Puffed and extruded snacks have been a staple in pantries for many years. Recently, however, manufacturers have been upping their game, using clean-label ingredients and a variety of different flavors to attract new consumers to the category.


Market data

According to IRI (Chicago) data from the past 52 weeks, which ended on May 16, 2021, the “Other Salted Snacks (No Nuts)” category rose a healthy 12 percent, with $5.61 billion in sales.

Leaders in the category were Frito-Lay, with $3.86 billion and a 14.8 sales increase; General Mills, with $391 million in sales but a decline of 3.1 percent from the previous year; and The Hain Celestial Group, with $244 million in sales and a 12 percent increase.

Others of note were Quest, with a staggering 261.7 percent increase in sales, up to $53 million total, and SunChips, with an 18.2 percent increase and $374 million in sales.

The Cheese Snacks category was up 5.2 percent over the past year, with $3.03 billion in sales. Frito-Lay again led the pack, with $2.4 billion in sales and a 2.8 percent increase, and coming in second was Kellogg Co., with $156 million in sales and a large 39.8 percent increase. Utz Quality Foods came in third, with $94 million in sales and a small .8 percent increase.

Brands on the rise were Cheez It Snap D, with $2 billion in sales and a 30.5 percent increase, and better-for-you brand Baked Cheetos, with $55 million in sales and a 31.5 percent increase. ParmCrisps also brought in $28 million but with a large 51.9 percent increase in sales.

In the “Corn Snacks (No Tortilla Chips)” category, the category itself brought in $1.382 billion last year, with a modest 4.6 percent increase, and Frito-Lay was responsible for $1.06 billion of those sales, with a 3.8 percent increase. General Mills brought in $114 million, but with a 4.2 percent dip in sales, and BFY Brands brought in $92 million, with a robust 40.5 percent increase in sales.

Brands to watch are PopCorners, which brought in $92 million in sales but with a 40.5 percent increase, and Sabritas Turbos, which had sales of $25 million but rose by a staggering 408.6 percent.

Finally, the pork rinds category brought in $593 million in sales, with a .4 percent increase over the past year. Macs Snacks was the category leader, with $118 million in sales and a 19 percent increase; Frito-Lay brought in $92 million, but with an impactful sales loss of 29.8 percent; and Golden Flake Snack Foods Inc. brought in $70 million, with a 9.5 percent increase in sales.

Other brands to take note of were Southern Recipe, which rose 21.8 percent in sales, and Mission Pork Rinds, which rose 15.3 percent.


Looking back

“We [have been seeing] a continued trend toward healthy snacks with a growing demand for plant-based snacks with nutritional benefits: high fiber, functional ingredients, protein and vitamin-enriched,” says José Coelho, Americas business director, Clextral, Tampa, FL. “We are receiving requests to develop snacks with new ingredients, flavors, and filling combinations, and snacks with clean labels and fewer ingredients. There are also requests for snacks with reduced fat and salt content, following the healthy snacks trend.”

Theron Sarda, vice president, American Key Food Products, Closter, NJ, says that fueled by the rise of mindful eating and the plant-based movement, consumers’ approach to healthy eating has begun shifting from elimination diets to true lifestyle changes that emphasize sustainable, healthy foundations.

“While product innovation for years has focused on ‘healthier’ versions of unhealthy products, we’ve seen many start-ups explode on to the scene that have leveraged special-purpose, high performance ingredients to create simple, clean-label—and truly healthy—food products that today’s consumers are hungry for,” says Sarda.

As such, puffed and extruded manufacturers have caught onto this shift and have placed renewed emphasis on clean-label, better-for-you ingredients that consumers are actively seeking out, Sarda notes. “Broader acceptance of the plant-based movement has also shone a light on the different ways in which a wide-range of fruits, vegetables, and alternative flours and starches can be integrated to our daily food intake. Halo ingredients have long played a role in this adoption as formulators have relied on them as differentiators that can grab attention on grocery shelves,” he says. “In conjunction with the rise of plant-based eating, though, these halo ingredients are actually helping reinforce snacking behavior by transforming the snacking occasion from an indulgence to be avoided to a virtuous moment when you’re actually doing something good for your body—and enjoying it too.”

Sandra Payer, marketing director, Calbee America, Inc., Fairfield, CA, says that Calbee America is continuing to see a trend toward minimally-processed products made with simple ingredients that deliver nutrition and great taste. “At Calbee, we were ahead of that curve with Harvest Snaps Snack Crisps, which have always been made with farm-picked green peas, red lentils, or black beans as the first ingredient. These real veggies are milled in-house to include the nutritional value of almost the entire pea, including the husks and fiber-rich germination components, or whole legume. Health-conscious consumers appreciate that they can satisfy their salty snack cravings, while also getting a fix of plant-based protein and fiber in every serving.”

Dustin Finkel, CEO, Awakened Foods, Loveland, CO, comments that consumers are still seeking snacks that bring them joy—and that joy can be found at the intersection of health and indulgence. “Vegan and allergen-friendly [consumers], while only 6 percent and 13 percent of the population, respectively, continue to drive category growth as a broader population realizes the health benefits of eating clean and plant-based,” he notes.

“We see an acceleration of sales in approachable, simple, all-family, and nostalgic taste profiles within flavor trends,” says Finkel. “We have seen massive sales growth online in our Olive Oil Sea Salt Chips and the meteoric rise of our Cinnamon Churro Puffs through the pandemic. Both of these flavors are incredibly clean label, with only three to four ingredients total, are no- or low-sugar (just 3 grams on the Churro Puffs), and are loved by kids and adults alike!”

