It’s a simple snack offering satiety, energy, savory flavors and a hint of sweetness. It’s endlessly customizable. It’s portable. It’s even a bit nostalgic, and it typically has a relatively healthful nutrient profile.

It’s no wonder, therefore, that snack mixes are experiencing popularity with today’s shopper compared to some other grab-and-go options.

Market data

Data from IRI, Chicago, shows that sales of nutritional snacks and trail mix exceeded $1.0 billion in the 52 weeks ending May 17, 2015, up 2.07 percent in dollar sales from the previous year. Snack nuts also showed strength, up 3.38 percent in dollar sales to $4.4 billion.

Not surprisingly, a big chunk of the success for trail mixes has been due to a 9 percent increase in private label products. Retailers across various channels continue to capitalize on shopper desire for a quick nutritional snack, with Target, Walgreens, Whole Foods and others investing into development of strong private label snack mix and nut brands.

Another notable performer was Kar’s Nuts, up 21.05 percent in dollar sales. The company offers its popular Sweet & Salty mix in various packaging formats, including single-serve and resealable stand-up pouches.

Looking back

Trail mix is one of the fastest-growing healthy snacks of 2014. And according to the September 2014 “Snack Attack” global snacking survey from Nielsen, 61 percent of consumers buy snacks to boost energy levels—a goal trail mix is known for meeting. Further, Nielsen reports that 64 percent of consumers look for chocolate as a snack, 62 percent seek fruit, and 41 percent look for nuts and/or seeds—a classic combination for snack products like trail mix. And unlike many other snacks requiring extensive makeovers to meet increasing demands for health and clean labels, many trail mixes naturally boast simple, easy-to-understand ingredient statements. As such, trail mix has always been an inherently healthy and familiar option.

“Recent research from Innova Market Insights revealed that the biggest driving factors and trends in the snack market are healthy images and attributes,” says Molly Spence, director, North America, Almond Board of California, Modesto, CA. “Halfway through 2014, there were already 29 percent more product launches tracked claiming ‘high fiber’ while using nuts than occurred in 2013.”

When asked about almond consumption specifically, 49 percent of consumers surveyed by the Sterling-Rice Group stated that they consumed whole almonds with other mixed nuts and dried fruit, ranging from a frequency of once a day to several times per week or month.

Looking ahead

It’s difficult to talk about health demands in today’s marketplace without touching on the clean-label trend. According to data from The Hartman Group, one-third of adults want food products with no preservatives and/or chemical additives. Nearly 30 percent demand no high fructose corn syrup. And more than one-quarter want foods with ingredients they can recognize. As simple blends of ingredients like nuts, seeds, dried fruit, candy pieces, pretzels and crunchy baked pieces, trail mix often makes the grade.

Pair this with the inherent nutritional value of fruits and nuts, and trail mix becomes a trendy option. Almonds, specifically, pack in 4 grams of fiber and 6 grams of protein per ounce. “Ounce for ounce, almonds are the tree nut highest in protein, fiber, vitamin E, calcium (75 milligrams per ounce), riboflavin and niacin,” says Spence. “They also have 13 grams of ‘good’ unsaturated fat and only 1 gram of saturated fat.” The 15 different almond forms—from diced and chopped to roasted and butter—offer many different trail mix application options. And since it’s a recognizable ingredient, it appeals to clean-label shoppers.

Tom Payne, food industry consultant, U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council, Folsom, CA, suggests product developers pair dried blueberries with other antioxidant-rich ingredients, such as walnuts, pecans and chocolate chips, in a trail mix. “The natural dried blueberry area, such as the freeze-dried and microwave-dried, has a lot of potential with nut mixes and works very well with moisture capability,” he says.

The good news for manufacturers is that the dried blueberry market is a “win-win” when it comes to pricing and supply, Payne adds. “The prices are the most reasonable in years, and this is because of the stable and steady supply of raw materials from the frozen channel that go into the dried processing,” he explains.

Blueberries also meet consumers’ nutritional demands, offering polyphenols, vitamin C, manganese and dietary fiber in just 80 calories per cup.

But it’s not just a health game. According to Brendan Honan, global marketing director, John B. Sanfilippo & Son Inc., Elgin, IL, consumers are looking for two additional trends when it comes to their snacks and trail mix: adventurous flavors and convenience.

“Most successful products address at least one of those macro trends,” Honan says. In January, his company launched Fisher Nut Exactly, which Honan says hits all three consumer must-haves. The product is a combination of roasted nuts and popcorn, which is then rolled into a bite-sized snack and dipped in milk chocolate, dark chocolate, peanut butter or salted caramel. Each snack bite is just 15–16 calories and contains no artificial preservatives.

This new launch aligns with 2015 data from Innova Market Insights revealing a rise in sweet and salty trail mix bars, with ingredients like dark chocolate, almonds and coconut, or fruit such as cranberries, apricots, raisins or dates.

“The future of the nuts and trail mix category is bright, considering how often consumers are snacking and the important attributes they are seeing from their snack products,” says Spence.

 “Nuts and trail mixes are well-positioned versus other snacks, given the health benefits of nuts and consumers’ desire for protein,” says Honan . “Consumers are snacking more often during the day, and looking for quick bursts of energy to get them through the day. Brands need to continue to provide innovation that addresses these macro consumer trends.”