Salty snacks like chips, popcorn, pretzels, and snack crackers have long been a staple in the home, and have become even more essential now during the coronavirus pandemic. Consumers often substitute snacks for meals, and they are looking for new and unique flavors in the salty snack space.


Market data

According to data from IRI, Chicago, for the past 52 weeks ending May 17, 2020, the salty snack category as a whole brought grew 6.9 percent in dollar sales to a total of $26.7 billion. Every segment within salty snacks saw growth:

  • Potato chips grew 4.6 percent to $8.0 billion
  • Tortilla and tostada chips grew 7.6 percent to $5.9 billion
  • Ready-to-eat (RTE) popcorn and caramel corn grew 5.0 percent to $1.5 billion
  • Pretzels rose 7.0 percent to $1.3 billion

The crackers category had a similar level of success, growing 5.9 percent to $7.8 billion, per IRI. The “all other crackers” segment within that category, which includes products like snack crackers, grew 6.1 percent to $5.7 billion.

Notable brand performances across these segments of salty snacks included:

  • Ruffles Double Crunch Potato Chips, up 191.8 percent to $61.1 million
  • Zapp’s Potato Chips, up 30.4 percent to $50.5 million
  • Late July Organic Tortilla Chips, up 17.7 percent to $59.6 million
  • Siete Family Foods Tortilla Chips, up 222.4 percent to $20.3 million
  • Popcornopolis RTE Popcorn/Caramel Corn, up 33.4 percent to $14.7 million
  • Herr’s RTE Popcorn/Caramel Corn, up 24.3 percent to $13.4 million
  • Dot’s Homestyle Pretzels, up 124.6 percent to $84.5 million
  • Wege of Hanover Pretzels, up 25.5 percent to $3.4 million
  • Pepperidge Farm Flavor Blasted Goldfish, up 18.6 percent to $175.6 million
  • Ritz Toasted Chips, up 14.3 percent to $91.3 million


New product ideas

“Snacks support a wide range of consumer needs, from providing an on-the-go source of energy to satisfying cravings for permissible indulgences and beyond. The pandemic is greatly influencing consumer snacking trends—from affecting how often people snack to trending flavors and the desire for better-for-you options,” says Brad Schwan, senior director, marketing, ADM, Chicago. 

While brands have responded to rising interest in snacks tailored to individual need states with a diverse assortment of products, there is still unmet market demand for offerings that do more to address consumer preference for better-for-you snacks formulated with health-signaling ingredients like whole and ancient grains, dietary fiber, plant-based protein, and microbiome-supporting probiotics and prebiotics, notes Schwan. “Consumers expect snack foods to offer these added health and wellness benefits, but they are not willing to compromise their high expectations around taste, texture, and the overall quality of the finished product eating experience.”

More snacks are making use of nutritional ingredients. “This trend is supported by emerging bases like bean and pea which bring high-quality protein content to a formulation,” says Schwan. “Clean-label snacks are also on the rise as consumers increasingly perceive colors and flavors derived from natural sources as healthier. Interest in snack foods with protein has remained high so far this year, and we anticipate this trend will continue on a growth trajectory through the end of the year.”

José Coelho, president, Clextral USA, Tampa, FL, notes the popularity of “protein-enriched snacks that incorporate plant protein flours such as quinoa, amaranth, fava beans, and spelt.” He also points toward the potential for snacks formulated with vegetable ingredients and inclusions like lentils, red pepper, and mushrooms. “These snacks offer a protein boost and increased nutrition so consumers can feel good about their snacking habits.”

People are looking for new snacking experiences and more are replacing meals with snacks, he notes. Snacks made from whole grain, vegetable, and high protein flours can be filling and nutritious meal replacements.

The sub-categories paving the way for salty snacks this year include cheese snacks, pretzels, and potato chips, all of which have seen gains this year, per IRI. But there’s a market for slightly less-salty snacks. “While the data shows that salty cravings are still driving purchase decisions, Innova Market Insights notes that a low-sodium trend is rapidly growing in this category as well,” says Mike Beaverson, senior marketing manager, Cargill, Minneapolis.

