Snacks have to work pretty hard to keep up with consumer preferences these days. For one, they have to be suitably snackable—i.e., convenient and portable. They also have to satisfy cravings for sweet, salty, crunchy, or whatever else ticks consumers’ boxes. And increasingly, they have to align with our desire for foods that, quite simply, are good for us and the planet.

And for those reasons and more, tortilla chips may be the right snack for right now.

“At a time when consumers are paying closer attention to the foods they eat, tortilla chips qualify as a ‘healthier indulgence’ with label-friendly appeal,” says Keyla Rodriguez, technical service manager, starches, sweeteners, and texturizers, Cargill, Minneapolis. “Just four ingredients—corn, vegetable oil, salt, and water—are all it takes to create a basic tortilla chip.”

But today’s tortilla chips are anything but basic. And if current trends hold, they’ll keep getting better.


Market data

When it comes to trends in tortilla chip sales, the theme has been one of modest but steady growth.

According to data from IRI, Chicago, the tortilla/tostada chips segment of salty snacks saw sales totaling $6.0 billion—representing growth of 7.6 percent—for the 52 weeks ending May 17, 2020. That bested the salty snacks category overall, which grew at a slightly slower rate of 6.9 percent.

Category leader Frito-Lay accounted for $4.3 billion of segment sales, with 6.5 percent growth. Doritos rule the roost, and saw $2.6 billion in sales for the year, up 9.1 percent. Tostitos added another $739.3 million, up 8.4 percent, while Tostitos Scoops had $526.4 million in sales, up 8.8 percent.

Impressive expansion of 16.7 percent elevated sales at Barcel USA—the 2020 SF&WB “Snack Producer of the Year”—to $469.8 million. Its signature brand, Takis Fuego—rolled, crunchy tortilla chip snacks—grew 15.9 percent to $423.2 million for the year.

Also seeing their sales rise were Late July’s organic and conventional tortilla chips, which brought in a respective $59.6 million (up 17.7 percent) and $32.3 million (up 18.0 percent).

But most eye-popping was the performance of Siete Family Foods. The company makes its tortilla chips using ingredients sourced from cassava, coconut, pumpkin, chia seeds, and more. While sales only totaled $20.3 million, growth for the grain-free brand skyrocketed fully 222.4 percent.


Looking back

Siete’s grain-free success comes as no surprise to Ricardo Rodriguez, marketing manager, confectionery and bakery, Ingredion Incorporated, Westchester, IL. “The rise of plant- and vegetable-based ingredients continues to open space for growth and differentiation in snacking,” he says. “There’s a healthy halo around these ingredients, and with consumers looking for healthier, better-for-you alternatives, plant-based ingredients can make tortilla chips a preferable snacking option.”

Ingredion recently conducted a proprietary consumer study in which 36 percent of respondents claimed to have tried tortilla chips made with vegetable-based ingredients or ancient grains—and 73 percent said they liked the products’ texture as much as or more than that of traditional tortilla chips.

Yet Siete’s grain-free line doesn’t just ride the plant-based wave; the chips’ flavor-forward profiles—not only Ranch and Nacho, but Jalapeño Lime, Chipotle BBQ, Sea Salt, and Fuego—reflect a degree of culinary experimentation that commands attention.

“Many of today’s tortilla chip options have expanded far beyond the original salted and nacho-flavor-dusted varieties we’re used to,” says Keyla Rodriguez. “Recent introductions have highlighted big flavors and exotic combinations—think bacon-habanero or Korean barbecue.” The latter, in fact, distinguished a new SKU that Late July Snacks added to its Clásico tortilla chip line in October 2019.

“In that same spirit of innovation,” continues Keyla Rodriguez, “tortilla chips have branched out into a wealth of grip-and-dip-friendly shapes, including scoops, circles, squares, hexagons, and even ‘footballs.’” Consumers love the shape diversity, as evidenced by the aforementioned success of Barcel’s Fuego-flavored Takis rolled tortilla chips.

Mark Stavro, senior director of marketing, Bunge Loders Croklaan, Chesterfield, MO, has also noticed a rise in attention-grabbing tortilla chip flavors, including black bean and garlic, salsa ranchera, and salsa verde, he says. But looking back on 2019, he thinks the better-for-you theme ultimately won the day, with high-quality, healthier, flavorful products driving the market. “Examples of better-for-you options include those made with whole grains, gluten-free ingredients, and less sodium,” he says.


