The crackers category is home to multiple iconic brands synonymous with snacking, including Cheez-It, Goldfish, and Ritz—all billion-dollar brands. As part of the foundation of the grain-based baking industry, crackers also present significant opportunities for growth through incrementally better-for-you offerings and highly innovative nutrition-forward products, as well as premium and specialized lines.
Snack and crackers with fillings are ideal companions for on-the-go snacking. As such, they did not see a prolonged sales boost during the COVID-19 pandemic. Nevertheless, sales data points to statistically significant pockets of growth. The category maintained its position as a go-to snack option, with overall category growth up 0.3 percent to $8.0 billion for the 52 weeks ending May 16, 2021, per IRI, Chicago.
The Kellogg Co. brand Cheez-It continues its domination of the “all other crackers” segment, up 5.0 percent to $971.9 million. While its Cheez-It Grooves and Duoz lines both had down years, they still brought in $91.7 million and $67.6 million, respectively. Pepperidge Farm Goldfish, part of Campbell Snacks, saw $608.4 million in sales for the year, down 2.0 percent. Its Flavor Blasted Goldfish line, however, grew 10.6 percent to $199.3 million, while the Goldfish Colors line garnered $112.7 million in sales, down 3.3 percent.
Elsewhere in “all other crackers,” Ritz continued to find success with its Ritz Toasted line, up 9.8 percent to $102.2 million, per IRI. It’s also worth noting Snack Factory’s above-average rate of growth over the past year for its category-flexing Pretzel Crisps—the pretzel that eats like a cracker—up 4.3 percent to $246.4 million for the year. Crunchmaster, a TH Foods brand, also saw growth, up 2.6 percent to $57.9 million.
The crackers with fillings segment had a down year, off 5.7 percent to $1.1 billion. One of the only bright spots was the outstanding performance from indulgent brand Nutella & Go from Ferrero USA, up 18.5 percent to $95.7 million, while its LTO line branded for the “Despicable Me 3” movie brought in an additional $10.6 million.
Graham crackers grew 5.7 percent to $496.3 million. Line extensions account for the notable portion of that growth. Segment leader Nabisco Honey Maid, a Mondelez International brand, grew 7.0 percent to $298.0 million, while its Nabisco Honey Maid Fresh Stacks product grew 32.9 percent to $37.0 million. Pepperidge Farm’s Goldfish Grahams had a flat year, down 0.3 percent, but still accounted for $14.8 million in sales for Campbell Snacks.
Use of whole grains also resonates in graham crackers, exemplified by the great performance from 2020 SF&WB “Bakery of the Year” honoree Kodiak Cakes. Its Bear Bites graham crackers—made with 100 percent whole grain and touting 5 grams of protein per serving—grew 232.0 percent to $4.6 million, while its main line of graham crackers grew 165.4 percent to $4.4 million, per IRI.
Cracker products continued to find widespread appeal over the past year. “Consumers during the pandemic snacked a lot,” says Braden Bennie, senior marketing manager, TH Foods, Loves Park, IL. “They disproportionately bought snacks that would be enjoyed by everyone in their household.” He cites data from IRI noting that 58 percent of consumers want snacks that appeal to multiple people in the household.
Kim Holman, marketing director, TH Foods, also points to the ongoing importance of e-commerce for the crackers category. “The pandemic catapulted e-commerce five years into the future. Americans across all generations started, or increased, their shopping online in the last year. Shopping for snacks and crackers saw a significant increase in sales, as did our brand, Crunchmaster. Working from home, virtual school and families spending more time at home all drove the e-commerce snacking craze this past year.”
Under COVID, consumers prepared more meals and snacks at home, says Carla King, senior marketing manager, Mary’s Gone Crackers, Reno, NV. “As the pandemic stretched out, consumers sought healthier choices, including plant-based proteins.”
