Puffed and extruded snacks never go out of style. Top brands like Cheetos and Fritos will probably always will be staples in many Americans’ homes.

However, companies continue to explore new and better-for-you ingredients, which are sure to be a boon to product developers seeking to meet the needs of the growing numbers of “mindful snacking” consumers.

According to data from IRI, Chicago, for the 52 weeks ending on September 6, 2020, the “other salted snacks (no nuts)” segment of salty snacks brought in $5.2 billion, with an 8.2 percent uptick in sales. Leaders in the segment include Frito-Lay, with $3.5 billion in sales and a 10.4 percent increase. Its Funyuns brand grew 7.7 percent to $455.4 million, and SunChips grew 14.6 percent to $336.0 million. The Hain Celestial Group grew 13.0 percent in the segment to $225.7 million, buoyed by its Sensible Portions Garden Veggie Straws brand, which was up 28.4 percent to $134.0 million.

The cheese snacks segment within the salty snacks category was up 10.7 percent and brought in $3.0 billion in sales. Frito-Lay perennially leads the pack, with $2.4 billion in sales, and an 8.0 percent increase. Its Cheetos brand grew 7.9 percent to $2.0 billion, and Chesters grew 3.0 percent to $148.6 million. Simply Cheetos grew 11.0 percent to $117.7 million. Its Cheetos Flavor Shots brand, which became part of the regular Frito-Lay lineup in 2019, are proving quite popular, with growth of 168.1 percent to $23.4 million. Kellogg Co. and its Cheez-It Snap’d brand saw a nice jump in the segment to $122.1 million in sales, reflecting a large increase of 58.8 percent. Utz had a strong year in cheese snacks, up 26.4 percent to $88.9 million. Ultra-simple dehydrated cheese snacks are also selling well. Schuman Cheese and its Whisps brand experienced a leap of 44.6 percent in sales to $54.8 million. And That’s How We Roll grew its ParmCrisps brand by 52.7 percent to $20.4 million.

The corn snacks segment brought in $1.3 billion in sales, with a 7.6 percent increase. Frito-Lay leads the category with $1.1 billion in sales and a 9 percent increase. It’s namesake Fritos brand grew 3.5 percent to $537.0 million, Fritos Scoops grew 16.6 percent to $282.0 million, and Fritos Flavor Twists grew 5.4 percent to $166.8 million. The new Sabritas Turbos brand from Barcel USA has quickly taken off and has become a $11.7 million brand.

The pork rinds segment brought in $600.7 million in sales, up 3.3 percent. Mac’s Snacks is quickly closing in on segment leader Frito-Lay, with growth of 18.2 percent to $101.6 million (while Frito-Lay’s Baken-Ets dropped 14.4 percent to $119.3 percent). Private label pork rinds are growing well, up 37.0 percent to $56.2 million. Another brand to watch is Southern Recipe from Rudolph Foods, up 31.8 percent to $12.1 million.


Ingredient inspirations

“Despite the pandemic-induced challenges, product innovation efforts are ongoing. Many of our customers are focused on their core products, working hard to keep their existing ‘fan base’ happy, with the staple of snacks they know and love,” says Chad Rieschl, senior research food technologist, Cargill, Minneapolis.

Still, there are some brands using this time to address lingering label concerns, says Rieschl. “On the oils side, we see customers embracing options like sunflower oil, which many consumers perceive as a ‘cleaner,’ healthier choice. In that same vein, protein continues to make inroads in the extruded snack space, with pea protein in particular attracting attention. Corn and wheat flour, which have long served as the foundation for many extruded products, remain popular choices, but as brands look to remove allergens (in the case of wheat) and embrace options with a non-GMO halo, we’re seeing more innovation using pea and other protein sources as the snack base.”

Some brands are also giving their starch choices a second look, notes Rieschl. “In some cases, they’re replacing modified starches with options like Cargill’s SimPure line of functional, label-friendly starches. As developers re-assess their starch selections, some are finding solutions that meet consumers’ label expectations and deliver cost-savings, too. As brands slowly move their products toward more label-friendly formulations, we expect they’ll continue to explore choices with added benefits. In turn, some of those ingredients will offer the added attraction of introducing new textures and flavors to this established snack category.”

