Nearly everyone in the United States has a snack at least once a day, and the frequency of snacking is on the rise. Snacking, for an increasing percentage of the population, is a lifestyle, with multiple eating occasions replacing mealtimes.

This is good news for snacking. The American snack industry, as presented in this annual “State of the Industry: Snacks” analysis, is valued at over $41.6 billion—and growing every year.

As a nation, we love our snack foods. And while our core product preferences will endure, new markets annually emerge as we continually define the future of snacking.


Snack innovations

We’re living through an era of plant-based opportunities. Beyond Meat, made with pea protein, is now known well beyond vegan and vegetarian circles. Impossible Foods—which has raised over $750 million in pre-IPO funding—has its Impossible Burger, made with soy protein, and has hit mainstream QSR menus like Burger King and Carl’s Jr. Its competitor, Beyond Meat, raised $250 in its IPO earlier this year.

The market for alternative proteins will reportedly reach an estimated $5.2 billion by 2020, according to the London-based FAIRR Initiative, a collaborative investor network that has a focus on sustainability.

Plant-based protein is no stranger to the snack world, and chips, puffs and many more snacks currently use pulses—which include beans, peas and lentils—as a substrate to craft protein-rich, better-for-you snacks.

But is insect protein the next step?

“As the snack industry continues to grow and evolve to match consumers’ growing reliance on the category, snack producers have ramped up the innovation in order to compete in a crowded marketplace,” says Elizabeth Avery, president and CEO, SNAC International, Arlington, VA. “This innovation is evident in the unprecedented level of disruption we’re seeing. Those who attended the first-ever SNAC Tank pitch competition at SNAXPO this year witnessed this disruption firsthand. Protein remains king for the consumer, and SNAC Tank’s winner—Chirps Chips—has found a new way of infusing the nutrient into tortilla chips, through the use of cricket protein.”

Plant- and dairy-based proteins also factored into the other SNAC Tank finalists at SNAXPO. “Among the finalists, we also saw the use of milk protein isolate in puffed protein crisps (Shrewd Food), as well as better-for-you chickpea chips aimed at fulfilling a need for healthier children’s snacks (Squeaky Pops),” says Avery.

This is part of a greater emerging trend focused on alternative eating—not just what we eat as snacks, but how and when we snack. “As the meal-replacement trend grows, food companies are finding more convenient ways to position traditional staple foods, such as fruit, meat and cheese, cereal, dips, and even soup, as snack foods,” says Avery. “This trend is also leading to disruption in the fortified snack category. In addition to the explosion we’ve seen in protein and probiotics-infused snacks, we’re also seeing snacks with things like caffeine, collagen and botanicals.”


Regulatory matters

The alternative protein market has strong roots in sustainability—something that is also a motivating factor in the packaging sector. “California recently passed a bill calling for a 75 percent reduction in single-use plastics by 2030,” says Avery. “We are keeping a close watch on how flexible packaging gets caught up in the larger debate surrounding plastic packaging and the environment. The flexible packaging used in snacks is incredibly efficient and lightweight. I think we need to be prepared to tell the story of how efficient flexible packaging is—it delivers more product while producing less packaging waste than any other packaging material.”

A core necessity across the snack and bakery industry is a strong focus on workforce development. “We need people to make our products and to deliver them,” says Avery. “The shortage of workers entering the manufacturing sector has become a major challenge for all of our members, whether they make snack products, equipment, packaging or ingredients.”

A particular area of need is across the transportation sector. “The industry continues to experience a shortage of drivers to transport finished products and raw ingredients, which has kept transportation costs high,” says Avery.

Additionally, consumer demand for transparency continues to be important, notes Avery. “They want to understand all the attributes of the ingredients in their food. Our members are continuing to work on updating their labels to comply with new Nutrition Facts labeling rules, as well as phasing-in new Bioengineered Food Disclosure requirements.”

FDA has been more focused on nutrition since the release of its Nutrition Innovation Strategy in 2018, notes Avery. This has included final guidance updates this year on added sugars, and recent draft guidance providing enforcement discretion for the use of “potassium chloride salt” as an alternative to “potassium chloride” on ingredient lists.

“SNAC expects to engage in a lively dialogue with the agency on topics like renaming ‘potassium chloride salt’ to ‘potassium salt’ to encourage consumer acceptance of the ingredient as a way to facilitate sodium reduction in foods,” says Avery. “Additionally, FDA’s sodium reduction targets per food category are set to present a major challenge for our industry. We want to ensure that the targets are achievable, not just aspirational. That means FDA needs to allow for incremental reductions that provide enough time to reformulate, test and commercialize new products—all things that will contribute to the success of the initiative.”

So many of these initiatives facing the snack industry factor into an ability to remain open to challenges—and change—in order to foster growth. And that includes how we bring our products to market. “It comes down to one thing: agility,” says Avery. “Snack companies need to be agile enough to sell products in all formats of retail—online, brick-and-mortar, direct-to-consumer—and to integrate their marketing efforts for all channels. Snack companies must be able to monitor the effectiveness of marketing strategies in real time to be able to swiftly adapt to what’s working and what isn’t.”