King expects shoppers will continue to seek healthier options in the coming year and beyond. “More consumers are open and seek plant-based products. While grocery sales may dip to pre-COVID levels, consumers overall will continue to seek healthy choices. Plant-based sales will continue to grow. Snacking is also continuing to grow, as some companies will continue work-from-home practices at least on a hybrid basis.”
In January 2020, Goldfish introduced a groundbreaking new line, Goldfish Veggie Crackers in two flavors: Cheesy Tomato and Sweet Carrot. Cheesy Tomato is made with one-third serving of tomatoes with color from tomato, beet juice concentrate, and annatto. It’s baked with 100 percent real Cheddar cheese. Sweet Carrot is made with one-third serving of veggies with color from carrot and paprika extract. It’s an excellent source of vitamin A. Both products are free from artificial flavors and preservatives.
Earlier this year, SF&WB honored Pepperidge Farm for the product line’s innovative take on better-for-you snacking as one of the “Best New Snack & Bakery Products of 2020” (see “Best New Snack & Bakery Products of 2020: Goldfish Veggie Crackers and DiGIORNO Croissant Crust Pizza”). The Sweet Carrot Goldfish Veggie Crackers contain dehydrated carrot juice concentrate and carrot purée, and Cheesy Tomato is made with dehydrated tomato paste. The packaging clearly claims “1/3 serving of tomatoes per serving.”
Other cracker innovations of note over the past year include:
- Cheez-It Extra Toasty and Extra Cheesy Crackers
- Ritz Cheese Crispers
- Late July Organic Chia & Quinoa Crackers
- Mary’s Gone Crackers REAL THIN Crackers
- REAL FOOD FROM THE GROUND UP Purple Carrot Crackers
- Simple Mills Organic Seed Flour Crackers
Alternative flours continue to build popularity as primary substrates in crackers. “We all know alternative flour is having a moment,” says Jamie Rubinstein, brand manager, Simple Mills, Chicago. “From almond flour to oat flour, these ingredients are popping up in products across the grocery store. The latest alternative flour in the crackers category is seed flour, which Simple Mills introduced with the launch of our brand-new cracker line: Organic Seed Flour Crackers. “The new crackers are made from a unique, nutrient-dense sunflower, pumpkin, and flax seed flour blends that packs protein, fiber, and antioxidants in every serving,” she says.
Organic Seed Flour Crackers are the first cracker product from Simple Mills to receive USDA Organic Certification, says Rubinstein, representing Simple Mills’ commitment to supporting organic, regenerative farming practices. “Simple Mills worked with Midwestern farmers who grew an organic sunflower crop to be used in the new cracker line, helping them adopt practices like extended crop rotations, cover cropping, and organic amendments that build healthy soil and, ultimately, heal the land,” she says.
Seed flour offers a variety of nutritional benefits, notes Rubinstein. “It is high in fiber and omega-3 fatty acids, and is a great source of plant-based protein.”
“Crackers, similar to many ‘staple’ categories, benefited from changed behaviors in 2020,” says Matthew Schueller, director of marketing insights and analytics, Ardent Mills, Denver. As people begin spending more time away from home, snacking engagement will likely return to pre-pandemic levels, he suggests. “Opportunities exist for manufacturers to innovate to retain or win increased consideration in the marketplace.”
Consumers are more vested in their food choices than ever before, says Schueller. “There’s been a movement toward health-conscious snacking, and consumers are willing to spend more for crackers they perceive as healthier. Innovation in this space will be critical for cracker manufacturers to win in the marketplace, especially because research shows that most consumers who eat crackers are brand-loyal.”
Household shoppers are seeking snack crackers that are healthier for everyone, says Bennie. “In 2020, consumers shifted their purchase behavior to buying crackers that their whole family would enjoy. “However, these purchases weren’t always healthier-for-you options. In 2021 and beyond, we believe consumers will continue to purchase crackers that their whole family will enjoy—but will now treasure hunt for new items that are also healthier-for-everyone.” He notes that IRI data found 40 percent of consumers have stated that the snacks they eat help them manage daily calories, and that 28 percent of consumers buy snacks to support their specialized diet (such as Atkins, keto, Paleo, etc.).