Mel Festejo, COO, American Key Food Products, Closter, NJ, says that today, a lot of attention is focused on the millennial consumer segment. “This group, with its pronounced preference for health and wellness foods, is the biggest driver for the impressive growth of better-for-you snacks, whether these are snack bars, baked snacks or extruded or fabricated snacks. Success in this segment means the introduction of extruded snacks with non-traditional ingredients that combine to allow increased protein and fiber content, while reducing the use of sugars and carbohydrates in general,” he comments.

Which is why we now find ingredients in extruded snacks that were traditionally part of a different part of our diet, adds Festejo. “In the ‘good old days,’ vegetables, pulses, and legumes were in cooked dishes served with regular meals. Soon, they found their way in snacks in the form of powdered extracts infused into these products to supplement their nutrient content. Now, they have been successfully processed into flours and proven to be effective ingredients in extruded applications.”

Cheeses, with milk proteins, are no longer just a companion to bread or part of sandwiches, soups, or baked products. Now the milk protein isolates can themselves be popped as the base for extruded snack products or as inclusions in breakfast cereal products, adds Festejo. Nuts that are rich in proteins, root vegetables that are rich in antioxidants and fiber, and exotic ingredients like seaweed that are abundant with vitamins, minerals, and fiber comprise a rich selection of ingredients that can be blended in multiple ways to produce differentiated products that deliver on the promise of health and wellness, he suggests.

“Some of these ingredients need to be blended with other ingredients to ensure they extrude well,” says Festejo. “Thus, we have also seen the greater use of nontraditional, non-GMO, grain-free, and gluten-free flours, such as the trending cassava flour, that serve as an extrusion aid that gives the expansion and crunchiness that consumers also look for in their preferred puffed snacks.”


Better technology

“Nutritious snack inclusions like legume-based protein from chickpeas, lentils, fava, mung, and lupin beans are drawing a lot of attention from product developers and their ingredient suppliers,” says Yannick Gächter, director, Food Application Center, Bühler, Minneapolis. “Another interesting way to process extruded snacks is to expand and puff through impingement processing. Puffed protein, such as expanded black-eyed peas or quinoa, are new innovations in the snack category.”

Twin-screw extrusion is projected to become the fastest growing segment of processing technology through 2026, Gächter notes. “Compared to the single-screw extruder, the twin-screw extruder offers a better mixing ability and higher pumping efficiency, all of which enables access to a higher number of possible configurations for the final product, to attain a different shape, and wider adaptability to snack ingredients. From intake to mixing, to conditioning and extrusion, to the final drying stage, we partner with our customers to achieve the precise product characteristics that have a desirable texture (expansion ratio and density), appearance, and taste that matters most to consumers. Our customers come to us with their raw materials to design product innovations in our application centers.”

José Coelho, Americas business director, Clextral U.S., Tampa, FL, says that the twin-screw extruder has the flexibility to process and mix different ingredients, including plant-based proteins and non-grain (gluten-free) flours, to obtain different textures and mouthfeel in extruded snacks. “Co-extrusion technology, which creates snacks with crispy outer shells with soft fillings, can be used to create snacks with clean, all-natural appeal, as well as rich and tangy savory flavor combinations, or sweet and indulgent dessert-style snacks,” he says.

The twin-screw extruder enables manufacturers to incorporate natural inclusions in snacks (dry vegetables, seeds) that add visual appeal and nutrition to a variety of snacks, Coelho notes. “Clextral offers a patented system for inclusions. It is a clip-on module that incorporates the inclusions at the end of the extruder barrel to ensure high visibility in the finished snack. Yet the twin-screw extruder can do more than simply incorporate inclusions—it can manufacture inclusions from a range of ingredients, providing opportunities for manufacturers to create customized inclusions that add interesting flavors, textures, and nutritional profiles.”


Product innovations

“We launched our brand new 100 percent Ancient Grain Sorghum Puffs in 2020. We started with two flavors in March—our Vegan Cheddar and Red & Green Sriracha. We have recently followed that up with Cinnamon Churro which just launched in August,” says Dustin Finkel, CEO, Ancient Ingrained Snack Co., Erie, CO, maker of Ka-Pop! Snacks.

