Salty snacks are a staple of any American gathering—the big game is on TV, so make sure there is plenty of chips, tortilla chips and salsa to go around. Headed to the movies? Don’t forget the popcorn. Because of their ubiquity at social gatherings and general all-around appeal, the salty snacks segment will continue to see growth—and 2019 was no different.


Looking at the numbers

Per IRI, Chicago, for the 52 weeks ending May 19, 2019, salty snacks overall were up 4.9 percent in 2019, for a total of $24.9 billion in sales. Every segment within the category saw growth over the past year, including:

  • Potato chips, up 2.2 percent to $7.7 billion
  • Tortilla/tostada chips, up 4.9 percent to $5.5 billion
  • Other salted snacks, up 8.0 percent to 4.7 billion
  • RTE popcorn/caramel corn, up 4.1 percent to $1.4 billion
  • Pretzels, up 0.2 percent to $1.2 billion

Standout performers in potato chips include Frito-Lay brands Lay’s Oven Baked, up 40.5 percent to $117.0 million, and Ruffles Oven Baked, up 23.9 percent to $59.4 million. In tortilla/tostada chips, Late July Organic was up 15.5 percent to $50.7 million, and Frito-Lay’s Doritos Organic was up 129.6 percent to $30.2 million. In other salted snacks, Frito-Lay’s multigrain SunChips grew 14.6 percent to $286.5 million.

The “all other crackers” segment of the crackers category brought in $5.4 million, up 0.9 percent, outperforming the overall category, which grew 0.3 percent to $7.4 billion. This segment includes snack crackers like Kellogg Co.’s Cheez-It, up 3.5 percent to $819.8 million. Cheez-It Grooves was up 3.2 percent to $96.6 million, and Cheez-It Duoz was up 10.5 percent to $77.5 million, per IRI. The segment also includes Pepperidge Farm Goldfish, up 0.2 percent to $574.7 million. Flavor Blasted Goldfish and Goldfish Colors both saw declines, but brought in $148.4 million and $104.2 million, respectively.


Flavor profiles

“Flavor profiles for salty snacks that are beginning to emerge are fusion or hybrid profiles that combine a cutting-edge or upscale flavor with a more-traditional profile,” says Dax Schaefer, executive chef/director of culinary innovation, Asenzya Inc., Oak Creek, WI. “I’m seeing flavors like wasabi Ranch and Yucatan BBQ. These are geared toward the iGeneration’s excitement for global flavors, while balancing it out with something very familiar.”

Sylvie Brunel, product and process development manager, Clextral, Tampa, FL, says that many new flavors are emerging that blend sweet and salty, and also cross categories. “As far as ingredients, we are seeing many: whole grains; ancient grains, such as quinoa and sorghum; pulses, including pea, lentil, soy and chickpea; plus vegetables, spinach, carrot, broccoli and cassava (yuca).”

Julie Prost, process engineer and test plant manager, Clextral, taps some strategies for adding natural color. “As far as natural colors, we have worked with beet, tomato, green pea and blue corn,” she says. “These ingredients also add distinctive flavors to snacks.”

Amy Hartman, vice president of sales, Gibble’s Foods, Chambersburg, PA, says that unique flavor profiles are emerging, such as Asian-inspired, ethnic-based flavors, which are being explored by consumers today who crave a differentiated profile with different types of snacks. “Also, fruit-based flavors and regional barbecue and smoky profiles are being explored with success in various types of salty snack products,” she says. “Additional flavors coming from gourmet cheese toppings and bacon continue to grow in various combinations across many types of snacks, too.”

There’s a growing specificity to the profiles. “Mainstream flavors in large, established categories are less generic and instead focused on specific regions and ingredients,” explains Hector Briones-Sanchez, vice president of marketing innovation, Late July Snacks, Norwalk, CT. “We also see spicy and hot flavors—although not new to the salty snack category—growing significantly.”

Briones-Sanchez says that there are also increasingly more fringe flavors inspired by different regions of the globe. He cites Mexico’s Tajín seasoning as an example—one that’s defined by the combination of lime, chiles and salt—along with salsa verde and tamarind. He also points toward Asian-inspired flavors like kimchi, garam masala and chai.

Bob DiNunzio, director, category solutions, Daymon, Stamford, CT, notes that most of the flavor innovations he has seen across salty snacks over the past few years have been experimenting with dialing-up spiciness, or riffs on flavors that Americans are traditionally used to, in order to increase trial and acceptance. These flavors include “flamin’ hot,” jalapeño, chile limón, dill pickle or different varieties of barbecue.

