Although some of the offerings in the cheese snack category have been around for a while, there is always room for innovation and improvement.
According to Chicago-based market research firm IRI’s data from the past 52 weeks, which ended on October 2, 2022, the salty snacks category brought in $33.9 billion in sales, with a 15.3% change versus the past year.
The cheese snacks subcategory brought in $3.541 million, with a healthy 14.3% change in sales. Top brands in the category included Frito-Lay’s Cheetos, with $2.696 billion in sales and a 16.7% increase from last year; Kellogg’s Cheez-It, with $235 million in sales and a 35.9% increase; and Frito-Lay’s Chesters cheese snacks, which brought in $120 million in sales but experienced a loss of 2.4%.
Following the lead three brands are Utz, with $140 million and an 8.2% increase in sales; and the private label category, with $104 million in sales, but an 8.8% decrease from last year.
Other brands of note include Elmer’s, which experienced a 27.4% increase in sales, and Dot’s Homestyle Pretzels, which brought in $22 million in sales and had a 39.5% increase.
“Products within the cheese snack category are really about expanding the different types of offerings such as mixes (think nuts, seeds, etc.) to add flavor and texture, as well as healthier, low-carb options for snackers,” says Bridgette Kovacevich, marketing manager, Moon Cheese, NutraDried Food Co, Ferndale, WA.
Elizabeth Doval, brand director, innovation, Whisps, New York, NY, says that she is seeing the major players in the category innovating texture and format.
“For example, a major cheese snack launched a ‘puffed’ version of their products this year, and another launched ‘cheese sticks.’ While the ingredients are mostly staying the same, the way that we’re consuming cheese is changing,” she says.
“We know that consumers are looking for cheese snacks; 81% of consumers purchase cheese snacks regularly. We’re already providing a cheesy solution with our cult-favorite Cheese Crisps. But for those who love cheese and pretzels, or cheese and nuts, our latest innovations provide better-for-you alternatives that allow consumers to enjoy real cheese without having to reach for another item on the grocery store shelf,” Doval shares.
“We’re also seeing brands in the category using partnerships with well-known spices to drive excitement among consumers. This is something we’re hoping to explore in the future,” she adds.
Source: IRI Market Advantage, Integrated Fresh, Total U.S. - Multi-Outlet w/ C-Store (Grocery, Drug, Mass Market, Convenience, Military, and Select Club & Dollar Retailers), 52 Weeks Ending 04-17-22
Nick Desai, founder, and CEO, PeaTos, Los Angeles, says that he has not seen any exciting innovation in the past year, likely due to companies grappling with post-pandemic supply chain and inflation issues.
“However, I have seen items from a few of the true ‘real cheese’ snack companies that are literally taking cheese and turning it into a snack, like Moon Cheese and Sonoma Creamery,” he notes.
“More innovation usually—but not always—means more SKUs on retail shelves, and can draw curious new consumers into the category. For example, a vegan cheese snack has the potential to draw vegans into a category of which they were traditionally [left] out,” Desai finishes.
Deborah Holt, chief marketing officer, Real Food From the Ground Up, Fairfield, NJ says that the company “keeps it real” with vegan ingredients and flavorings, including a proprietary blend of natural flavors and botanical extracts to recreate that cheesy flavor that can be missing in vegan snacks.
“Over 60% of U.S. households are currently buying plant-based products, including vegan cheese. The vegan cheese market was estimated at $2.5 billion in 2021, with an expected growth of approximately 13 percent over the next eight years. Plant-based lifestyles, particularly among millennials, have had a large impact on this growth,” she notes.
“Our new brand, YOU NEED THIS, further expands on delivering big flavors without the junk, for a snack that tastes even better than it looks. Between crackers, stalks (puffed snacks), and tortilla chips, there is a vegan cheese-flavored snack to satisfy anyone’s cheese craving.”
Jared Johnson, Frito-Lay vice president of marketing, innovation, Plano, TX, says that Frito-Lay is constantly anticipating what its consumers want or what it believes they’ll be interested in—from different and new flavor combinations to a variety of brand collaborations.
