Brands in the snack-mix and nut spaces could be forgiven for waxing a little Dickensian as they look back on the year that was. For while the events that characterized 2020—and that persist, to an extent, today—don’t quite measure up to “the best of times” or “the worst of times,” they do tell something of “A Tale of Two Snacking Scenarios.”

How so? On one hand, as housebound consumers got used to working and learning from home, they no longer saw on-the-go convenience—snack mixes’ and nuts’ strong suit during more liberated times—as quite the same selling point.

On the other, given that the great outdoors was just-about the only place open, consumers rediscovered the backroads and, in so doing, helped return nuts and snack mixes—aka “trail mixes”—to their roots in the trails.

Add to those forces the now-perennial pursuit of functional nutrition, sensory indulgence, sustainable snacking and more, and what lesson can we extract? That the state of the snack-mix and nut sectors over the past year has been … a mixed bag.


Market data

As evidence, consider the numbers.

According to IRI, Chicago, dollar sales for the nutritional-snack and trail-mix category fell 2.5 percent to $1.2 billion over the 52 weeks ending May 16, 2021—hardly a precipitous decline, but a decline nonetheless.

Even when digging into the data, it appears that few posted standout returns, positive or negative. Exceptions include manufacturers like Kraft Heinz, which saw sales decline 13.6 percent to $71.7 million, and John B. Sanfilippo & Son, whose sales dropped 14.6 percent to $40.2 million. Among brands, Nature Valley also fell a notable 46.2 percent to $8.0 million in sales, while the big gainer among brands was Nature’s Garden—up 97.2 percent to sales of $26.6 million, perhaps thanks to traffic in its keto, immune-boosting and probiotic-packed lines.

But overall, trends tended toward the flat: private-label still led the nutritional-snack and trail-mix pack, albeit at a decline of 0.1 percent to $604.1 billion; Planters brand ended the 52 weeks down a mere 2.8 percent to sales of $54.9 million; and General Mills’ Chex Mix brand shifted almost the same distance upward, lifting its sales 2.9 percent to $19.6 million.

Snack nuts paint a similarly unremarkable picture, with the sector as a whole up by roughly the same percentage—2.6 percent—that nutritional and snack mixes ticked downward, ultimately settling at a sales total of $5.1 billion.

Here, too, private label topped the heap, up 8.5 percent to $1.9 billion, followed by, in order, Kraft Heinz (barely changed at 0.6-percent growth and sales of $1.0 billion), Wonderful Pistachios & Almonds (up a relatively impressive 12.0 percent to $837.8 million in sales) and Blue Diamond Growers (down 7.0 percent to $534.7 million in sales).

Winning brands include Wonderful, as well as Diamond, which witnessed 20.9 percent growth to sales of $20.0 million, and Valued Naturals—also enjoying double-digit growth of 17.7 percent and sales of $12.8 million. Trending in the opposite direction were, among other brands, Frito Lay Munchies, down 25.6 percent to sales of $39.4 million, and Mauna Loa, down 25.4 percent to $12.8 million in sales.


Looking back

While sector watchers can’t entirely explain the past year’s sales history, they’re not shy in pointing out the trends that helped shape it.

Perhaps the most significant trend was snacking’s continued strength—even, and perhaps especially, during the pandemic.

As Heidi Farkas, national sales and marketing manager, Milne MicroDried, Nampa, ID, observes, “We saw a trend for increased snacking in place of regular meals. Grab-and-go snacks that replace or mimic a small meal—such as individual cups with veggies, or just-add-water smoothie bowls—had traction.”

Laurel Orley, CEO and cofounder, Daily Crunch, Nashville, TN, agrees. “It’s true that people were on the go less in the past year,” she concedes. “But demand for single-serving snack and trail mixes was still on the rise—and still is.”

With all that time at home, consumers explored new platforms for snacking. As Matthew Gillespie, marketing and innovation manager, Hazelnut Growers of Oregon and Oregon Orchard (Donald, OR), points out, “Spreads and butters are definitely on-trend as consumer goods in their own right, and as source ingredients and identifiable components in several finished products.”

He notes that non-almond nut butters grew twice as fast in 2020—13 percent—as did almond butters, exceeding even shelf-stable peanut butter. “According to Mintel’s Global New Product Database,” he says, “new hazelnut spreads introduced into the US market grew 400 percent in 2020 alone,” with hazelnut-based varieties and crèmes “finding a home with many snack-food manufacturers.”

But while buttery, crème-filled nut snacks appeal to consumers’ sybaritic side, a counterpoint—consumers’ fealty to all things functional—also influenced snack-mix and nut choices in 2020.

“We’ve watched the popularity of functional nuts and snack mixes with great interest in the past year,” says Jennifer Williams, marketing director, California Walnut Board and Commission, Folsom, CA. “And it makes sense, given the pandemic and its impact on consumers’ view of food as part of an overall health decision.”

Of course, nuts and snack mixes have flaunted healthy halos from the start, with “some of the larger brands touting their products’ nutrition benefits, whether in increased energy or heart health, for years,” Williams says. “But the number of functional introductions in the last couple years signals the products’ importance to consumers looking for healthier ways to snack.”

Case in point: Williams and colleagues have seen more nut and snack mixes calling out walnuts as a source of omega-3 fatty-acids. “Walnuts are the only nuts that supply a significant amount of plant-based omega-3 alpha-linolenic acid, or ALA, at 2.5 grams per ounce,” she notes. In addition to its association with reduced risk for heart disease and inflammation1, Williams adds, omega-3 ALA has cachet with health-conscious, plant-based snackers.