“We are now seeing a shift globally with more progressive culinary trends playing out across salty snacks, such as global flavors (Indian, Thai, Korean); spirit-infused (gin, bourbon, prosecco, beer varieties like porters and IPAs); and tea and aromatics (Earl Grey, matcha, rose, turmeric, and ginger),” DiNunzio says.

Tyler Groeneveld, commercial grains and oils leader, Corteva Agriscience, Wilmington, DE, says that one way snack producers can make sure their flavors shine through is by using a high-stability oil, like Omega-9 Canola Oil or Plenish high-oleic soybean oil. “These high-oleic options offer high performance, clean taste, and the clean-label attributes that manufacturers and consumers demand.”


Natural and better-for-you

“People really love the thought of eating healthier and will continue to push for it, but they still want an indulgent snack,” says Schaefer. “If snack companies can continue to make snacks taste great and provide a health benefit, there will be solid continued growth in this segment.”

But steady growth likely won’t be universal across the better-for-you spectrum. “Some areas will continue this prosperity, while some will begin to stall a bit. Clean ingredient statements with natural products and colors have become the norm, and will continue. Growth of alternate substrates, such as carrot, beets or even plantains, is increasing at a rapid pace. Areas like organic and Non-GMO Project Verified seem to be losing steam in the new product development projects. This is possibly because of the added cost in a competitive market, more than their desirability,” explains Schaefer.

Groeneveld says that last year, seven in 10 U.S. consumers sought out healthy snacking options, per a 2018 Innova Market Insights consumer study. “With this interest in healthy snacking, food companies are challenging themselves to deliver better options for their customers. Recently, the FDA determined that there is evidence to support a qualified health claim that consuming oleic acid in edible oils, such as high-oleic canola or soybean oil, may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease. This finding, along with a consumer push for healthier snacking options, shows the need to look at all ingredients—including oils—to provide better-for-you options.”

DiNunzio says that the newer focus for salty snacks seems to have shifted to claims that are more focused and measurable—i.e., GMO-free, USDA certified organic, vegetarian and vegan—that reflect younger consumers’ desire to eat healthier overall, rather than addressing specific health needs with reductions. “Some of these claims—like USDA certified organic—would address the naturalness of color inherently,” he says.

Although healthy products historically haven’t been drivers for the category, they have been increasing in importance as consumers take a more-active role in managing their health, DiNunzio explains. “This is reflected in salty snack new product innovation—including formats, ingredients and benefits—and overall category growth. However, price and taste are still the primary two drivers for most snacks, like chips. The ideal combination is to have a great-tasting snack that happens to have better-for-you qualities.”

To accomplish this goal, DiNunzio notes that he is seeing more retailers and manufacturers rethink the category through a plant-centric lens to address growing interest in cleaner, health-forward products. “For example, consider the emergence of chips made with avocado or coconut oil, cassava-based tortilla chips, cauliflower pretzels, and chocolate-covered snacking chickpeas. As the plant-based trend continues to extend into the mainstream, expect to see the expansion of these types of items across salty snacks.”

Late July Snacks doesn’t use artificial colors, and all colors in its snacks come from real foods like tomato, onion, garlic and chipotle powder, says Briones-Sanchez. “Organic and non-GMO ingredients are a cornerstone for the Late July brand, and we continuously strive to deliver the highest-quality ingredients in each product without sacrificing taste. Beyond that, we are also exploring new ingredients, such as vegetables and legumes—both ingredients that are perceived as better-for-you.”

Hartman says: “Our perspective is as far as consumer demand takes it. Certainly, while small dollar growth has occurred in some of these emerging snacks, they are growing at double-digit rates and sometimes triple-digits, with retailers anxious to add them to a hungry consumer base desirous of new flavors, types and experiences to make them feel just a bit better about snacking. Traditional snack companies will continue to look in this area for growth opportunities to expand existing or new brands to appeal to this growing consumer base.”

Prost says that snack manufacturers are making snacks that are natural and/or organic, without artificial ingredients or sweeteners, and clean labels that highlight improved nutritional values.

“New snacks have less sugar, salt, fat, calories and carbohydrates, and more vitamins, protein and fiber. Snack companies are making snacks with these consumer-preferred attributes that are delicious, healthy and convenient,” says Hartman.