“One key way we reach more consumers is by understanding how tastes and snacking expectations vary by season. We often bring consumers fun and timely offerings for different seasonal moments or holidays, like Cheetos Bag of Bones this [past] Halloween, for example,” he says.
“We also recognize that different consumers groups have different, distinct palates. By leaning into a variety of flavor profiles, we are able to appeal to more consumer audiences across the U.S., such as [with our new] Cheetos Bolitas.”
Earlier in 2022, PeaTos introduced its all-new Crunchy Pizza Rings, a dairy-free, no-guilt snack packed with pizza flavor, says Desai.
“PeaTos is also now launching, to great response, a new vegan-cheese Crunchy Puff that mimics the taste and experience of dairy cheese puffs like Cheetos,” he adds.
Additionally, in January 2023 the brand will launch PeaTos Crunchy No Cheese Puffs and PeaTos Crunchy Fiery Lime Puffs.
Doval says that Whisps Cheese & Pretzel Bites launched in April 2022, with a mission to put real cheese back in ‘cheez’ snacks.
“Did you know that the majority of pretzel-and-cheese snacks available today do not contain real cheese? Made with 100% real, artisan cheese, these Cheese & Pretzel Bites combine parmesan and cheddar cheese with clean-label pretzels to create a crunchy snack that cheese lovers—and anyone, for that matter—can feel good about enjoying,” Doval notes.
“At the end of 2021, we also launched Cheese Crisps and Nuts—snack mixes made only with real cheese, nuts, and premium spices. With both of these launches, our goal is to incorporate real cheese into snacking occasions, because too often cheese snacks are made without their namesake ingredient,” she comments.
Kovacevich says that Moon Cheese recently introduced Moon Cheese Crunchy Cheese Sticks.
“The [Crunchy Cheese] sticks are made of 100% real mozzarella cheese and coated with clean-label seasonings to give [consumers’] tastebuds a wake-up call,” she adds.
“There really hasn't been a lot of healthy innovation in snacks lately. With the introduction of Moon Cheese Crunchy Cheese Sticks, we are taking a much-loved crunchy snack and making it high in protein and healthier.”
Johnson says that many Frito-Lay brands have created cheesy snacks over the past year.
“Most recently, this fall we launched SunChips Black Bean Southwestern Queso and brought the popular Cheetos Bolitas to the U.S. market from Mexico for the first time. Both innovations feature a powerful cheesy punch fans know and love, with a bold tang and zest that takes these flavors to the next level,” he says.
SunChips’ new Black Bean flavor in the Southwestern Queso variety pairs chipotle peppers with creamy queso. Making its U.S. debut this fall, Cheetos Bolitas packs a chili and cheese punch into bite-sized balls with a soft, crunchy texture. The product previously was available only in Mexico.
“Better-for-you is always a main focus when Moon Cheese works on a new product introduction,” explains Kovacevich.
“Using Enwave's advanced technology where real food like cheese and vegetables can be dried into a shelf-stable snack, while keeping the majority of nutrients intact, is an innovative way to make healthier choices available to consumers,” she notes.
Doval says that better-for-you is a key pillar at Whisps.
“We know that our customers trust [us] to provide products with real, recognizable ingredients, like cheese. No matter what we do in the future, our focus will always be real cheese, first and foremost, and real, craveable ingredients alongside cheese.”
Johnson says that Frito-Lay is always looking for ways to provide consumers with more nutritious snacking options, without sacrificing flavor.
“The new SunChips Black Bean Southwestern Queso is the perfect example of this. Not only does this snack have a bold, spicy flavor profile, but it’s also made with whole grains and black beans and contains no artificial flavors. [In addition, the chips] are heart healthy and a good source of fiber—two claims that consumers look for in snacks,” he comments.
Consumers continue to desire better-for-you snacks, but also demand strong taste and flavor, agrees Desai. “This has always been the holy grail for snack producers. Using better ingredients but still maintaining full flavor and texture has driven R&D and will continue to do so,” he finishes.
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