While many snack categories find themselves reassessing and reformulating amidst healthy eating trends, the snack and nut mix category benefits from being seen as an intrinsically healthy choice. “Fruit and nuts have a naturally healthy halo—people think of them as good-for-you snacking options,” says Jeannie Swedberg, director of business development, Tree Top, Inc., Selah, WA.

As such, the snack mix and nut segments maintain widespread appeal. According to IRI, Chicago, sales of nutritional snacks and trail mixes saw 1.50 percent growth in the 52 weeks ending March 25, 2018, accounting for $1.2 billion in sales. Private label leads the segment with 47.12 percent share. Sahale Snacks saw the highest margin of growth, up 18.82 percent to $30.9 million.

Snack nuts accounted for $4.7 billion for the year, up 2.07 percent, per IRI. Private label again leads the segment, up 7.47 percent to $1.4 billion. The Wonderful Co., which sells pistachios and almonds, continues to perform well, up 15.99 percent to $737.2 million for the period.

“Nut snacks are becoming increasingly popular, driven by growing consumer interest in plant-based foods and protein-rich foods,” says Jeff Smith, director of marketing, Blue Diamond Almonds Global Ingredients Division, Sacramento, CA.


Flavor strategies

As is the case in most snack categories, clean label is driving back-to-basics flavor trends in snack and nut mixes. “While flavors are always important to consumers, we do see a return to a focus on the purity of natural ingredients,” says Howard Brandeisky, senior vice president of global marketing and customer solutions, John B. Sanfillipo & Son, Inc., Elgin, IL, owner of the Fisher Nuts and Orchard Valley Harvest brands. “Consumers want to be able to pronounce the ingredients in their flavored snack foods and understand how the foods are flavored.”

Simple sea salt, for example, is one trend Brandeisky is noticing. To that end, the new Fisher Oven Roasted Never Fried line is made with just nuts and sea salt. “It’s a return to our roots when we started by selling in-shell peanuts almost 100 years ago,” he adds.

On the other end of the spectrum are the bold flavor trends making waves across the snack industry. “I think driving this trend for savory flavors is the consumer viewing these savory type snacks more as supplements to meals, and eating them at more unconventional times during the day,” says Dennis J. Reid, vice president of sales and marketing, Inclusion Technologies LLC, Atchison, KS.

Interest in bold flavors connects to America’s ethnic diversity in population and cuisine, which is driving experimentation, notes Mollie Woods, executive director, Cherry Industry Administrative Board, DeWitt, MI. “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.” She says flavors like cumin, turmeric and curry are becoming more mainstream.

Asian-inspired flavors like sriracha, turmeric, matcha, cardamom and tikka masala are on the radar for Jacque Taylor, director of marketing, Lehi Valley Trading Company, Mesa, AZ. The company recently released a line of Sriracha Kettle Sweet Nuts.

“Asian flavors are coming on strong—and it’s not just your typical Chinese or Japanese soy, ginger, teriyaki, wasabi, etc.,” says Swedberg. “Indian and other Southeast Asian curry flavors are gaining in popularity.”

Taylor has also noticed trends toward Latin American flavors like avocado, plantain and guava. “I think these trends are being driven again by millennials,” she says. “They are the largest and most powerful consumer bloc, and from research we know they demand more-complex, bold and spicy flavors.”

Global flavors from Korea, the Middle East and the Caribbean are of interest to Molly Spence, director of North America, Almond Board of California, Modesto. She suggests ingredients like chiles, coconut flakes and curry powders. Chef Rob Corliss, owner, All Things Epicurean, Nixa, MO, created an Asian-inspired Togarashi Nori Almond Crunch mix for Almond Board of California that stars Japanese “seven spice” shichimi togarashi, nori and ponzu flavors (see “Togarashi Nori Almond Crunch” at www.snackandbakery.com for the full recipe concept).

“Old cultures relied on seeds and nuts for indulgence, and are now the reason for introducing seeds and nuts into snacks and foods eaten as snacks with an ethnic twist,” says Kantha Shelke, principal, Corvus Blue, and advisor to the California Walnut Commission, Folsom.

Sweet heat is on the radar at the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council, San Mateo, CA, as the berry pairs well with spicy, botanical, floral and citrus flavors. “Blueberries make luscious synergies with cayenne, garlic, mustard, tamarind, wasabi, etc., and with herbs from tarragon to mint,” says Tom Payne, industry consultant. The fruitiness of blueberries also makes sense in a mix that relies on chocolate for sweetness.


Ingredient trends

Protein is a strong category driver in snack mixes and nuts, helping satisfy hunger between meals or helping a snack become a meal replacement, notes Taylor. As such, he suggests ingredients like jerky and superfoods like puffed quinoa, chia seeds and hemp seeds.

Dried fruit remains popular, especially as it provides much needed fiber alongside protein-packed nuts and grains, says Woods. This also helps consumers feel fuller longer post-snack.

Specialty diets like Paleo, vegan and gluten-free are influencing the ingredients used in snack mixes. To meet demand for protein-rich but vegan demands, Inclusion Technologies has brought to market a new bacon bit analogue based on a soy-based vegetable protein. “We also have a new range of nut-free pralines using our proprietary Nadanut product,” Reid adds, building on the awareness of nut allergies.

Plant-based ingredients are top of mind at the California Walnut Commission, with Shelke pointing out that the market can expect to see more snack mixes featuring nuts, seeds, dried fruits, and dried bits of vegetables like kale and carrots.

“Paleo, vegan and gluten-free ‘food tribes’ are driving product innovators to reformulate products across nearly every category—snacking included—to reach these important niche targets,” says Woods.

Going forward, ingredients that take these trends one step further will resonate with shoppers. That may take the shape of focusing on local, regional or varietal ingredients like Washington-grown apples or pears, says Swedberg.

Or, it may take the shape of certifications like the new Real Blueberries Seal from the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council, which assures customers that the product contains real highbush blueberries or real blueberry products like purees, juices, or concentrates.

These points of differentiation can help the already healthy level of growth in snack mixes and nuts continue into the months and years ahead.


Controlling contaminants

Tree nuts can sometimes be vehicles for foodborne pathogens like Salmonella, notes Steve Blackowiak, director of food safety, research, and development at Bühler Aeroglide, Cary, NC, and producers of snack mixes and nuts often need to have a verified kill step in the process.

“The high-capacity AeroRoast has a unique dual plenum reversing airflow, with individually controlled process zones, to ensure product gets an even exposure to heat from left to right across the conveyor, as well as top to bottom through the product bed depth,” says Blackowiak. It also helps to minimize operating costs with energy efficient components like direct drive recirculation fans and high efficiency drive motors and burners.

Also, the AeroRoast is capable of being validated as a kill step in the roasting of peanuts due to its ability to uniformly heat the entire product bed. A recent study conducted jointly with USDA confirmed a 5-log reduction of Salmonella.

According to Blackowiak, air flow is dramatically increased in the AeroRoast, because of its dual plenum design. “Compared to other designs, operators generally experience a 30 percent increase in airflow. This means more heat is transferred in a shorter amount of time.” The AeroRoast’s dual plenum design has side-mounted fans that offer better process control. Combined with the normal resistance of the product on the conveyor, air flow is evened out without a diffuser plate. “The result is uniformity in color, moisture and quality.”