As the salty snacks category grows in tandem with “low sodium/lower sodium” claims, it’s apparent that consumers are demanding more from food manufacturers than ever before, says Beaverson. “One way that we see snack manufacturers responding to consumer demand for lower-sodium products is by the increased use of potassium chloride as an ingredient.”

Consumers are seeking out new and intriguing flavors, as well. “There is no surprise that the salty snacks category has exploded over the past few years,” says Bayyana Davis, senior marketing manager, IFF, New York. “The traditional flavors of salt, barbecue, and nacho cheese are still around, but many have had upgrades—sea or Himalayan salt, chipotle barbecue, and spicy nacho cheese, respectively. Many snacks have moved to offering flavor varieties that feature exotic fruits like yuzu and prickly pear, along with flavors that combine elements of heat and spice with sweet flavor profiles like mango habanero and pineapple chili.”

Soon, we will also begin to see more mood-boosting ingredients—including adaptogens, mushrooms, turmeric, herbs, florals, etc.—featured in the snack category, as more consumers are looking for more health benefits to their snacks, suggests Davis.

Mark Zoske, founder and CEO, SaltWorks, Woodinville, WA, notes that world flavors are popular this year. “As consumers’ culinary preferences continue to evolve and diversify, we’re seeing growing popularity toward international flavors, savory, spicy, smoky, and umami flavors, or a combination of these flavor profiles with traditionally sweet products, like sea salt caramel or smoked almond toffee,” he says.

Zoske says that he has noticed that some of the snack manufacturer his company works with are adding healthier options or addressing dietary restrictions by replacing traditional ingredients like corn, wheat, dairy, and potato products with plant-based ingredients in snacks like grain-free pretzels or vegan caramel corn.

But there’s an indulgent side to the industry, too. “For snack food manufacturers focused on decadent and delicious snacks, there’s gourmet popcorn, avocado oil chips, truffle-flavored snacks, or chocolate-covered cracker cookies,” says Zoske.

SaltWorks offers an extensive selection of salt grain sizes and custom capabilities, so snack food manufacturers have many all-natural premium options for R&D, notes Zoske. “From Ancient Ocean Himalayan powder to Pacific Blue ingredient flakes and flavored or smoked salts, it’s possible to customize our salts to achieve optimal desired results.”

Betsy Morreale, vice president of marketing, salty snacks, Campbell Soup Co., Camden, NJ, says that when it comes to product trends, she’s seeing consumers embrace a variety of sweet and savory flavors and textures—and shapes. “Snyder’s of Hanover recently introduced Rounds in Sea Salt and Butter—a mini ‘poppable’ pretzel with a light and airy texture—perfect for on-the go snacking,” she says. “For those seeking a more-indulgent variety, keep a lookout on store shelves in the coming months for the newest flavor of Rounds that will be sure to satisfy any sweet tooth.”

Another fan favorite of the Snyder’s of Hanover portfolio is Pieces, a line of pretzels bursting with intense flavor and delicious crunch, adds Morreale. “Pieces are Sourdough Hard Pretzels baked to perfection, then broken down into small bits, coated with delightful flavors like Honey Mustard & Onion and Hot Buffalo Wing.”

Spicy flavors have recently grown into fan favorites, says Arnulfo Ventura, CEO, Beanfields, Los Angeles. He notes that top flavors for Beanfields products this year include vegan cheese and spicy profiles. The lineup includes Bean Chips and Vegan Cracklins.

Morreale says that the snack industry is ever-evolving, which is why her teams must constantly monitor shifts in consumers’ tastes, preferences, and buying habits. “We know consumers’ preferences shift, which is why we rely on our R&D and innovation teams to focus on delivering new and exciting food innovations to further meet the needs of our consumers.”

