Snack mixes and nuts are holding steady in the market. IRI, Chicago, reports sales of snack nuts grew 1.4 percent to $4.8 billion, and sales of nutritional snacks/trail mixes grew 2.3 percent to $1.2 billion for the 52 weeks ending December 29, 2019.

If you ask Brendan Honan, vice president, global brand marketing, John B. Sanfilippo & Son, Elgin, IL, it all has to do with the fact that this category intrinsically benefits from macro trends in the market. “The perceived health benefits of snack nuts and the drive for more plant-based protein versus animal protein has continued to positively impact the snack nut category,” he says. “In addition, consumers are looking for cleaner, less processed foods that still taste good.”

John B. Sanfilippo saw a slight gain for the year, up 0.4 percent to $48.0 million in nutritional snacks/trail mixes. Its Southern Style Nuts brand, which it acquired in 2017, saw notable growth, up 19.6 percent to $19.1 percent.

Several nutritional snack/trial mix brands saw strong shopper engagement for the year. Snak Club from Century Snacks grew 12.5 percent to $35.3 million. The brand recently introduced a line that features on-trend Tajín seasoning, which combines chili and lime. Sahale Snacks grew 12.1 percent to $35.1 million. The Planters NUTrition line from Kraft Heinz grew 39.2 percent to $26.6 million. The Gourmet Nut Power Up line also saw good growth, up 43.6 percent to $15.5 million.

Brand leaders in the snack nuts segment include Kraft Heinz and its Planters line, up 0.1 percent to $904.8 million, and Blue Diamond Growers, up 7.3 percent overall to $562.6 million in the segment. Hines Nut Co. was a standout for the segment, up 23.1 percent to $14.1 million.

But the real winner in both segments is always private label: IRI says sales of private label snack nuts grew 6.7 percent to $1.6 billion, and private label nutritional snacks/trial mixes grew 3.0 percent to $577.1 million.


Eyes on nutrition

“Consumers are turning to snack mixes and nuts that offer indulgence without compromising on nutrition,” says Harbinder Maan, associate director of trade marketing and stewardship, Almond Board of California, Modesto, CA. “The market has seen an influx of options that cater to this demand.”

Maan says fiber and vegetarian claims are most popular among almond-forward introductions. “Not only do almonds contain fiber, but they also have six grams of protein in a 1-oz. serving, and contain vitamin E and healthy monounsaturated fatty acids,” she adds, which make them a well-rounded ingredient for snack mixes.

Walnuts also appeal to those actively seeking healthy snacks. “They are a versatile plant-based whole food and the only tree nut with a significant source of ALA omega-3 fatty acids, with 2.5 grams per ounce,” says Jennifer Williams, marketing director, California Walnut Board and Commission, Folsom, CA. She notes that 1 oz. of walnuts also offers 4 grams of protein and 2 grams of fiber, and is a good source of magnesium and phosphorus.

While dried fruit is a common addition to snack mixes, dried vegetables could likewise find resonance with select consumer demographics drawn to the products. Whole vegetable and fruit ingredients hit the health mark with consumers and brands, as they offer health attributes while also appealing to trends related to “authentic” and “real” foods.

At Milne MicroDried, Nampa, ID, traditional dryers dehydrate fruits and vegetables, but the ingredients are then finished with a low-impact microwave energy in a vacuum chamber, which allows for more control over the water activity and particle structure compared to other methods. It also allows for strategically sizing many of the fruit and vegetable ingredients for specific uses. The ingredients are available as whole fragments, in both chewy and crunchy textures. “Interest and demand for vegetable ingredients and organic fruit and vegetable ingredients is growing exponentially,” says Heidi Farkas, national sales and marketing manager. “Consumers and manufacturers are both looking for high-quality, plant-based ingredients that are clean label and can support vegan, allergen and GMO-free product claims.”


Mixing it up

New and interesting flavor trends are helping snack mix and nut brands differentiate. “On the market, we’re seeing a host of seasonings used in walnuts,” says Williams, “ranging from rosemary to espresso to pumpkin-spiced.”

