Snacking has become increasingly more popular, especially among the millennial generation—and luckily both millennials and older consumers are in search of options that provide qualities like higher protein, cleaner labels and bolder, more creative flavors.

Manufacturers of snack mixes and nuts and the organizations who represent them say they can hit that sweet spot, including any salty, savory and spicy spots consumers might desire.


Market data

Sales in the snack nuts/seeds/corn nuts category grew modestly for the 52 weeks ending April 22, up 1.06 percent to $5.3 billion, according to data from IRI, Chicago. Sales of snack nuts, by far the largest subcategory, grew 1.86 percent to $4.7 billion. Private label in the aggregate led all brands with $1.4 billion in sales, up 9.39 percent from a year earlier. Kraft Heinz relies heavily on its Planters brand in this category, and it was the top brand for the year, taking in $994.1 million despite a dollar sales drop of 8.34 percent. Wonderful Pistachios & Almonds saw sales of $737.61 million, up 13.12 percent. The Blue Diamond brand was down 1.89 percent to $502.7 million.

Sales in the nutritional snacks/trail mixes segment, part of the catch-all “miscellaneous snacks” category as compiled by IRI, were up 1.96 percent to $1.2 billion. Private label also leads this segment, with $553.96 million in sales, up 4.89 percent from the previous year. Planters is also the top brand in this segment, with sales at $68.9 million, down 17.94 percent. Its Nutrition line likewise saw a loss, down 23.62 percent to $34.3 million. Sahale Snacks saw an up year with an increase of 20.12 percent to $31.5 million.


Looking back

Snack nuts like walnuts have become increasingly desirable for both manufacturers and consumers as a product that exists in nature and does not need to be fabricated, says Kantha Shelke, scientific expert, California Walnut Commission, Folsom, CA.

“Without sacrificing flavor, texture or nutrition, they give you everything people seek in a snack,” Shelke says. “People have been eating walnuts for a very, very long time. They fit in very nicely, whether you’re looking at a cultural food, or somebody who is environmentally aware, or something that just tastes good and is good for you.”

The recent trend toward mindful eating has boosted the appeal of walnuts, Shelke says. “People are looking for whole foods. They don’t want highly fabricated foods. At the end of the day, people want a food product that they don’t have to feel guilty about.”

Nuts work well for people who want to boost their intake of plant-based proteins, Shelke says. “High-protein platforms are attracting new customers. Many of them have tried something, and the first reason they try it is because it has protein.”

Consumers are snacking more than ever, especially those of the millennial generation. Half of millennials say they consume an average of four snacks per day, and they’re demanding more creativity and versatility in their snacking options, says Jeff Smith, director of marketing, Blue Diamond Almonds Global Ingredients Division, Sacramento, CA.

“They’re reaching for snack mixes with interesting ingredient combinations that have proven health, nutrition and satiety benefits,” says Smith. “The ‘old standby’ trail mix ingredients of raisins and nuts have given way to mixes that include new types of seeds, berries, dried tropical fruits, pepitas, wasabi peas, chia sticks and more.” Almonds hold their place as an important foundational ingredient in snacks mixes and nut products, he notes, providing a powerful combination of protein and fiber in every handful—plus calcium, vitamin E, phosphorous and riboflavin.

Blue Diamond has been working with sweet and salty flavor combinations, which continue to be popular with consumers, Smith says. “Mild-to-salty almond flavors pair well with both milk and dark chocolate, making them an ideal ingredient for a sweet and savory snack mix,” he says. “Almonds can also complement more natural sweet ingredients, such as dried fruits and honey, which are popular ingredients in trail mixes. The natural ‘crunch factor’ delivered by almonds is also a plus, adding texture.”

The Almond Board of California has noticed continuing growth of new products that pair almonds and sea salt. Innova Market Insights has named “lighter enjoyment” as a top trend for 2018, referring to the consumer pattern of seeking healthy ways to snack without sacrificing taste and indulgence.

“Premium experiences and ingredients continue to grow steadily—like almonds paired with sea salt, or both healthy and indulgent combinations like almonds, popcorn, cacao nibs and freeze-dried berries,” says Molly Spence, director of North America, Almond Board of California, Modesto. She also points toward small-portion packaging. That way, she says, you can get that great feeling of having your snack mix and eating it, too.

Innova also has noted that plant-based ingredient combinations with popular health claims like clean label have shown strong potential, which includes the pairing of almonds with other plant-based ingredients like nuts, seeds and dried fruits like apple or goji berries, Spence notes.

“Almonds’ crunch and subtle buttery taste make them the perfect partner for other plant-based ingredients like nuts, seeds and dried fruits, as well as chile, coconut or moringa, if you’re thinking along more-global lines,” says Spence. “And plant-based ingredients like almonds are perfect for achieving claims like clean label and vegan.”

Consumers don’t want to choose between taste and health when it comes to snacks, and most think they don’t need to, so snack-makers need to find a workable marriage between the two, says Ashley Tople, marketing director, Planters, Kraft Heinz Co., Glenview, IL. The Planters brand recently launched the Crunchers line, crispy coated peanuts in four flavors: Mesquite BBQ, Cinnamon Brown Sugar, Hot n’ Spicy and Sea Salt & Black Pepper.

“Consumers are looking for bold and interesting flavors but delivered in a more premium, all-natural way with no artificial colors, flavors or preservatives,” Tople says. “Flavors for snack mixes and nuts are being inspired by salty snacks, including flavors such as barbecue, cinnamon or sun-dried tomato basil.”

Most consumers want craveable tastes and textures in their salty snacks, and Planters has offered a variety of nut combinations in its Mixed Nut and NUT-rition varieties, says Tople.


Looking forward

Going forward, Shelke expects walnuts and other types of nuts to continue to grow in popularity and versatility. Walnuts pair well with dark chocolate, she notes, smoothing out any potentially bitter flavors and providing a higher melting point. She also predicts growth in savory pairings, such as with sesame, cayenne and jalapeño, as the Latino and Asian populations in the U.S. continue to grow.

“There’s a huge demographic that is used to snacks with a bit of a kick,” says Shelke. “If you want to go a little edgy, sea salt and caramel have come into a lot of different things. Coffee and walnuts go together really well. There’s a world of opportunity waiting for walnuts.”

Sweet and savory profiles, along with ethnic-inspired flavors, will gain influence in the years to come, says Smith. “We’re seeing new flavors like honey sesame and sweet chipotle gain consumer favor. We’re continually working with manufacturers to help them create snack mixes with almonds that appeal to these evolving taste preferences, including flavors such as maple, honey and coconut.”

In addition, Blue Diamond expects greater demand for snack boxes and kits with small servings of a few different food items in a convenient package that’s portable and great for anytime snacking, Smith says. “Once dominated by meat and cheese combinations, many of these kits now offer natural, less-processed ingredients, such as almonds, fruits and natural cheeses, for more-balanced nutrition and flavor variety.”