Whether hard or soft, pretzels have long benefited from an inherently simplistic approach. After all, the core ingredient makeup for pretzel dough is predominantly flour, salt, leavening and water, likely with a bit of malt extract for flavor and browning.

While simple, unadorned pretzels still rule the category, adventuresome flavors continue to breathe new life into the market—and the increasing popularity of some products shows that simplicity isn’t the only strategy to success, as bold, ethnic and otherwise innovative flavor profiles cultivate a dedicated audience.


Market data

After several years of flat to declining sales performance, the pretzel segment within the salty snacks category is experiencing growth. According to data from IRI, Chicago, dollar sales of pretzels grew 1.61 percent to $1.2 billion, based on data for the 52 weeks ending April 22, 2018. One of the key companies contributing to the growth is Snyder’s-Lance, now a Campbell Soup Co. business, which grew 2.02 percent, resulting in $462.4 million in dollar sales. Its key pretzel brand, Snyder’s of Hanover, grew 2.89 percent to $431.6 million. Snyder’s of Hanover 100 Calorie Pack Pretzel grew 8.95 percent to $22.8 million.

Mars Inc. offers its Combos products in the pretzels category. The brand was up 1.26 percent to $127.0 million for the reporting period, per IRI.

Another top performer in the segment was Utz Quality Foods, which overall grew 11.25 percent to $100.7 million. Its core Utz brand grew 12.81 percent to $92.1 million, while Utz Select grew 13.95 percent to $3.8 million.

Unique Pretzel Bakery had another good year as its Unique Splits brand grew 11.82 percent to $8.9 million.

One standout performer was Dot’s Homestyle Pretzels, which had a second year in a row of over 100 percent growth. For the current reporting period, the company saw its product increase 163.53 percent to $16.7 million. The brand climbed from its 2017 position as the No. 14 brand in the country to its current position of No. 8.

The frozen pretzel segment saw a decline of 1.63 percent to $75.6 million. J&J Snack Foods Corp. holds almost an 80 percent market share in the segment, but saw a decline of 1.75 percent to $60.2 million, per IRI. One area of growth for J&J Snack Foods was its Super Pretzel Soft Pretzel Bites, which delivered 11.10 percent growth in dollar sales to $3.4 million. While a smaller presence, one bright spot in the category was Hanover Foods Corp., which saw growth of 21.34 percent to $4.2 million.

The chocolate covered salted snack segment within miscellaneous snacks includes various types of chocolate-covered pretzels. The category grew 6.14 percent to $200.7 million. The top performer in the segment is Flipz from DeMets Candy Co., up 5.42 percent to $62.6 million for the period. and private label realizing 30.79 percent increase to achieve $22.5 million in dollar sales, per IRI for the 52 week period.


Looking back

In an effort to continue to raise the bar on differentiating factors like clean label and better-for-you, snack producers are looking toward use of ingredients like sprouted grains and sorghum.

Unique Pretzel Bakery, Reading, PA, offers Sprouted Pretzel Splits and Shells. According to Justin Spannuth, vice president/chief operating officer, the products use 100 percent whole-grain sprouted flour. “When the grain is sprouted, the nutrients become more available and may also be easier to absorb and digest.”

Spannuth notes that this past year, efforts have been focused on achieving organic and non-GMO certifications for both products. Unique Pretzel Bakery recently released new and refreshed packaging to communicate these distinct product attributes.

James C. Curry, Ph.D., president, International Food Systems LLC, New Braunfels, TX, notes that sprouted sorghum grain and sorghum flour are excellent sources of fiber, with 6.3 grams and 6.6 grams per 100 grams, respectively. Sorghum has been gaining popularity as an ingredient in salty snacks over the past few years.

Quinn Snacks—the 2017 Snack Food & Wholesale Bakery “Bakery of the Year”—includes Kansas-grown sorghum in its pretzel products, outlined via its farm-to-bag philosophy. Shoppers can learn more about the ingredients and where the ingredients are sourced from, for each bag of product, providing the ultimate in food transparency. This past year, Quinn Snacks launched two new products to add to its portfolio: Maple Oat Twists and Deli Rye Style Pretzel Rods. The Deli Rye Style Pretzels are a unique flavor in a dippable, mini-rod form. The Maple Oat pretzel comes in the twist format and introduces whole-grain oats and Vermont maple syrup for a touch of sweetness. Both varieties are whole-grain, gluten-free and non-GMO.

The first Quinn Snacks foray into pretzels was its Touch of Honey gluten-free pretzels, also made with sorghum and released in April 2017. Quinn Snacks recently secured expanded distribution at Whole Foods Market.

A key aspect of clean label is the consumer desire for natural ingredients. According to Catherine Barry, director of marketing, National Honey Board, Firestone, CO, the pretzel category is seeing increased use of honey. The all-natural sweetener can play many roles in a pretzel formula, both as a sweetener and a flavor.

“Honey delivers an all-natural sweetness to pretzels, while still maintaining a clean label and familiar ingredient statement,” says Barry. “This is important with traditional white flour pretzels, and the growing number of whole-wheat, gluten-free and alternative flour pretzels. In these better-for-you pretzels, honey helps mask the bitter flavors whole grains can carry, and adds a touch of all-natural sweetness to round out a flavor profile.”

Mars Inc. brand Combos recently launched a Honey Sriracha Pretzel, a flavor combination that delivers a well-balanced sweet honey with garlic and chili pepper flavor.

Sweet and spicy continues to manifest itself in salty snacks. Snyder’s-Lance brand Snyder’s of Hanover often capitalizes on flavor adventure via its Pieces line. The company recently offered Sweet Chili Garlic Flavored Pretzel Pieces as an LTO. Other recent launches from the company include an LTO Cheddar Ale Pretzel Pieces, as well as Cinnamon & Sugar Pretzel Pieces and Gluten-Free Hot Buffalo Wing Pretzel Pieces.

Frito-Lay brand Rold Gold added new flavors like Buffalo Wing, Garlic Parmesan and Flamin’ Hot pretzels to its Thin Crisps product line. All indicators point to consumer interest in sweet and heat/spicy and ethnic flavor combinations continuing to grow.


Looking forward

The pretzel category is seeing more bold flavors, an approach that could drive incremental growth. “From a flavor perspective, honey provides a sweet and familiar counterpoint to popular global flavors that may be unfamiliar to customers,” says Barry. “Many of these global flavors provide ample heat and spice to a pretzel formula, and honey’s sweetness helps balance out the overall flavor of the formula.”

Indicators suggest that trends in the pretzel category will remain tied to clean label and better-for-you product positioning, while also building appeal for shoppers seeking bold and ethnic flavors—a balanced approach that will help fuel growth across the category.