At Blue Diamond Almonds Global Ingredients Division, Sacramento, CA, Laura Gerhard, director of strategy and marketing, sees a greater focus on almonds that can carry a flavor, especially sweet and salty profiles, or those inspired by global cuisines. “In snack and trail mixes, for example, we’re noticing more diverse combinations of nuts, seeds, berries, tropical fruits, wasabi peas, chia sticks, and more to create varied textural and flavor experiences for adventurous consumers.”

New products to market reflect this trend, with Oregon Orchard launching a line of seasoned hazelnuts in Sweet & Spicy Barbecue, Rosemary, Cinnamon Sugar, Himalayan Salt, and Southwest Chili Pepper varieties.

“Expect consumers to experiment with unique flavors as they become more mainstream within food service venues, or as they are exposed to them across categories,” says Honan. For example, he adds, new international spicy flavors like peri-peri spice from Mozambique or perceived health benefits from spices like turmeric will appeal.

Julie Prost, process engineer and pilot plant manager, Clextral USA, Tampa, FL, points out that exotic ingredients give brands a good opportunity to tell a story about the ingredient, its history, health benefits, sustainability, and more.

Delicias Gloria, a new line of Hispanic-inspired snack mixes from Lehi Valley Trading Company, Mesa, AZ, appeals to this trend. The line includes: Capirotada, a dessert-inspired blend of salty peanuts, raw almonds, and sweet and tart fruits; Piña Picante, sweet and tart pineapple tidbits coated in picante chili lime seasoning; Pica Dulce de Fresca, sour strawberry belts coated in picante chili lime seasoning; and Mango Picante, sweet mango spears coated in chili lime seasoning.

That said, sea salt and specialty types, like Himalayan salt, still dominate the snack mix and nut space, says Janice Johnson, food science advisor, Cargill Salt, Minneapolis. “Since salt is a staple in the snack space, it’s important that snack manufacturers find ways to differentiate this key ingredient to consumers,” Johnson explains.


Dynamic crunch—and health

As far as textures go, one tried-and-true trend is still tops: crunchy.

But today, even this has taken a modern spin. We’re seeing increased demand for textures like “super crunchy,” “ultra-light,” and “melting,” says Prost, all of which can be achieved with new ingredients like ancient grains, like tapioca, sorghum, and quinoa, as well as peas, chickpeas, and beans. She notes that twin-screw extrusion will continue to grow as a valued technology for snack mix manufacturers, since it offers top flexibility for processing many ingredients and creating new and different textures by changing process parameters.

The challenge? Often, the crunch factor comes from frying—which won’t fly with today’s health-conscious consumer. The Fisher Oven Roasted, Never Fried line is meeting this challenge with an oven-roasted option that can still deliver on crunch, says Honan. “Because this innovation delivers against consumer trends and taste expectations, it has grown to a $4.9 million business, up 166 percent,” he adds.

Developers of snack and nut mixes might find an expanding audience for healthier alternatives to beloved snack flavors and textures of yesteryear. As Johnson points out, snack mixes and nuts generally rely heavily on salt for taste—and even texture. Sodium can be reduced, she explains, but the right particle size and shape must be identified. So while sea salt remains poised for continued growth thanks to its health halo, low-sodium claims are likely on the horizon, especially as more snack makers discover potassium chloride, a healthful salt substitute, Johnson says. “This ingredient can help decrease sodium by up to 50 percent, while also increasing potassium in certain food applications. No other single ingredient can perform all the functional roles of salt, but potassium chloride comes close, enabling significant sodium reduction.”

Health trends will also carry fruit and vegetable ingredients forward in popularity, with more blends hitting the market that feature savory vegetables offering different textures like sweet potato and cauliflower, says Farkas. “We already see green beans and roasted almonds on the market,” she says. “There are more unique and healthier blends to come.”

And, if new launches like Gourmet Nut’s Mega Omega Trail Mix and Planters NUTrition Omega-3 Mix are any indication, functional snack mixes will also grow going forward—especially ones that feature specific benefits like the inclusion of omega-3 fatty acids, says Williams.

“Snack processors must be nimble to anticipate trends and create new products and product extensions that keep consumer interests,” says Prost. “Snack manufacturers can take advantage of equipment manufacturers’ test facilities to test new ingredients and recipes, and develop new products that keep consumers coming back to their brand.”