While the crackers market remains relatively flat—up a mere 0.29 percent for the year—it’s a strong area of baked snacks, accounting for $7.4 billion in sales, per IRI, Chicago for the 52 weeks ending March 24, 2019. And key brand extensions and innovations point the way toward fortifying category strength.

In the all other crackers segment, which grew 1.06 percent to $5.4 billion, the Kellogg Co. brand Cheez-It continues as the clear segment leader, up 3.61 percent to $812.5 million. Also, the Cheez-It Duoz flavor mash-up brand continues to find an audience, up 19.38 percent to $79.4 million.

The segment has other bright spots. Private label showed nice growth, up 5.56 percent to $233.2 million. Blue Diamond has tracked well over the past few years with its Nut Thins, which grew 13.10 percent to $68.2 million. Mondelz International brand Ritz, from its Nabisco business, is hitting home with its Toasted Chips line, up 97.5 percent to $66.6 million.

The crackers with fillings segment took a dip, down 2.17 percent to $1.1 billion. But Campbell Soup Co. subsidiary Snyder’s-Lance saw growth, with its Lance Toast Chee brand up 5.24 percent to $116.7 million, and the Lance Toasty brand up 6.08 percent to $71.0 million. Private label held its own, up 6.31 percent to $48.8 million.


Product trends

In a stable category like crackers, trends making waves elsewhere can serve as differentiators. “Organic and non-GMO have been relevant for many years in categories such as milk, meat and produce. However, we have seen the trend growing at an accelerated rate in snacks,” says Hector Briones-Sanchez, vice president of marketing innovation, Campbell Snacks, Campbell Soup Co., Camden, NJ. “Specifically, non-GMO is an endorsement of real food, since consumers understand that means the food is not genetically modified.”

At La Panzanella, Tukwila, WA, rice-based and grain-free options are gaining steam. All of the brand’s offerings are Non-GMO Project Verified. According to Steve Lorenz, director of marketing, the best-selling Croccantini line keeps the number of ingredients to a minimum. The Multigrain Croccantini includes five ancient grains. Otherwise, most ingredients are limited to items you would find in your own kitchen, Lorenz says, like enriched flour, water, oil, salt, and flavor components like rosemary or roasted garlic.

Last year, the brand introduced Gluten-Free Oat Thins to meet two key needs of consumers: more gluten-free items, as well as a cracker that’s tasty on its own, but can also pair nicely with cheeses and charcuterie. The line offers Toasted Oat, Roasted Garlic and Rosemary flavors. “Several gluten-free crackers on the market are heavily rice- or potato-based,” Lorenz says. “Although they may taste great, they don’t necessarily pair well with a fancy cheese.”

Brands are stepping up their flavor game to create crackers that can stand on their own. 34 Degrees, Denver, recently launched Sweet Crisps, which are “sweet like a cookie, crisp like a cracker, and perfect for any snacking occasion,” says Jennifer Swift, director of marketing. Available in four flavors—Chocolate, Vanilla, Sweet Lemon and Cinnamon—they come in 4-oz. resealable pouches to give consumers flexibility and snacking convenience, while providing retailers with easy merchandising options to elevate their sweet snacking sets, she adds.

Interesting Ingredients

Gluten-free crackers benefit from a simple and clean label, including ingredients like pulses, suggests Jennifer Tesch, chief marketing officer, Healthy Food Ingredients, Fargo, ND. Grains also go a long way. “We are continuing to see gluten-free as a mainstay, using out-of-the-box grains such as sorghum, buckwheat and flax.”

The cracker category is seeing lots of innovation when it comes to ingredients, such as whole seeds and vegetable powders, notes says Brook Carson, vice president of product development and marketing for Manildra Group USA, Leawood, KS. She also points to formulations that maximize preferences like “light and crispy” textures.