“All of our puffs are gluten-free, vegan, top 12 allergen free and non-GMO,” says Finkel. “These have been blockbusters since launch and are already our top sellers in e-commerce. Consumers are looking for forms they love, with flavors they crave but actually healthy. Our poppable puffs are going to be a major growth engine for Ka-Pop! moving forward.”

As far as current trends, Finkel says that comfort foods are on-trend. “2020 is so stressful, and so people want their foods to be the exact opposite of that. So even healthy brands like us are seeing that momentum shift. Cheddar Chips and Cinnamon Churro Puffs are now our top flavors, and their growth is only accelerating. We don’t think that trend will stop, so Ka-Pop! will keep innovating in healthy snacking to allow people to indulge fearlessly.”

Finkel predicts that the category is going to continue to grow behind brands that aren’t just competing on functional health benefits, but emotional or value-based benefits. “Brands taking on things like climate change, supply-chain transparency, and fair trade are growing faster than those just competing on more-traditional claims like organic or gluten-free. Consumers will continue to shift dollars to brands and products that mirror their personal values and belief systems. We believe this deeply at Ka-Pop! Snacks, which is why we continue to invest behind telling our vegan, sustainability, and charity partnership stories.”

Bill Glaser, CEO, Outstanding Foods, Los Angeles, says that its vegan PigOut Pigless Pork Rind product launched in February 2020. “It looks and tastes very similar to traditional pork rinds but is 100 percent plant-based. We found that there’s a big market of pork rind eaters willing to switch to a plant-based option if they don't have to sacrifice taste and texture. Because of extrusion, we were able to create a very similar texture, as well as pieces that vary in shape and size, just like traditional pork rinds. This makes the consumer’s sensory experience with our product virtually the same as the product it is replacing, so it doesn't require any type of sacrifice or new behavior,” he says.

“Our product has attracted pork rind eaters in droves. We’ve also attracted the nostalgia buyer who used to eat pork rinds but doesn’t anymore for a variety of reasons, as well as those who have never eaten pork rinds but are attracted to our product’s taste, texture, and high protein content,” says Glaser. The PigOut Pigless Pork Rinds have 7 grams of protein per ounce and come in five flavors: Original, Hella Hot, Texas BBQ, Nacho Cheese, and Salt & Vinegar.

The primary trend in puffed snacks is great taste coupled with nutritional functionality, says Glaser. “Consumers simply won’t eat a snack if it’s healthy but doesn’t taste great. The first wave of puffs that tasted good and were also better-for-you took out the bad ingredients like artificial flavors, or reduced the fat and sodium content. The second wave started adding nutrition, and in my opinion, HIPPEAS was a paradigm-shifting product, having 4 grams of plant-based protein per serving. The trend we’re in now is the third wave in my view and is meaningfully ramping up the nutrition in puffed snacks.”

As far as trends, Festejo says that the pandemic showed that traditional snacks are not going away anytime soon. “Despite the increased popularity of better-for-you snacks prior to the pandemic, the established brands with their traditional snacks saw a marked spike in demand as families hunkered down at home through the lockdowns,” he notes. “Nonetheless, the pre-pandemic trends reasserted themselves. Consumers came back looking for high-protein and high-fiber snacks. Healthy and natural ingredients in shorter and simpler formulations are showing up in recent market studies on consumer snacking preferences. Puffed snacks with plant-based protein ingredients occupy more shelf space in supermarket aisles. Extruded snacks are also finding more diversified and bolder flavors and tastes for differentiation,” he adds.

Boldness has factored into new product launches at Frito-Lay, which released Simply Cheetos Crunchy White Cheddar Jalapeño, Lay’s Poppables Sea Salt & Vinegar, and Cheetos Flamin’ Hot Pepper Puffs this year.

The big challenge for snack companies is to continue to innovate with non-traditional ingredients to deliver on the various better-for-you and free-from demands of a growing segment of the market, Festejo continues. “Again, while traditional snacks are not going away, the most-pronounced growth rates for the last few years were experienced by these better-for-you snacks. While consumers now have the luxury of more quality puffed and other snack products to choose from, the challenge for them is how to simplify the snack shopping decision.”

