Snack mixes and nuts have always been a popular snack because they have a “health halo,” and are also usually available in on-the-go varieties. Over the past year, consumers have continued to search for better-for-you snack mixes, but at the same time, they’re also looking for new and innovative flavors and varieties that are perhaps more exotic than previous incarnations, with touches of indulgence.

For the 52-week period ending on August 13, 2017, per IRI, Chicago, nutritional snack and trail mixes brought in $1.1 billion in revenue, with private label leading the way at $523.0 million. Kraft Heinz, with its iconic Planters brand, is at No. 2 with $124.8 million in sales. The segment grew 1.90 percent in dollar sales from the previous period.

The Hershey Co. saw notable dollar sales growth of 24.79 percent to $70.5 million, fueled by growth of its Reese’s Snack Mix, up 6.14 percent to $34.3 million and the new Take 5 Snack Mix, which brought in $7.1 million. Kar’s Nuts also saw strong growth as a company, up 15.71 percent to $53.1 million. The Frito-Lay Nut Harvest brand grew by 105.98 percent to $20.6 million.

The snack nuts segment accounted for $4.6 billion in sales, up 0.31 percent. Private label again came out on top at $1.2 billion. While Kraft Heinz sits firmly in the No. 2 slot at $1.2 billion—again, with Planters leading the way—The Wonderful Co. saw its range of pistachios and almonds grow 19.65 percent to $692.2 million. Frito-Lay Nut Harvest likewise saw growth in this segment, up 58.03 percent to $107.3 million.


On-trend snacking

Snack mixes and nuts are a good fit for today’s increasingly health-conscious public. “Consumers are looking for snacks that pack a mix of protein and fiber—the nutrients that help people feel fuller longer,” says Jeff Manning, chief marketing officer, Cherry Marketing Institute, Dewitt, MI. “Consumers are also seeking healthy, U.S. and locally grown ingredients.”

Consumers want to know more about the food that they are eating. “Brand authenticity and transparency are extremely important to consumers,” comments Howard Brandeisky, senior vice president, global marketing & consumer solutions, John B. Sanfilippo & Son, Elgin, IL. “In addition to making sure the ingredients used are the highest quality available, consumers value understanding exactly where these ingredients are sourced. Consumers are also looking for clean ingredients.”

These products tap directly into the protein trend. “Snack nuts are very much on trend nowadays, as they offer a wholesome, convenient way to add protein to your diet with minimal ingredients or processing. Consumers are snacking more and looking for snack options that fit into a healthier lifestyle, and nuts are a great option,” comments Camille Vareille, head of brand building, Planters, Kraft Heinz, Chicago.

“Trail mixes and nut mixes can span a broad spectrum of consumer needs by adding ingredients to snack nuts and making the blend either more indulgent or with added benefits,” continues Vareille.

Soumya Nair, consumer insights manager, Kerry, Beloit, WI, notes that company research shows there is a huge opportunity for trail mix as an indulgent snack that calls for variations in the ingredients mix. She notes consumers want a good balance of sweet with salty, healthy and indulgent components within a trail mix.

“Consumers are demanding indulgent, renaissance/throwback flavors, savory-sweet hybrids, and ethnic flavor fusions,” notes Janet Clendenning, account manager, snacks, Kerry. “Snack manufacturers are looking to wow consumers with a combination of novel flavor concepts and ingredients with a health halo, all at a reasonable price point.”

Molly Spence, director of North America, Almond Board of California, Modesto, CA, points toward ethnic possibilities. “Consumers globally are curious about new combinations of flavors and textures, and food manufacturers from different parts of the world are constantly exchanging ideas and being creative with new nut products—so much so that it accounted for a 30 percent increase in nut snack introductions last year,” she says.

“Driven by adventurous millennial taste buds, bold and spicy combinations of trail mixes are rising. Preferences also vary by gender—men prefer more spicy and unflavored trail mixes, while women gravitate towards sweet or sweet and savory flavor combinations,” remarks Nair.