In 2020, Campbell Snacks introduced new flavor launches for both Cape Cod Potato Chips and Kettle Brand Potato Chips, notes Morreale. “Cape Cod welcomed the new Sour Cream & Onion Potato Chips to their flavor lineup, delivering the perfect combination of creamy, tangy sour cream, and a savory hint of onion on a hearty chip. Kettle Brand launched two new flavors: Farmstand Ranch and Parmesan Garlic, bringing together the true flavors of real cream, parsley, and garlic, resulting in bold flavors and crunch.”


Ethnic-inspired flavors

Schwan says that comfort flavors and spiciness have dominated the snacking category in 2020. “Snack foods with familiar flavors such as bacon and cheese offer consumers a welcome sense of comfort in today’s stressful environment.” However, adventure awaits. “Interest in spicy snacks has only grown as ethnic and globally inspired flavors have moved from the niche market into the mainstream,” he says.

Schwan expects to see greater experimentation and acceptance of exotic flavors inspired by other cultures and countries in the snack and bakery categories. “This is particularly true among younger demographics, where we expect to see globally inspired flavors such as kimchi increase in prevalence.” The exotic flavor trend is well suited to snacks, since they let consumers experiment with new flavors. “We foresee greater acceptance and growth of global spices such as berbere, ras el hanout, and harissa. We also anticipate expanded interest in flavors such as the pink peppercorn, as part of a wider acceptance of botanicals and exotic ingredients, combined with flavors consumers already know and love.”

Ventura says that Beanfields launched five Vegan Cracklin SKUs this year: two in January, and three in mid-April. Leading flavors include Korean BBQ, Spicy Nacho, and Chile Limon. “For the holidays, we’re launching the company’s first-ever holiday/seasonal innovation, which will be an extension of the Vegan Cracklin line and brings something sweet and indulgent to a traditional salty form-factor, furthering our disruption to the space. One of the flavors includes Mexican Hot Cocoa, and the other is Pumpkin Pie.”

Morreale says that consumers are constantly looking for new flavors, whether it’s a unique twist to an old classic or something completely original. “We follow trends and work with our partners to find the right flavor combinations that are growing in popularity. Kettle Brand is no stranger to looking far and wide for flavor inspiration. From Korean Barbecue to Chili Verde, there is a bold bite for every palate,” she continues.

Zoske says that SaltWorks line of Fusion All-Natural Flavored Sea Salt features a variety of flavors, from savory to spicy, including international flavor profiles that deliver a punch of unique flavor and color to snacks without any chemicals, additives, or artificial ingredients. “Our proprietary process bonds real ingredients to each sea salt crystal, so that every grain of salt can help elevate snacks. For example, our Thai Ginger salt nods at Asian cuisine and would be perfect on rice crackers or chips for a new take. Combined with chocolate, our Espresso salt can add a kick of mocha flavors to sweet and salty snacks for popcorn or nuts.” All-natural smoked salts are also an option.

Kathi Johnson, senior category manager, savory and foodservice, IFF, says that flavors are trending in a few key areas: heat, indulgence, regional and global cuisine, hybrids, and fermented. “For the last few years, we have seen the rise of super-hot peppers being used in snacks, as consumers are embracing hot challenges. Look for peppers like ‘Trinidad Scorpion,’ ‘Anaheim,’ and ‘Viper’ to be in the marketplace.”

And Johnson notes that heat doesn’t only mean chile peppers. “It also speaks to more ethnic and regional influences, like ‘Nashville hot,’ sriracha, and ‘jalapeño with a twist.’”

Coelho says that as more people are looking for locally sourced foods, regional cuisines are becoming more of an influence for snack flavors. “For example, instead of generic Southwest flavors, there are multiple variations based on specific regions,” he notes.

Regional barbecue varieties have exploded in the market, with flavors like Carolina-style barbecue, Alabama white barbecue, Brazilian barbecue, Canadian “all dressed” seasoning, and New Orleans flavors, says Johnson. Other regional styles popping up include Hawaiian and Texan flavors.