Peter Losee, senior business development manager, food, sweet and savory, Corbion, Lenexa, KS, says that trends around exploration in flavor variation for puffed snacks, such as sweet and salty popcorn, continue to be a top priority for consumers. He says that inclusion of flavor boosted by lactic acid, such as cheese-flavored-applications, has become frequent in the category.

In 2020, some interesting puffed and extruded launches included Biena Snacks’ Keto Puff, in Sea Salt flavor, as well as Outstanding Foods’ TakeOut “Meal in a Bag,” which made it onto SF&WB’s “Best New Snack and Bakery Products of 2020” finalist list. In addition, there were many new products released that used different bases, such as Tefftastic Puffs, and manufacturers experimented with innovative flavors, such as Beanfields Pumpkin Pie and Mexican Hot Cocoa Vegan Cracklins.

Tracy Scribbins, group marketing manager, ABF Ingredients, Peterborough, UK, says that at PGP International, they launched Garbanzo Crisps and Garbanzo Puffs as new ingredients, and they are trending well in the marketplace. “Garbanzo provides a good nutritional value with up to 20 percent protein and 15 percent fiber, per 100 grams,” she says. “[They’re] great in savory applications for snack mixes with savory seasoning coatings. Other applications could be bars, cereal, clusters, granolas, croutons. Garbanzo Crisps are also clean label, allergen-free, gluten-free, Non-GMO, and kosher.”

Payer says that this past year, Harvest Snaps launched Crunchions, a red lentil snack crisp that delivers crunch in a fun ring shape. “Like our flagship lineup of Harvest Snaps Snack Crisps, Crunchions feature veggies as the first ingredient, are baked (never fried), and are certified gluten-free, vegetarian-friendly, and completely free of palm oil and artificial flavors and colors. Flavors include Sour Cream & Onion, Kick’n BBQ, and Tangy Sweet Chili, and the products are also free of the common allergens soy, nuts, peanuts, wheat, and eggs.”


Looking forward

The trends of puffed and extruded snacks with new and different bases will continue in 2021.

“In the alternative-flour space, AKFP’s King Lion Premium Cassava Flour is well known for its remarkably similar baking functionality to wheat flour. In addition, a study that took place (Chandran, 2015) delved into the merits of Premium Cassava Flour for extrusion. It found that King Lion Premium Cassava Flour, thanks to its fiber content, extrudes remarkably well on its own but can also measurably improve expansion and texture of extrudate as an extrusion aid,” says Sarda.

“In that particular study, Premium Cassava Flour was combined with quinoa—which by itself does not extrude well, but is valuable for its protein content,” says Sarda. “The cassava flour addition measurably improved the expansion and texture of the extrudate, thus demonstrating that when combined with other ingredients, King Lion Premium Cassava Flour proves to offer a strong alternative to traditional puff and extruded snack ingredients that fits squarely in line with consumers’ growing desire for clean-label, better-for-you ingredients.”

On the equipment side, Coelho says that in order to assist snack processors in their sustainability goals, in June 2020 Clextral introduced the Evolum+ Dryer, which provides high efficiency drying and precise control. “It has advanced aeraulics for optimized and ultra-gentle air flow to maintain maximum product quality. Its hygienic design and continuous belt cleaning ability allow both the drying of standard uncoated puffed snacks as well as product with viscous flavor coating. It can be equipped with different product conveying and spreading devices to efficiently dry a variety of snack styles,” he says.

On the new products side, Finkel says that Ka-Pop! Snacks will be launching Vegan Sour Cream & Onion Popped Chips, as well as BBQ Popped Chips & Puffs, in June 2021, and Sweet & Salty Kettle Puffs in July 2021. “These fantastic flavors maintain our promise of vegan, gluten-free, non-GMO, and Top 12 Allergen-free—but not taste-free! Over a year of work has gone into these recipes, and we have dialed in the most amazing taste and texture,” he exclaims.

Payer says that the trend toward minimally processed snacks will continue into next year, and likely much longer. “After a period of embracing comfort food due to COVID-19, people are getting over that hump and remembering that what we put into our body affects our health and even our attitude. While ‘free from’ was a popular claim in the past, consumers are just as concerned about what’s in their snacks, and prioritizing real, whole-food ingredients that can deliver nutrition,” she says.

“In addition, as plant-based diets continue to grow in popularity. I think we’ll see an increasing number of consumers seeking snacks that provide plant-based protein and fiber to keep them satisfied throughout the day,” Payer predicts.

For 2021, Finkel predicts that we will see a post-pandemic whiplash in a few areas that will impact how consumers eat. “First is a focused return to health—moving from immunity benefits to weight management and clean eating. Many of us have found that we have put on a few pounds while in quarantine, so as things open up this summer, we will want to return to the foods that help us meet our comprehensive health goals while not giving up on the taste and joy of eating,” he says.

“Second is the explosion of travel and social gatherings, which will drive more eating occasions out of home, accelerate single serve/convenient packaging options, and open up multi-channel shopping again,” Finkel predicts. “Finally, the return to brands that are redefining quality through sustainability, transparency, and trust. As consumers can reopen their shopping behaviors to engage with more brands and reunite physically with their food tribes, there will be an accelerated connection with the companies that are making the right choices for both people and the planet.”