Trends in snack mixes and nuts are constantly changing, but many also remain the same, as consumers are constantly searching for better-for-you snacks and the next “big thing.”

According to data from IRI, Chicago, the snack nuts segment grew 1.76 percent to $4.8 billion for the 52 weeks ending December 30, 2018. Private label leads the segment and saw strong growth, up 15.98 percent to $1.5 billion. Kraft Heinz, however, took a hit, down 12.37 percent to $1.0 billion.

The nutritional snacks and trail mixes segment grew 1.75 percent, with sales of $1.17 billion, per IRI. Private label is the clear leader and saw 4.18 percent growth to $565.5 million in sales. Sahale Snacks, a J.M. Smucker Co. business, was up a notable 28.9 percent to $29.4 million.

One clear standout performer for the year was Orchard Valley Harvest, a John B. Sanfilippo & Son (JBSS) brand, up a very strong 93.17 percent to $28.7 million. Another JBSS brand, Southern Style Nuts, grew 4.60 percent to $15.9 million. Overall, JBSS grew a healthy 44.24 percent to $47.7 million in the competitive nutritional snacks and trail mixes segment.


Market drivers

“Trends like health benefits, global tastes and sustainability will drive more food and beverage trends over the next 12 months, according to predictions by the Specialty Food Association’s Trendspotter panel,” says Christie Frazier-Coleman, vice president, marketing, Lehi Valley Trading Co., Mesa, AZ. “These trends apply to the snack food industry nicely. Trail mixes, better-for-you bars and other convenient ways to eat better are continuing to take center stage.” She also noted that plant-based protein options and non-GMO snacks were present in the winner categories at the Winter Fancy Food Show in January.

“The non-GMO and organic trends have spread quickly to nearly all categories of the food industry, including snacks,” says Stephanie Lynch, vice president of sales, marketing, and technology, International Dehydrated Foods, Inc., Springfield, MO. “According to Nielsen, snacks that highlight these claims on-pack are seeing increased sales. Specifically, non-GMO snacks saw an 18.2 percent increase in dollar sales for each of the past five years. Alternatively, snack products without these claims have seen only an increase of 1.2 percent.”

One currently trending ingredient is walnuts. “In the last year alone, we have seen a significant increase in new product development focused on walnuts, from traditional and functional trail mixes to innovative snacking products,” says Jennifer Williams, marketing director, domestic advertising, California Walnut Board and Commission, Folsom, CA.

Williams cites recent product introductions that provide a balance of expected and inspired. “On the traditional side, Diamond of California’s Heirloom Nut + Fruit Walnut Blend offers snackers a mix of walnuts, cranberries and cherries.” On the innovation front, Oberto, more commonly known for its meat snacks, has entered the trail mix category with a Trail Mix with Jerky line that contain pieces of its jerky, as well as components like walnuts, dried fruit and dark chocolate. “Crazy Go Nuts has also brought innovation to the snacking aisle with a complete line of seasoned walnuts in flavors like Chocolate Espresso, Buffalo, Garlic Parmesan, Coconut and more,” she says.

Almonds are also a core nut in mixes. Olomomo, a snack nuts company based in Boulder, CO, is known for its interesting and unexpected flavor combinations, says Harbinder Maan, associate director, trade marketing and stewardship, Almond Board of California, Modesto, CA. The company recently unveiled new flavored almond offerings in their range, which now includes Cinnamon Cayenne, Mango Chipotle and Vanilla Chai.

Recently, almonds have been used in bento boxes, too. “One of the newer and most-interesting snack trends we’ve observed at Blue Diamond is the rise of the bento box style snack kit, which has an emphasis on protein and other healthful ingredients,” says Jeff Smith, director of marketing, Blue Diamond Almonds Global Ingredients Division, Sacramento, CA. “Popular bento box pairings include almonds with apple slices, grapes and cheese slices.” He also noted that in snack and trail mixes, they’re seeing more diverse combinations of components like nuts, seeds, berries, dried tropical fruits, wasabi peas, chia sticks and more.

Smith credits this strong level of innovation to the rise of “on-the-go” lifestyles and a focus on health and convenience. “Consumers are snacking more than ever, and they’re demanding greater versatility and creativity in their snack options. They also have a preference for products that offer interesting ingredient combinations with proven health, nutrition and satiety benefits. Almonds are holding their place as an important foundational ingredient in these mixes.”


