Sweet and salty has always been a winning combination, and salty snacks featuring confectionery coatings have recently seen a strong level of popularity.

Caramel corn is a key product in this product area, along with chocolate-covered popcorn. According to data from IRI, Chicago, for the 52 weeks ending February 23, ready-to-eat popcorn and caramel corn grew 3.3 percent to $1.5 billion. Confectionery-focused bright spots in the data include Crunch ’n Munch, up 4.8 percent to $30.7 million. The Conagra Brands line recently expanded its offerings to include Cookies & Cream, Brownie Brittle Crunch, and Birthday Cake products. Also, Popcornopolis soared 33.3 percent to $14.9 million. The brand recently expanded distribution of its caramel corn to Sam’s Club locations.

The chocolate-covered salted snack segment grew 5.7 percent to $309.0 million. Growth leaders in the segment include General Mills and its Muddy Buddies brand, which grew 3.3 percent to $71.8 million. DeMet’s Candy Co. saw its Flipz brand grow 5.8 percent to $67.1 million. Also, The Hershey Co. was up 13.1 percent in the segment, with sales of $57.8 million. Its Hershey’s Snack Mix grew 20.8 percent to $30.8 million, while its Reese’s Snack Mix grew 5.4 percent to $27.1 million.


Product trends

“When it comes to the salty snack space, seemingly nothing is off limits to pair with chocolate,” says Gretchen Hadden, marketing manager, Cargill Cocoa & Chocolate North America, Minneapolis. “Whether it’s chocolate-dipped almonds or more indulgent chocolate-covered potato chips, there’s something about that salty and sweet combo that leaves consumers so satisfied.”

In the better-for-you space, trail mixes that combine chocolate, nuts, seeds, and dried fruit provide consumers with feel-good sustenance while also appeasing their sweet tooth, Hadden remarks. “In this space, brands often turn to dark chocolate, given the health halo that it has amongst consumers. Along those same lines, yogurt coatings continue to be a prominent choice for enrobing pretzels, nuts, and more.”

Hadden says that many manufacturers are getting creative—combining milk, dark, and white chocolate into one snack, such as drizzling the trio over popcorn or using all three individually when enrobing nuts for variety in a mix.

In January, SNAX-Sational Brands released TWIX Candy Pop, which featured Twix candy coated popcorn drizzled with chocolate and caramel. The brand also released an OREO Cookie Pop flavor that same month.

“The combination of sweet and salty delivery in one bite continues to grow, and more companies are hopping on board to have their say in the game,” says Jenna Kolanda, chef, Hershey Foodservice Culinary, Hershey, PA. “Leaders in the sweet confection world are adding crackers, pretzels, coarse salt, and salted nuts to their everyday repertoire. Salty snack powerhouses are doing the same with darker chocolate, flavored yogurts, infused honey, and sugar coatings.”

Popcornopolis, Vernon, CA, recently released a Cookies & Cream Popcorn flavor, says Phil Fox, VP of product development and popcorn chef. “At Popcornopolis, we strive to pursue flavor trends that our customers enjoy, and have observed that today’s snack consumers have a more-adventurous palette, which makes for delicious possibilities in mixing chocolate with spices and savory flavors. “With this in mind, we’ve created new products like our Cookies & Cream Popcorn.”

Madeline Bills, ingredient development and innovation specialist, Olam Cocoa, London, says that she’s seeing the trend for salty and sweet flavor combinations continue to grow, moving more and more into the mainstream as larger brands release new products. “Increasingly, consumers are looking for snacks that not only taste great, but also have interesting textures, for example salty or spice-flavored granola bars where the chocolate compound can be used to add another layer of texture for consumers to enjoy.”

Flavor is among the most influential drivers for the salty snacks category, with new and differentiated profiles being a key focus for innovation, says Bob DiNunzio, director of category strategy, Daymon, Stamford, CT. “Many of these emerging flavors involve emphasizing the ‘sweet and salty’ trend that goes well beyond the category—by adding a sweet covering to a salty base snack, such as milk or dark chocolate to beef jerky, or by mixing flavor profiles with different inclusions in one, such as Chicago-style popcorn.”

New flavor inspirations for enrobed salty snacks often follow sweet flavor trends in categories like candy, ice cream, and bakery, which allow the salty snack purchaser to experience an indulgent dessert in a snack format, DiNunzio suggests. “For example, recently, we have seen flavors like unicorn, birthday cake, banana split, blueberry cheesecake, and cookies and cream emerge based on inspirations from adjacent indulgent categories. Retailers have increasingly leveraged their private brands to take the lead on flavor innovation, particularly in the area of seasonal offerings, such as popcorn varieties with seasonal coatings like cranberry, peppermint caramel, candy corn, pumpkin spiced latte, and maple pecan caramel corn.”

