulls or kernels as with regular popcorn, so fans can dive into the puffs without worrying about those pearly whites. Look for more new exciting flavors from Mikesell’s to debut next month.

“Flavor innovation still remains high, as customers seek variety and one-of-kind flavors,” Mapp says. “We have been focusing on our flavor strategy, and are bringing new and interesting options to consumers in the coming months. A big focus for many brands, including Mikesell’s, is targeting the millennial consumer. Capturing this demographic can be a challenge. Price and unique, bold flavors seem to rank highest on their list, while ‘cause marketing,’ local and family-owned aspects are also important.”

A great opportunity for snack manufacturers is in the expansion of a more culturally diverse United States, says Rohani-Cuetara. “People seek snacks that have a cultural identity, some nostalgia and, most importantly, health and authentic ethnic flavors,” she says. “The biggest challenges are logistics and costs. Most companies in the popped snack food category have to get pellets from one company, pop them in another, and package in a third location. This process is both exhausting and expensive. We’re proud to be the only fully integrated company in North America that can custom make snack pellets, pop them and package the snacks in one same location.”


Stack-packs, kettle chips

As a truly portable, convenient and enviro-friendly move, Pepsico’s Frito-Lay Division, Plano, TX, is doing away with the canister—at least for the versions spotted at the Sweets & Snacks show in Chicago—for Lay’s Stax potato crisps. The chip/crisp hybrids now come in a clear plastic tray enclosed in a flexible bag. The 2-oz. tray, which helps protect the chips from breakage, allows them to be placed one above the other in a stack. The inner tray feature is clearly promoted on the out bag’s front panel, along with “Crunch On the Go.” The flexible back-sealed bag acts as a source reduction, per the company’s commitment to sustainable products and minimizing waste. Original, Sour Cream & Onion and Mesquite Barbecue varieties are available in these tray-packed bags.

Earlier this year, Lay’s Kettle Cooked debuted tangy Sea Salt & Vinegar and Jalapeno Cheddar flavors containing 40% less fat than regular potato chips. The expansion of its hard-bite potato chip line with these two flavors indicates they are indeed becoming popular among fans who want a full-flavor snacking experience with less fat (Frito-Lay says regular potato chips contain about 10 g. total fat per 1-oz. serving, while these have 6 g. per 1-oz. serving).

Both new flavors pack a robust, sophisticated taste with a savory or spicy kick. They’re available nationwide in 8-oz. packages that retail for $3.49 each. Lay’s Kettle Cooked Jalapeno Cheddar flavored chips also come in a 2.5-oz. bag size that sells for $1.49. And to rev up the ridges, Frito-Lay’s Ruffles brand launched Deep Ridged Potato Chips in Sweet & Smokin’ Barbecue, Classic Hot Wings and Bacon & Cheddar Loaded Potato Skins with ridges that are two times as deep as regular Ruffles, to boost dipping ability and taste.

Launched in March, the Hot Wings flavor was, of course, inspired by Buffalo wings and combines tangy vinegar, chicken and hot sauce, reminiscent of the popular wings found on the Buffalo Wild Wings menu, which builds on the partnership between Pepsico and Buffalo Wild Wings Inc. The chips can be paired with Ruffles Creamy Buffalo Ranch Dip and are available nationwide in a 2.5-oz. bag for $1.49 and a 7.5-oz. bag for $4.29. The two companies say they’re planning to bring other innovations to market soon.

A cross between a tortilla chip and a potato chip, Kellogg Co.’s Pringles’ Tortilla Chips in Southwestern Ranch, Truly Original and Nacho Cheese may just be recreating the crispy, thin texture of Pringles potato chips in corn tortilla chip form. Available stacked in the boldly decorated Pringles canisters, the first-ever tortilla/potato chip hybrids debuted earlier this year, loaded with taste-tingling ingredients.

“Pringles Tortillas are the brand’s first new product since Kellogg Co. acquired them in 2012, and this launch represents the first time that Pringles is introducing a tortilla chip,” notes Raj Joshi, vice president of savory snacks at Battle Creek, MI-based Kellogg.

Five Real Sliced Potatoes varieties hitting store shelves this summer include: Olive Oil, a nonGMO Project-verified flavor; Sea Salt; Sea Salt + Vinegar; Hickory Honey BBQ; and Cheddar + Roasted Tomato. All five have a retail price of $3.29 per 4-oz. bag.


Packaging, graphic updates

Mikesell’s completely rebranded its potato chip and kettle lines at the end of 2012, Mapp points out. “Our goal was to leverage the history and legacy of the brand, increase appetite appeal with photography of mouthwatering product shots, be more transparent with our nutrition facts and place them up front on the labeling, to better inform consumers of how much saturated fat, sodium and sugar is in each serving,” he explains. “This improves the overall brand perception on shelf. All of these initiatives are benefits our customers are looking for.”

Lately, Snak King is using more gusseted-style bags to package its chips, lately, as well as reclosable packages, says Papiri.

At Phoenix-based Inventure Foods, the new Canyon Cut line of kettle-cooked chips, launched earlier this year, swaps out oils high in trans-fats in favor of avocado and olive oils, which boast healthy monounsaturated fats. Avocado Oil Canyon Cut and Olive Oil Canyon Cut chips feature natural ingredients and contain no cholesterol or monosodium glutamate. “We cook both of these products in 100% avocado oil and 100% olive oil, respectively,” says Steve Sklar, senior vice president and general manager.

Inventure’s TGI Friday’s Potato Skins line now comes in a Bacon Ranch flavor. The restaurant-inspired potato skins snack chips are currently available in convenience stores and vending machines nationwide.

Made from real potatoes, they use dual-sheeting technology to create a dark side and a light side, just like real potato skins. They are packed in brightly printed 1.75- and 3-oz. bags that sell for $1 and $1.99-$2.19, respectively.

“To satisfy the current cravings of our consumers, we’re introducing a product that combines two flavors—bacon and ranch—which are growing now more than ever,” says Sklar. “Flavor development and innovation are always top of mind for us. We’re looking forward to continuing to build the brand’s portfolio with delicious snacks that consumers will fall in love with.” The Potato Skins are also available in Cheddar Bacon, Sour Cream & Onion, Cheddar Sour Cream, Jalapeno Cheddar and Chili Cheese.


Baked chips still cookin’

Poised for growth, according to Papiri, are new age and value-added healthy snacks, as well as baked platforms. “And ethnic offerings, especially Hispanic/Mexican profiles, are very much in demand,” he says.

New age is very new. Seaweed chips, such as Ocean’s Halo version, and exotics like Hardbite Parsnip Chips and other root vegetable chips, are growing in popularity. Naturally Homegrown Foods Ltd., in Maple Ridge, BC, launched Hardbite Parsnip Chips in March. The light and cream-colored fried chips are sweet and crunchy, created via the company’s hand-crafted cooking process.


Pleasing those customers

Snack manufacturers have the challenge of achieving consumers’ multifaceted demands, says Thomas. “Delivering affordability, quality, great taste, healthier options and attractive packaging in one product is a tall bill,” she says. “But a successful product must align better with [the] value [proposition] than its competitors. Quality and taste are key factors to success. However, affordability is also a major factor for a large majority of consumers.”

Rohani-Cuetara believes in health for generations to come. “Our pledge is to create healthier choices without sacrificing taste,” she says.

Papiri adds that “you also have to have consistent packaging and a good marketing message. We’d like to change the perception that snack products are often characterized as junk foods when so many great, innovative products are emerging.”