David Woollard, group product manager, seasoning, tna, Dallas, suggests liquid flavors, such as chili oil, to boost flavor intensity: “Liquid flavors work well during manufacturing, as they soak into the product, intensifying the seasoning.”


The right stuff 

“Consumers view blueberries as value-added, wholesome, natural ingredients,” states Tom Payne, industry specialist, U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council, Folsom, CA. “In key-person interviews, 88.8 percent of consumers are willing to pay 50 cents or more for products with real blueberries, and focus group respondents would pay 15 to 25 percent more.”

Manning suggests looking at cherries as an ingredient option. “Montmorency tart cherries are 100 percent grown in the U.S. on small family farms, and are a popular ingredient for inclusion due to their unique sweet-tart taste.”

Almonds factor significantly into the category. “Almonds are U.S. consumers’ favorite snack nut and the nut they eat most frequently as a snack,” says Spence.

“Over the last decade, almonds have played an important role in the growing snack industry,” says Jeff Smith, director of marketing, Global Ingredients Division, Blue Diamond Almonds, Sacramento, CA.

Protein-rich beef jerky is also going into snack mixes. “Nuts already have an inherent ‘health halo,’ so it’s a natural progression for manufacturers to innovate with protein,” says David Woollard, group product manager, seasoning, tna, Dallas. “Manufacturers can easily add beef jerky to their trail mix for an added protein boost. Plant protein is also seeing more interest from consumers, with peas, beans and chickpeas demonstrating further appeal.

Kraft Heinz recently launched the P3 Portable Protein Pack line. One product combines Planters peanuts, beef jerky and sunflower seeds, offering 13 grams of protein per serving. “Protein is one of the key nutritional benefits that consumers are looking to add to their diet, and adding jerky to nuts is a way to not only provide more protein, but also a more-complete source of protein with both plant- and meat-based ingredients,” notes Vareille.

“More seeds are being featured in snack mixes, such as pumpkin seeds or pepitas, sunflower seeds, flax seeds, and chia seeds,” comments Brian Jorgensen, marketing manager, McCormick Flavor Solutions, Hunt Valley, MD.

Health is at the core of many new products. “We’ve launched three wellness mixes under our Orchard Valley Harvest brand,” says Brandeisky. “Our Heart Healthy Blend may reduce the risk of heart disease, and scientific evidence suggests that eating 1.5 ounces per day of most nuts as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol may reduce the risk of heart disease.”

Manning notes manufacturers are seeking foods that have strong science behind them: “There are more than 50 scientific studies supporting the health benefits of Montmorency tart cherries, ranging from improved sleep efficiency and duration, to cardiovascular benefits, to helping aid with muscle inflammation and exercise recovery.”


Equipment solutions

“Innovation in snack food equipment has meant that there can be much more precision with blending individual nut varieties for snack mixes,” says Woollard. “This allows ingredients to be measured to a higher degree of accuracy, and manufacturers to maintain control over both recipe and costs.” This is particularly important product premiumization. “With more-expensive ingredients, every gram counts.”

tna recently launched a new turnkey blending system, the tna rofloVMBS 3, a vibratory motion blending system that incorporates tna’s weighing technology to ensure ingredients are measured to the highest level of accuracy for maximum system precision and control over recipe and costs. The system can incorporate up to 22 different ingredient input modules, all centrally controlled by a single system.

In February, Key Technology, Walla Walla, WA, introduced the VERYX digital sorters for nuts and dried fruits, designed specifically to identify and remove foreign material and defects. VERYX is ideal for sorting walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts, pistachios, and other nuts and fruits. It’s also the only nut and dried fruit sorter that can be configured with front- and rear-mounted laser sensors and cameras, to achieve all-sided surface inspection.