Holman points to several targeted opportunities for cracker category growth:
Functional health. Consumers are looking to food to help them manage their health from the inside out. Consumers are expecting more out of their snacks. The pandemic has inspired people to look for foods and beverages that can support immunity, reduce stress, enhance digestive health, provide sleep support, aid with healthy aging, and provide energy.
Snacking excitement. Consumers are looking for snacks that add interest and excitement to their day. Look at the evolution of the charcuterie board—now “grazing boards” include desserts, tacos, and many creative ideas for snacking and crackers. Expect to see unique LTO flavors and/or products. Oreo has launched over 65 different flavors from Birthday Cake to Red Velvet. Cracker flavors supporting key holidays will continue to be big and drive incremental sales.
Comforting choices. People snacked on their favorites during the pandemic to bring a sense of normalcy to their everyday lives. Those comforting choice can continue moving forward with flavors like mac-and-cheese, pizza, any cheese, chocolate, sweet flavors, herbal flavors, and botanical flavors.
Bennie notes Crunchmaster plans to launch two new cracker platforms in 2021: Bistro Crips and Mini Crisps. “Both are focused on winning the ‘poppable’ snacking occasion,” he says. “Bistro Crisps are a better-for-everyone gourmet snack that hits on a trifecta of on-trend claims: grain-free, Paleo, and vegan. These bite-sized, deliciously popped cassava snacks are crispy, light, and bursting with flavor. Consumers can eat 63 Crisps for only 120 calories.” He notes they will be available in three flavors: Vegan Cheddar, Nacho, and Margherita Pizza.
“Minis Crisps are a flavorful snack that everyone will love,” says Bennie. Mini Crisps are baked rice crisps, and consumers can eat 34 Crisps for only 130 calories. They will be available in four flavors: Cheddar, Pepper Jack, Pizza, and Spicy Buffalo. “Cheddar and Pepper Jack are both made with real cheese,” he says. “Pizza and Spicy Buffalo are both vegan and Non-GMO Project Verified. All Crunchmaster products are certified gluten-free.
King notes Mary’s Gone Crackers released three new flavors of its REAL THIN Crackers in late 2020: Tomato + Basil, Olive Oil + Black Pepper, and Chipotle. “We do have innovation in our pipeline that will bring a sweet offering, which we are really excited to launch in 2022,” she says.
The overall sensory experience is an interesting area for cracker producers to explore, says Schueller. “Mintel reports that 51 percent of consumers say crunchy texture is among the top three attributes in their cracker wish list. Similarly, 36 percent of respondents say they’re willing to pay more for more diverse flavors. So, while health and nutrition are certainly top-of-mind for consumers, they also still crave the indulgence of their favorite snacks.”
Mintel research also shows 90 percent of consumers prefer to buy crackers with ingredients they recognize, says Schueller, while 80 percent would like to see more cracker options with health benefits. “For manufacturers, this creates an opportunity to reevaluate product offerings to ensure that they align with what the consumer is demanding right now,” he says. “For example, choosing ingredients that deliver clean-label claims, add nutritional benefits, support gluten-free diets, or are grown organically can help manufacturers address consumer preferences and differentiate themselves in the market.
Ancient grains are becoming increasingly popular for their perceived health benefits, and they can offer unique texture and flavor characteristics for crackers.” He suggests quinoa, buckwheat, barley, and millet as examples of ancient grains that work well in many types of crackers.
A food’s connections to the farming practices used to grow its primary ingredients bring a vital layer to product impressions for concerned consumers. “We are happy to see regenerative agriculture emerging as a crucial component to food production across a variety of grocery categories,” says Rubinstein. “At Simple Mills, regenerative agriculture has been a focus, because we know that what we eat and the way our food is grown has an effect on the health of the planet. We’re digging deeper on our impact to the planet and what Simple Mills can do to be part of the necessary paradigm shift in food production, and we’re inspired to see other food companies taking similar approaches.”