“Consumer interest in becoming global foodies has given rise to many global flavors and cuisines penetrating menus and the marketplace,” says Johnson. “Harissa—popular in North African and Middle Eastern cooking—is now used in snacks, along with seasonings like curry, Thai chili, za’atar, zhoug, and peri peri.”


Ongoing innovations

Morreale says that this summer, Campbell Snacks released a new Limited Edition Cape Cod Summer Potato Chips designed to pair with Samuel Adams Summer Ale. “Cape Cod Summer Potato Chips feature the simple elegance of cracked pepper with a hint of lemon flavor, complementing the citrus fruit notes of Samuel Adams Summer Ale. The result is a delicious chip-and-beer pairing that uniquely captures the taste of summer. The lemon in the chips is perfectly balanced by the cracked pepper adding just the right amount of spice that speaks to consumer trends.”

Back by popular demand, Kettle Brand rolled out Limited Edition Apple Cider Vinegar potato chips nationwide at the end of the summer, says Morreale. “These chips capture the multi-layered flavor of Apple Cider Vinegar in every bite, the perfect snack for welcoming in the fall season.”

Johnson says that indulgent flavors will continue to trend this year. “Indulgence is not the first thing that normally comes to mind for salty snacks. However, we have seen an increase of indulgent flavors like birthday cake, cinnamon bun, salted caramel, chocolate caramel, and dulce de leche,” she notes.

Indulgent snack flavors also can be very seasonal in nature, as consumers might look to find lemon blueberry in summer and peppermint bark in winter, adds Johnson. “Popcorn is a great vehicle for indulgent flavors, as a sweet drizzle can be applied easily to the popcorn.”

Citrus is also on Johnson’s radar. “Citrus brings tartness and freshness that pairs well with bold flavor profiles like habanero lime, lemon pepper, and jalapeño lime. We will also see hybrid influences from alcohol beverages, like mimosa, orange stout, and sangria.”

Fermented foods and ingredients have been trending for the past few years and are now being featured in snacks, too, Johnson says. “Look for flavors like sauerkraut, kombucha, pickled beets, kimchi, gochujang, and spicy dill pickle to be more present on shelves.” 



Seeking balance

Honey is a unique, flavorful ingredient and sweetener with a flavor profile that works wonders with spicy and salty combinations. Balance is the name of the game in salty and spicy snacks that include honey. Adding honey to the formulation as part of a tantalizing new flavor can balance sweetness with the salty of spicy notes. 

Honey is unique in its ability to balance formulas without overpowering sweetness. Most sweeteners are limited to just being carbohydrate sources, whereas honey is a natural source of acids and minerals that add a more-complex flavor dynamic. And, in a time where consumers are seeking more transparency and comfort than ever in their snack foods, honey fits in perfectly as a clean-label-friendly, unprocessed, and familiar ingredient.

Consumers are looking for a little spice in their life, and there are some new great salty snacks made with honey hitting the shelves that fit the prevailing demand for something fiery.

Hot Hot Honey Chips from Krakatoa are so hot they had to be named twice! These spicy kettle-cooked potato chips are made with honey, Scorpion chile, and red chile pepper. Ranking as “spicy” on the Scoville Heat Unit scale of fire intensity, these chips hit 6,360 SHUs, starting with a slow burn and delayed build, thanks in part to the honey.

Just in time for summer, Herr’s came out with a new Flavor Mix lineup that includes a Red Hot and Honey BBQ variety. The chips combining two popular Herr’s flavors in one chip.

Consumers can also now choose the Lesser Evil with the company’s Jalapeño + Honey popcorn. Popcorn is traditionally a snack enjoyed with less guilt, and this combination with a kick includes Himalayan salt to round out the burst of flavors.

—Catherine Barry, Director of Marketing, National Honey Board