Gächter says snack innovations that continue to use potato, corn, rice, mixed grains, and pulses are trending. “Consumption patterns show that extruded snacks are gaining in popularity because of their increasing nutritional status. Essential nutrients are therefore expanding the scope of extruded products for the future. These advantages are expected to increase product demand,” he says.

Snacks that offer alternatives to wheat and other grains are also growing. “Tapioca-based extruded snacks and quinoa have become popular recently, answering the need for gluten-free snacks, chips, and cereal. Fewer traditional flours and more vegetable powders are being used, from pulses, sweet potatoes, and cauliflower. Global interest is growing in non-GMO and organic snacks with a rising interest in gut and microbiome health. Low-carb and Paleo snacks are also on the rise,” Gächter notes.

“Nutrition will continue to trend,” says Gächter. “This is the future of food.”

Functional food will drive product demand over the years to come, Gächter predicts. “Nutrient-abundant products are projected to help with malnutrition in developing worlds. The low quantity of moisture makes them shelf stable and increases shelf life. Research and development efforts to improve shelf life, texture, flavor, and nutritional value will continue.”

In addition, online retail distribution of snack foods is quickly expanding. The popularity of online stores to accommodate consumer preferences is expected to propel extruded snacks sales in the coming years, says Gächter.

COVID-19 boosted e-commerce sales demand, says Coelho. As more consumers worked from home, they tended to order their snacks through web platforms. This will likely continue into the foreseeable future. “Direct access to the consumer gives the big brands opportunities to reach out in a personal way to their customers, and for new and private label brands, the opportunity to reach consumers online gives them another route to sales if they have difficulty getting shelf space to gain market acceptance.”

Rieschl says in the near term, snack producers will likely continue to focus on their core product lines. “Many brands have seen an uptick in sales as consumers have turned to their favorite snack products for comfort and consistency during unsettled times. However, if we look a bit further down the road, I think all this time at home will trigger some great creativity from the many talented product development professionals. As they return to their offices and labs, I look forward to seeing what they cooked up at home—and how those ideas translate into new snacks. This time away from the bench may well spark a reset on flavors, textures, processing, and packaging, and we could see a mini snack renaissance in the year to come,” he predicts.

“My crystal ball is a bit hazy on the details,” concludes Rieschl, “but I believe consumers will be craving something different from normal. Brands that roll out adventurous new snacks will delight our taste buds, give us experiences to share, and perhaps—in a small way—help recharge the creative batteries in us all.” 


Puffed snacks and honey

The word puff connotes airy, light, soft—a perfect description for what today’s snackified consumer seeks from the new norm of all-day snacking. Combining a puff with a lesser-guilt ingredient like honey is an optimum opportunity for snack manufacturers. 

Honey’s benefits in puffed products are vast, from offering great flavor and a sweet taste to providing less guilt in a time where consumers want comfort and less sugar. It’s also great for clean labels, which aligns with the increased label awareness we’re seeing with today’s consumers.

Honey also helps sweet puffed snacks maintain an all-natural formula and create a sense of indulgence, even in a better-for-you product, which can be great for the whole family. Parents can feel good about feeding their kids made with honey puffs, as evidenced in the following on-trend puffed products:

  • Lesser Evil Honey Roasted Grain Free Paleo Puffs, a sweet and salty, Paleo-friendly, grain-free snack made with honey, coconut oil, tapioca native starch, and sweet potato flour—a snack that’s billed as “sinfully delicious” that consumers can enjoy with a clear conscience
  • Lay’s Poppables Honey BBQ Flavored Potato Snacks, popped, light, airy, crispy potato puffs that are sweetened with honey and with a barbecue seasoning that features onion powder, tomato powder, garlic powder, sea salt, and turmeric
  • Brice Rice Puffs, winner of the inaugural sweet category honors at the Snack Genius Competition in Asia, and we’re sweet on the unique flavor combination of honey, mango, and cashews in the rice puffed product—available in 40-gram packs for a convenient snacking opportunity

—Catherine Barry, Director of Marketing, National Honey Board