Looking forward

You could call the trend “healthy, plus,” and it’s defining 2020’s tortilla chip innovation, too.

“As in other food and beverage categories, there’ll likely be continued opportunity for tortilla chips that consumers perceive as healthier,” says Keyla Rodriguez, “whether they’re made with ingredients that fit their definition of ‘clean,’ or with more fiber or protein.”

Lower-sodium formulations pose an especially enticing opportunity for tortilla chip brands, notes Mike Beaverson, senior marketing manager, Cargill Salt, and he suggests pairing sea salt with potassium chloride—which he calls “one of the most-common, healthful salt substitutes available”—as a strategy for achieving “meaningful sodium reductions.”

Indeed, potassium chloride seems to rise in consumers’ opinions the more they learn about it, Beaverson says. Proprietary Cargill research found that when it appeared on ingredient labels with sea salt, consumers perceived potassium chloride as 30 percent more healthful than salt, “up from 21 percent the previous year,” Beaverson notes.

Healthful frying oils are another consumer focus in tortilla chips. Cargill’s 2019 FATitudes research found that 40 percent of consumers pay attention frying oils when deciding which tortilla chip to buy.

But an oil can’t merely look good on an ingredient statement. As Jamie Mavec, marketing manager, Cargill, notes: “Vegetable oil is an important ingredient in tortilla chips. The choice impacts both the flavor and shelf stability of the finished product.”

Cargill’s portfolio includes label-friendly options like canola, high-oleic canola, corn and non-GMO high-oleic sunflower oil, “all of which are commonly used in tortilla chips,” Mavec says. The high-oleic options are an especially good fit, as their preponderance of oleic acid confers greater oxidative stability in the chip relative to “generic” canola, while also protecting flavor profiles, she says.

Stavro notes that his company’s range of non-GMO and organic frying oils are functional alternatives for tortilla chip makers who aim to meet consumers’ tightening standards for “clean.” He calls out Bunge’s non-GMO high-oleic sunflower oil as “a great oil choice that’s also high in stability for longer-lasting quality.”

Returning to plant-based ingredients, Ricardo Rodriguez remains bullish on their future in tortilla chips, noting that Ingredion has curated a catalog of ingredients that nudge the plant-based trend to its next stage of development, including pulse-based flours, protein concentrates, and protein isolates.

Keyla Rodriguez calls attention to the role that traditional corn masa flour plays in tortilla chips of all varieties. “It has a big impact on the finished product,” she emphasizes. Cargill’s sustainable masa flour starts with high-quality white and yellow corn grown in the American Midwest, which undergoes a proprietary dry-milling process that she says is more sustainable than traditional wet milling. The process uses 80 percent less water than conventional methods and allows Cargill to tailor the flour to customers’ flavor, texture, color, and shape functionality needs.

And meeting those needs is no small matter, continues Keyla Rodriguez, because today’s tortilla chip fans simply want more. “The idea of the ‘adventurous consumer’ is apparent in the tortilla chip space, as shoppers embrace different flavor profiles and unique textures,” she says. “Additionally, consumers keep searching for chips with a texture that resembles restaurant chips to dip in salsas.”

Ricardo Rodriguez predicts that “differentiated textures and customized eating experiences” will influence tortilla chip development going forward. Again citing proprietary Ingredion research, he notes that 79 percent of consumers chose crispiness as the top textural attribute in tortilla chips, with crunchiness following at 72 percent. More than half—54 percent—of consumers also lodged a preference for thinner tortilla chips.

“Choosing the right ingredients can help formulators meet these textural trends,” says Ricardo Rodriguez. The texturizers in Ingredion’s PRECISA Crip line produce crispy, crunchy, or “completely new textures,” he notes, also enabling the creation of snacks with optimal expansion and reduced breakage. “In processing,” he adds, “the texturizers produce doughs that are more cohesive and easier to sheet, while managing hydration and stickiness.” The ingredients are even available from sources like tapioca and potato.

That’s hardly your basic tortilla chip, but it’s definitely something that consumers can dip into going forward.