“Historically, digital sorters have presented an inherent tradeoff between managing product quality and process yield,” says Marco Azzaretti, advanced inspection systems product manager, Key Technology. “As you set up a sorter to remove more shell, foreign material and product defects from shelled nuts, false rejects typically increase, too, which hurts yield. Now, modern digital sorting systems for nuts have changed that paradigm.”

Charles Ross & Son Co., Hauppauge, NY, recently introduced new Ribbon Blender features such as scrapers that weld to the spokes and ribbons, clear view polycarbonate on the cover and shaft guards, and a pneumatically operated spherical disc valve, which provides a large opening and minimizes dead space. Ingredients are loaded into the blender’s U-shaped trough, and mixed by a horizontal agitator consisting of inner and outer helical ribbons.

“The position and precise pitch of each ribbon produces a well-balanced axial and radial flow pattern, promoting fast and thorough mixing despite differences in each particle shape, size and density,” explains Christine Banaszek, sales manager, Charles Ross & Son. The Ribbon Blender can also be equipped with an interchangeable paddle agitator for handling very fragile ingredients.

EnWave Corp., Vancouver, British Columbia, offers radiant energy vacuum (REV) technology that can help the industry offer innovative and unique snacks, including components potentially suited to snack mixes. “REV technology achieves low-temperature, accelerated dehydration by applying a vacuum within the main chamber of the machinery to lower the atmospheric pressure,” says Brent Charleton, senior vice president, business development. “Depending on the product load, a specific amount of microwave energy is introduced to homogenously remove moisture at controlled low temperatures where the vapor pressure will equal the atmospheric pressure created.”

REV technology can be used to produce shelf-stable yogurt, cheese, fruit, vegetables, beans, meat and starch-based products, notes Charleton. “REV offers its user the ability to produce clean-label, unique products that can’t be replicated using other technologies, thus providing our licensed partners with distinct competitive advantages. REV-dried yogurt snacks can retain high claimable levels of probiotic activity and offer varying textures, from crunchy to chewy with several flavor profiles.”

One REV technology success story is Moon Cheese—crunchy cheese snacks made from 100 percent cheese—available at Starbucks and a variety of national retailers. Charleton notes that the brand, brought to market through a partnership with NutraDried LLP, has grown from less than $300,000 to over $5 million in the past three years. (For the complete, exclusive interview with Charleston, visit


Upcoming trends

“America’s ethnic diversity, in population and cuisine, is driving an unprecedented level of experimentation,” says Manning. “Consumers continue to become more adventurous with ethnic flavor profiles, giving ingredient decision-makers the opportunity to also become more adventurous in future flavor applications.” He notes flavors like cumin, turmeric and curry are becoming more mainstream.

“We will likely see product developers continuing to incorporate global flavors into their products, such as African, Caribbean and Hawaiian,” says Spence. “These flavors can be incorporated into nut products and mixes using ingredients such as chile and coconut flakes, spice mixes, and curry powders, all of which partner really well with almonds in all of their forms.”

Spicy nut options will continue to evolve, says Jorgensen. “Ethnic flavors like Asian barbecue or peri-peri—sweet and spicy, which pair nicely with nuts—will become more descriptive and call out their flavor sources, such as honey sriracha.”

There’s an opportunity to combine more sweet profiles in healthier snack mixes to attract consumers seeking a permissible indulgence, remarks Jonas Feliciano, market research and consumer insights manager, Kerry. “The coming year should see the continued proliferation of brands and SKUs for snack mixes, as more players seek to leverage their brand names across additional segments—whether that be continued flavor exploration to satiate the adventurous snacker, or specific health benefits to target consumers seeking functional foods.”

Snack time is consistently flexible and evolving, as consumers reach for their favorite snacks all day long.

“We are really seeing the distinction between snack and meal time blurring, as consumers are snacking at any time of the day on whatever they feel like eating,” says Spence. “This has created an opening for visually appealing snacks with high authenticity and concise ingredient lists.”