Trending today and tomorrow

“We believe the next big thing will be protein crisps and other snack formats that offer nutritive benefits,” says Lynch. “According to Mintel, 94 percent of U.S. adults snack at least once a day, with 50 percent snacking two to three times per day. As snacks continue to become a more-ingrained part of the American diet, the market is ripe for nutritive snack innovations. With both snacking and the appeal of protein on the rise, manufacturers should consider protein-fortified snacks. This type of application could be appealing for a range of consumers: athletes, active consumers, parents and seniors.”

Spicy flavor trends have continued. In October 2018, Mount Franklin Foods released Hoppin’ Chili, a pub-inspired snack mix made with a spicy kick of chili pepper, along with peanuts, honey sesame chips, chickpeas and corn nuts.

And in June 2018, Little Bird Kitchen released its A Hand Full of Hot & Sweet trail mix line. The Fire Walker product includes “Jalapeño Pepper Dark Chocolate Fire Bites” with sweet pineapple and almonds.

“Almonds have a subtle flavor that compliments most every application,” says Smith. “Unseasoned, almonds have a buttery and nutty taste that adds an element of richness to a product without overpowering other flavor profiles. Almonds can also hold a variety of seasonings and coatings, which makes them customizable to any flavor combination, such as honey roasted almonds for a sweet and savory snack mix.”

The R&D team at the Blue Diamond Innovation Center works closely with manufacturing partners to develop new flavors for almonds that appeal to consumer taste preferences, including many sweet and savory flavors, notes Smith. He also says that the “crunch factor” delivered by almonds provides a satisfying contrast to chewy or softer textures of dried fruits and other ingredients in snack mixes.

Kar’s Nuts released its core line with updated packaging in January 2019, including its Sweet ’N Salty Mix, Texas BBQ Mix and PB ’N Dark Chocolate. Its Second Nature brand also released a variety of trail mixes: Wholesome Medley, Honey Mustard Protein, Dark Chocolate Medley and Simplicity Medley.

Adventuresome spices are finding a home in snack nuts and trail mixes. “Almonds’ subtle flavor means that they pair well with all kinds of ingredients and flavor profiles. For this reason, they are increasingly becoming popular as a carrier for globally influenced flavor combinations, such as curry, nori and even moringa,” says Maan.

A great example of almonds’ versatility when it comes to complementing other flavors is in Togarashi Nori Almond Crunch, says Maan. “This concept, created by Chef Rob Corliss of All Things Epicurean, partners whole blanched almonds, blanched almond slivers, sliced almonds, bits of nori, sesame seeds, crisp puffed brown rice, togarashi, ponzu, orange and maple syrup together to create sweet-savory-spicy snack bites.”

As consumers look to snack products to provide on-the-go fuel, or even replace a meal, we are seeing product developers innovate with unique flavors and formats to ensure their snack formulation stands out, explains Maan. “Almonds, in all their forms, have increasingly become a popular ingredient in snacks because they bring nutrition, along with texture and flavor, to satiate consumers.”

Walnuts also bring versatility to snack nuts and trail mixes. “Walnuts’ sweet, mild taste gives them the unique ability to work in both sweet and savory applications,” says Williams.

In a 2017 study conducted by the Davis Sensory Institute, consumers evaluated walnuts prepared in sweet, spicy and savory applications, says Williams. The top seven pairings included dark chocolate, vanilla, sesame cayenne, sea salt caramel, candied orange and cinnamon chai spice.

“Functional snacking and trail mixes will continue to gain traction among general consumers,” notes Williams. “Walnuts will continue to be used in these products, because they appeal to consumers looking for a snack that promotes general well-being, as well as targeted snackers that are looking for cognitive or heart health benefits in their snack.”

The industry is always searching for the next “big thing,” says Frazier-Coleman. “Retailers continue to want unique items that are proven and that can expand a category, not compromise it. They are aware of the trends and will vote with their budgets on items that they deem will accomplish that.”


Culinary Perspectives: Grains in the mix

Consumers are taking highly individualized nutritional approaches to achieving their own definitions of optimum health, and snacking has become an important part. Consumers are seeking clean label, Paleo-friendly, higher fiber, sustained energy and other specifications for snacks, and whole and ancient grains can play a bigger role in so many ways.