Looking forward

Health-conscious snacking—plant-based and otherwise—will continue driving sales and innovation in snack mixes and nuts going forward.

There will be a rise in snacking for immune support. “Even though we’re on the downside of the pandemic,” Farkas says, “immunity’s importance continues to grow, along with the desire just to feel better, boost your mood and stay healthier.” Single-ingredient fruit and vegetable snacks meet these needs, she contends, adding that she’s seen “clear demand for minimally-processed, crunchy fruits and veggies, either as a standalone snack or lightly seasoned with nuts and other inclusions.”

She considers Brussels sprouts, for example, “an innovative way to fit today’s market and diet trends, including keto and high-fiber foods. They can be seasoned or mixed with other components to create a satisfying, healthy snack.”

Gillespie cites recent reporting from Innova Market Insights that 45 percent of global consumers have chosen more immune-supporting foods and beverage since COVID-19’s arrival—“and we expect that as consumers adopt a more preventive approach to managing health,” he continues, “they’ll continue seeking out these ingredients in their snacks. Think ingredients high in antioxidants like dark chocolate and hazelnuts, along with superfruits like cherries.”

It almost sounds indulgent—and it is. But today’s consumers, ever mindful of wellness, still prefer to balance their snacking indulgence with nutritional merit.

As Deneen Schaudies, registered dietician at Daily Crunch, puts it, “Consumers want healthy snacks but aren’t willing to give up taste and texture. Daily Crunch’s sprouted nuts have a whole core that provides a uniquely crunchy texture that’s extremely satisfying.”

Williams argues that walnuts “let developers formulate products that’re both nutritious and indulgent.” Respondents to a 2019 consumer survey may’ve cited taste as their number-one reason for consuming walnuts, she says, but 90 percent also recognized walnuts as “healthy foods” and 78 percent claimed that their health benefits “positively impacted” purchase decisions. “So with walnuts,” she concludes, “product developers don’t have to choose nutrition or indulgence. They can have both.”

For his part, Gillespie calls hazelnuts “the perfect healthy-indulgence snack-mix ingredient,” as they “check off so many boxes when it comes to consumers’ wants and needs: a crunchy texture, decadent brown-butter flavor, lots of protein, high levels of antioxidants—and in the case of our hazelnuts, sustainable growth by a cooperative of 200 family farms in Oregon.”

And that’s no longer a fringe benefit. Gillespie points to Accenture research suggesting that the pandemic intensified interest in “conscious consumption, meaning that consumers are paying more attention to where their food comes from, the provenance of ingredients and how they’re grown,” he says. The upshot: “Brands should take a close look not only at their own sustainability story, but at the environmental impact of the ingredients they choose.”

Orley has also noted rising consumer concern about ESG—environmental, social and governance—practices. In response, Daily Crunch recently committed to sourcing almonds exclusively from bee-friendly U.S. farms. Currently the only snack brand to do so, Daily Crunch also boasts Non-GMO and vegan certification, Orley says. “We strive for sustainable clean sourcing for our ingredients while also ensuring superior taste. And effective 2021, all bags are made from post-recycled plastic.”

But as important as sustainability may be, what ultimately sustains consumer interest is taste. And here, plenty of creative exploration is afoot.

“Flavor—spicy, savory, sweet, global—will continue to change the look of the nut and snack-mix aisle,” Williams predicts. Whereas sea salt and honey-roasted were boundary-pushing profiles in the past, “Today,” she says, “we’re seeing everything from salted dark chocolate to rosemary and even wasabi flavoring walnuts.”

Walnuts’ irregular surface area and “subtle nutty taste” suit them to a variety of seasonings, Williams believes. They also have what she calls “the unique ability to impart sweetness to savory products while making sweet products more savory”— a valuable skill to have at a time when sweet and savory are becoming increasingly common bedfellows.

Indeed, Gillespie says, “Innova Market Research crowned ‘flavor mashups’ the top flavor trend for 2021, and we believe it’s a trend with staying power. We started experimenting with chili-pepper hazelnuts in 2019 and have more mashup innovations in the works.” He anticipates further experimentation with global ingredients and sweet-heat combinations, too—all of which are natural for hazelnuts, whose “nutty, buttery taste complements both sweet and savory ingredients,” he says.

Daily Crunch stepped into the sweet-and-savory arena back in November 2020 with its two new flavors: Golden Goodness and Cacao + Sea Salt, both made with sprouted almonds. The former’s gold comes courtesy of turmeric, which Schaudies says “has been used for centuries as a medicinal herb in Asian healing practices, particularly in India, where the sprouting process originated.” Meantime, the Cacao + Sea Salt variety “will satisfy any sweet tooth,” she claims. Lightly dusted with cacao, sweetened with monk fruit and boosted with maca, it’s clean, packed with protein and “unique,” she says, “because it has no added sugars.”

Expansive flavor innovation, sustainable sourcing, the persistent glow of healthy halos: What else awaits snack mixes and nuts?

On the packaging side, “We continue to see interest in reclosable standup packages,” notes John Daley, product manager, North America, vertical form fill seal, GEA North America, Columbia, MD. “The ability to make quality Doy-zip bags at high speeds on a vertical bagger will be another big advantage for GEA over the next few years.”

And Farkas sees four-legged snacking as the next frontier for the category. “Pet parents are becoming more label-savvy, and as is the case with the foods they feed their families, they want important vitamins and minerals to come from easily identifiable sources,” she says. “Our ready-to-eat dried fruits and veggies are being used in snack mixes for pets. They’re portable, can be used as training treats or can be mixed into kibble, and they’re highly nutritious.”

It’s further proof that this year’s mixed bag holds a little something for everyone.