Beyond flavor alone, the introduction of more health-forward, better-for-you options is becoming a key category driver as health and wellness has gone mainstream, says DiNunzio. “With more consumers relying on through-the-day snacking rather than regular meals to sustain themselves throughout the day, retailers and manufacturers have begun fortifying their snacks to act as nutrition delivery vehicles. The key is balancing fortification with flavor.” To address this challenge, he has seen innovation like protein-fortified popcorn with unique flavor profiles like peanut butter vanilla, cotton candy, and cereal milk emerge in the category. 

Sometimes, the right snack substrate can inherently communicate a nutritional message. In February 2020, The Good Bean released chocolate-covered chickpeas, in Dark Chocolate, Milk Chocolate, and Mocha Chocolate flavors.

“Although there will continue to be new flavors appearing in enrobed salty snack items, it is likely that the larger trend will be enrobing better-for-you and fortified salty snack formats to create a more-permissible indulgence. Retailers can lean into their private brands to get ahead of this trend and capitalize on the growing opportunities in this category,” DiNunzio notes.


Emerging profiles

“The demand among consumers for snacks which not only taste great, but that also provide health benefits is showing no signs of slowing,” says Bills. “I think this means we’ll see the popularity of natural ingredients like cocoa and bitter chocolate products continue to grow as a way for consumers to indulge without the need for added sugar.”

Another growing trend for 2020 is botanical flavors, which provide strong, distinctive tastes to help elevate flavor profiles, while using natural ingredients which deliver added health benefits, says Bills. “Different types of cocoa and chocolate can work well with different botanicals, depending on the flavor profile, often providing a sweeter balance to these stronger, more-savory or spicy flavors.”

As manufacturers continue to reduce the sugar content of their products, consumers are growing used to more-intense, savory tastes, Bills notes. “This means that more unusual spice flavors like turmeric and ginger will rise in popularity as a savory pairing with cocoa and chocolate elements. These stronger flavors are ideal for creating the intense flavor profile that consumers are looking for, without the need to add lots of extra sugar or salt.”

Kolanda says that global flavors are becoming more mainstream in the U.S., and she doesn’t see them backing down anytime soon. “In fact, I think they’re here to stay and hope it’s only just the start. Matcha slowly broke down the barrier a few years ago, now being widely accepted and recognized far beyond beverages, and other flavors are using this as a segue onto our tables in many different applications.” She notes that cardamom, turmeric, and other Middle-Eastern flavors are becoming staple ingredients in bakeries, and snack producers should consider exploring these relatively unfamiliar flavor combinations.

“I also expect to see a continued rise of peppers, herbs, and florals across all categories,” says Kolanda. It can help to pair these bolder notes with something familiar. “Nostalgic favorites with a modern twist are creating a buzz and making customers wonder what’s next,” she says. “And the biggest ingredient I expect to see more of in the next few years? Honey! Sweet, spicy, savory, anywhere, and everywhere…”

Hadden says that she expects fruit paired with chocolate in the salty snack space will continue to be a prominent flavor territory—think dark chocolate and raspberry, or even superfoods such as blueberry and açaí.

In February 2020, Nature’s Garden unveiled Jacques Torres by Chocolate Orchard Fruit & Nut Clusters, which pairs premium fruit and nuts with Belgian chocolate.

“In addition, with the rise of global influence on domestic food, we also expect to see spices such as turmeric making their debut in the snack space,” Hadden adds.


New ingredients

Recently, Olam Cocoa worked with a leading U.S. brand on a range of snack bar innovations that brought together savory and salty ingredients like nuts and spices with sweet cocoa elements, says Bills. “This gave us a great opportunity to experiment with new ways to use some of our cocoa ingredients, such as a whipped chocolate peanut butter that provides high protein alongside a sweet and salty taste. Also, our TrueDark cocoa powder from our premium brand, deZaan, continues to deliver on the trend for products with simple, natural ingredients without compromising on color and flavor impact,” remarks Bills. The natural, non-alkalized dark cocoa powder can be used across a wide variety of applications.

As more consumers look for non-GMO and organic products, Cargill Cocoa & Chocolate has expanded its line of organic offerings, says Hadden. “Wilbur Organic Bittersweet and Semisweet Chips are not only USDA organic, but made with pure Belgian chocolate liquor, providing food manufacturers premium labeling opportunities around the chocolate’s provenance. This is the perfect choice for snacks such as trail mixes or granola.”

Snack manufacturers looking to appeal to consumers through reduced-sugar claims should consider Cargill’s Peter’s Galaxy Sugar-Free White Confectionery Coating, suggests Hadden notes. It delivers a sweet, creamy flavor profile and as a coating for nuts, pretzels, and more.

Consumers search for sweet and salty confectionery combinations