Simple snacking. Clean ingredient decks are important to snack mix formulations—both sweet and savory. We’re seeing packaging with very clear and specific details—think “6 almonds, 3 egg whites, 2 dates,” but also “no GMOs” “unsweetened,” “free from” and more. The Annex by Ardent Mills Future of Food 2018 research shows that a large segment of consumers define “good food” as having simple ingredients, preferably local, preferably organic and with nothing artificial and “science-y” sounding. Whole grains deliver. We recommend trying many grains, grain combinations and grain formats (whole, flakes, crisps, etc.) to find that “sweet spot” in terms of flavor, texture and visual appeal. Mixing different grains like quinoa crisps, barley flakes, whole amaranth and cracked sorghum together allows product formulators to use simple, identifiable ingredients, make multigrain claims, enhance nutritional profiles and increase fiber.

Savoring the flavors. In snack mixes, flavors are often sweet, and I see big opportunities in bringing more savory flavors to the mix.

Jerky has become so popular, and I would love to see small jerky pieces in savory snack mixes that include quinoa puffs, nuts and other crunchy elements for a slightly sweet, savory, high-protein snack mix. Or a “Texas longhorn” mix could have barbecue beef jerky and sweet-smoky nuts-and-grain crisp clusters. Another idea is “Alaskan Trial Mix” with smoked salmon bits, spiced nuts and multigrain bagel crisps. Tex-Mex mixes could carry spicy chili or mole flavors with quinoa tortilla crisps. I’ve used lemongrass, ginger, soy and wasabi flavors for Asian mixes.

Ingredient clustering is important to snack mix innovations. I like to use a praline technique, which includes heating sugar to 220–240°F, spreading the melted sugar very thinly on a rack and then adding ingredients like puffed, flaked or whole grains together with salted nuts, seeds, and dried or dehydrated fruits. Once cooled, you can crackle and break it up to make clusters.

Texture is so important in the snacking experience. Ancient grains can add different dimensions—some chew, some crunch, some crispiness. Grains like sorghum can be “popped” for a result that looks like a smaller version popcorn, with similar flavor and higher fiber. A cluster of popped sorghum would be great in a snack mix. Puffed quinoa has already made its ways into snack bars and chocolate “thins” or “bark,” and this type of treat has a role in sweet or sweet-salty snack mixes.

The secret to a great snack mix is a balance of great flavors, textures and visual appeal. Adding whole grain nutrition and fiber is a way to deliver all of the above, and also provide options for the personalized nutrition consumers want.

—Jason Gronlund, Chef and Technical Sales Manager, Foodservice, Ardent Mills, Denver


Market Trends Product Spotlight: Watermelon Jerky Trail Mix

Recipe: Watermelon Jerky Trail Mix

  • 10 oz. watermelon seeds, raw, sprouted
  • 8 oz. dehydrated watermelon jerky, chopped*
  • 10 oz. mixed nuts
  • 4 oz. sesame sticks
  • 8 oz. Shanghai/Asian spicy snack mix (puffed rice, dried peas, sesame seeds, etc.)
  • 3 oz. crispy chickpeas, Bombay flavor/spice
  • 5 oz. yogurt-covered raisins
  • 5 oz. yogurt-covered dates
  • 5 oz. chocolate-covered dates
  • 6 oz. pub pretzel nuggets
  • 4 oz. cranberries, rough chopped
  • 4 oz. pumpkin seeds/pepitas, toasted
  • 3 oz. sliced black pepper almonds
  • 3 oz. sliced honey almonds
  • 3 oz. coconut chips, toasted
  • 6 oz. cashew pieces
  • 6 oz. pistachios, shelled
  • 9 oz. puffed rice or broken rice cakes 
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 2-3 droplets pure watermelon extract -Blend
  • 1 tablespoon honey powder
  • 1 teaspoon sea salt  -Blend
  • 2 teaspoon ancho chile powder
  • 1 teaspoon chipotle chile powder
  • 1 teaspoon smoked paprika  -Blend


Mix all nuts, seeds and fruit together. Once thoroughly blended, slowly add the olive oil and watermelon extract mixture; thoroughly combine. Add the honey powder mixture; thoroughly combine. Add the chile mix; thoroughly combine. Retail: Bag and seal. Foodservice: Hold at room temperature for 8 hours before serving.

* For the dehydrated watermelon, peel and cut 1 watermelon into roughly 1x4-inch sections. Remove seeds if needed/possible. Place on dehydrator trays and dehydrate at 135°F for 24 hours, or until watermelon jerky is sufficiently dry and breaks when you bend it. It will resemble fruit leather. Store in an airtight container.


Recipe created on behalf of the National Watermelon Promotion Board by CD Culinary Approach and Chef Dave Woolley