“Many of the requests we get relate to adding protein or improving process character,” Carson says. The challenge is achieving the proper balance of absorption for the dough and moisture loss in the bake. “Many times, proteins will bind up too much water, making it difficult to get the right texture in the finished products,” she explains. Plus, new ingredients can disrupt the dough network, making it difficult to trap air for texture and height. “Maintaining dough extensibility without too much strength or water retention is a particular challenge.”

One answer to these challenges is wheat proteins, which can provide structure without binding excess water—and add protein while maintaining an easy-to-process dough. “GemPro Prime-E, for example, provides the needed gluten network, but is much more extensible and binds less water than traditional vital wheat gluten,” Carson says. “Having a highly functional protein that does not hold excess water can really improve the processing of the cracker.”

Last year, to meet demand for clean-label proteins, Manildra Group released: GemPro Plus, which provides a crunchier texture; GemPro Prime-E, which provides a crisp texture; and GemPro Prime-W, which provides the greatest reduction in mix time and creates a pliable dough, without losing the needed gluten matrix.

Enzymes also improve cracker process functionality, improving dough handling and machinability, as well as eating quality of the final product, notes Troy Boutte, principal scientist, DuPont Nutrition & Health, New Century, KS. Lecithin is also in demand, as it can offer lubrication for the dough, preventing stickiness on manufacturing equipment.

Of course, recognizable ingredients like cheese and peanut butter should never be forgotten, says Boutte, as they can act as a key component of fillings formulations, while also offering stabilizing properties. 



Cracking open innovation in the snack section

These days, innovation in crackers comes in many forms, often driven by demand in the marketplace for plant-based ingredients, such as chickpea, quinoa, chia and flax, as well as vegetables like beets, kale, mushrooms and sweet potatoes.

Including diverse grain ingredients adds texture, color and visibility. Grain crisps, such as quinoa, sorghum and whole-grain brown rice, offer nutrition, crunchy or delicate textures, varied color and visual appeal.


Driving cracker sales

Mintel’s February 2019 “Crackers—U.S.” report notes that cracker sales in the U.S. have been relatively flat over the past five years, and low growth is anticipated for the next five years. However, innovation will be the key to meet the needs of the 90 percent of American consumers who eat crackers regularly and speed overall growth in the sector.

In response to consumer demand for quality ingredients and transparency, brands are launching products with modern takes on classic items. They are connecting with consumers around modern lifestyles for grab-and-go nutrition, social enjoyment, environmental responsibility, form and function.

Better health has been a trend for years, even in snacking. Healthy fats—both mono- and unsaturated—are on trend, including avocado and coconut … even certain types of butter.

The current focus on the connection between microbiome and gut health and overall health will continue to grow, and will be reflected in new products, as well. Prebiotic fibers, such as beta-glucan from barley and oats, are nutrients that feed probiotics and can be formulated into crackers and crisps.

My colleague, Joel Thompson, corporate R&D chef, Ardent Mills, Denver, sees crackers as “super-ripe for flavor innovation,” with more opportunity to develop crackers for personalized health. For instance, parents are looking for healthy snacks, so sweet, naturally fruit-flavored and colored crackers are appealing. People who love cheese plates that contain dried nuts, fresh fruit and artisan cheese would welcome more-sophisticated crackers with ingredients like rosemary, gorgonzola, goat cheese and other upscale combinations. Grains could be matched to cheese and dried fruits based on flavor profiles. For example, sorghum has a brown-rice flavor, amaranth is nutty and earthy, and quinoa, when crisped, has a peanut-buttery taste.

The new face of crackers

Many crackers on the market are branded as “thins” and “crisps” today, and presentation is important. These days, more consumers are attracted to natural and rustic-looking crackers with “rough” edges and visible grain ingredients. They’re interested in high-quality ingredients and transparency, and they want to know what they—and their families—are eating.

Thanks to the increasing interest in understanding where food is sourced, stories about farmers will likely make their way into the packaged-snack aisles. There is also room for crossover innovation with other categories, such as rye, spelt and sourdough breads.


—Laurie Scanlin, Ph.D., R&D Culinary Manager, RQT, Ardent Mills, Denver