Standing out in the crowd

“In my opinion, the best way to stand out is to understand that strong brands have a unique personality and a voice. Brands are individuals, and successful individuals always have focus and drive,” says Schaefer. “Find your brand’s voice and stay true to it. When you view your brand as an individual and understand who your brand is, it’s easy to know in what directions to grow, flavor- and quality-wise. Don’t lose direction. For example, if the brand is an indulgent snack company, purchase the best ingredients, from the substrate to the spices used to season it. Don’t follow fads to be flashy, unless that fits your identity. Help your brand be a strong leader, not just a follower.”

Another opportunity is to develop new flavor combinations, since snacks are often chosen for flavor, says Brunel. Indulgent snacks are another opportunity. “Also, snacks that are perceived as ‘fun,’ either through their market positioning and/or shapes and flavors. Protein snacks are a real trend, and snacks from pulses like peas and lentils and raw materials such as quinoa can be a differentiator.”

Prost says that on the ingredients side, there are opportunities to work with exotic, healthy, unique ingredients, which open the snack world to other horizons. “New flavor combinations, textures and ingredients can help a new product stand out in a crowded marketplace,” she advises.

Hartman says that a few opportunities come to mind, in order to stand out. “Locally sourced items are gaining favor among shoppers today, and those who might take advantage of this trend can impact micro markets. Also, organic and ‘free-from’ snacks are showing the greatest growth and grabbing the mindshare of consumers. Also, fortified snacks, with things such as protein, botanicals, collagen, ginseng and caffeine, are growing on the world stage.”

Unique flavor profiles are emerging, as well, says Hartman, with Asian-inspired, ethnic-based flavors being explored by consumers today who crave a differentiated profile with different types of snacks.

“Cannabis- and hemp-based snacks will start to show more presence, too, as consumers become more aware of them through traditional shopping channels,” says Hartman.

Recent trends data shows nearly 25 percent of consumers seek health benefits from their food (IFIC Food & Health Survey, 2019), so it seems that manufacturers can be unique in their competitive marketplaces by seeking new and healthier snack options to introduce, remarks Groeneveld. “By utilizing ingredients such as high-oleic, high-stability oils like Omega-9 Canola Oil and Plenish high-oleic soybean oil, companies many differentiate themselves from the competition by enabling cleaner, healthier labels that more consumers are demanding. These oils also benefit the manufacturers by extending shelf life and providing consumers a fresh taste—factors that can realistically set snacks apart in an otherwise saturated snacking aisle,” he advises.

As the market continues to become more fragmented with more companies and brands eating into share from the bigger players with new, innovative items, it’s becoming more and more difficult to be truly unique, says DiNunzio. “The upside is that the overall sales for most salty snack segments—formats like potato chips—have continued to increase, as time-starved consumers replace regular meals with all-day snacking. Thus, over the past year, only pretzels and pita chips were stagnant or saw slight declines, as manufacturers of a particular format have been able to keep up with market trends by adjusting their ingredients to fit the trend—say, a plant-based, trend-forward ingredient like cauliflower or pulses,” he says.

As for the balance between private label and branded products, DiNunzio remarks that national brands still have the lion’s share of the category’s sales, and—with big brands spending money for visibility in stores—this will not change overnight.

“However, progressive retailers understand that their private brand items are the only way to differentiate from the competition,” says DiNunzio, “and not just through lower-priced items. They have taken risks by leveraging consumer trends, and innovating, bringing products to market that are different from the national brands through new, more-experiential flavor and format combinations, better-for-you benefits, and/or more-convenient packaging.”

Although multigrain snacks are still a fraction of the bigger segments in the category (potato, tortilla chips, popcorn, and meat snacks), they are witnessing continued growth year-over-year, driven by their implied better-for-you perception, says DiNunzio. “As with the rest of the category, key opportunities for continued growth include experimenting with more-interesting flavors, dialing up the ‘healthiness’ of the product even further, through enhanced performance claims such as protein for all-day sustenance, or ‘sprouted’ grains for even better nutritional value, as well as looking at new ways to rethink portability to address shopper lifestyles that are becoming even more urban and on-the-go.”

Consumer needs and lifestyles are constantly changing, and it’s important to keep the pulse of where these needs are going, so that we can anticipate and develop new products that deliver on-higher expectations, says Briones-Sanchez. “Keeping abreast of the latest technologies and ingredients and translating them into relevant snacks is a way to stay competitive in the marketplace.”