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Grain-Free: The New Trend in Snacks

Options made with cassava, nuts, legumes, pulses, root vegetables or other grain substitutes can be vibrant component of a retailer’s snack set
Grain-Free: The New Trend in Snacks
Better-for-you grain-free snacks are poised for further growth.

Snacks have been around forever, but one rising better for-you snack attribute delivers favorite forms and flavors with a twist — the items are grain-free. Whether consumers choose these products due to allergies or intolerances; as part of a keto, Paleo or other low carb diet regime; out of a desire to improve their gut health; to support regenerative agriculture practices; or just because they’re seeking something new and different, options made with cassava, nuts, legumes, pulses, root vegetables or other grain substitutes can be a vibrant component of a retailer’s snack set.

“‘Grain-free’ as a claim within salty snacks is more widespread than many people may know, with items that leverage the claim accounting for over $27 million in sales,” says James Hedges, senior manager of category solutions at Stamford, Conn.-based Daymon. “However, most of the sales come from areas that may be inherently grain-free — like vegetable snacks, which account for over $15 million. The real innovation has been in typically grain-reliant segments like tortilla chips that are growing at over 76% versus year ago — total sales are $1.5 million — and pretzels.”

“Grain-free is definitely the new trend in snacks,” affirms Rachel Shemirani, SVP of Poway, Calif.-based independent grocer Barons Market, which operates nine locations. “It started with the Siete [tortilla chip] brand. I think that made the grain-free trend quite popular. We quickly saw other brands trying to enter the grain-free market, and brought on new brands like Barnana, Plant Snacks, Made With and Mary’s Gone Crackers. Taste is still the No. 1 thing that drives these sales, and everything tastes delicious, so even customers that don’t follow a grain-free diet will still pick up these snacks because they are attracted to the unique labeling and ingredients.”

Biena Snacks has added a popular flavor profile, Lil' Bit of Everything, to its grain-free Roasted Chickpea Snacks portfolio.

According to Shemirani, Barons places grain-free options “in line in our snacks aisle, but will also merchandise them with plant-based dips, since they are both pretty big trends right now.”

“One of the biggest benefits of going grain free is that it could lead the consumer down a path of consuming more nutritious foods such as fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, seeds and lean proteins,” notes James Ren, senior category manager at Los Angeles-based e-grocer Thrive Market. “It’s easy to find processed foods and sweets that are derived from grains, and those options tend to provide little nutritional value while being high in fat, sugar and sodium. While choosing to go fully grain-free isn’t for everyone, it certainly can be a delicious option for everyone on their own personal journey.”

Ren suggests that “[t]he best way to merchandise and promote grain-free snacks is to have them front and center with all snacks. Tucking away the grain-free options in a corner of the aisle on its own island would be doing a disservice to the category, the brand and consumers. Ultimately, consumers are looking for delicious options that meet their unique individual needs. Presenting them as such, where they just happen to be grain-free, promotes greater discovery and success in the category.”

As for the performance of Thrive Market’s grain-free snack offerings, which include items from Simple Mills, LesserEvil, The Good Crisp Co. and the aforementioned Siete, he asserts: “Sales have been strong and steady. There is always a ton of innovation, whether it’s forms, flavors or something else. This breeds excitement in the category that leads to solid business performance.”

Grain-Free: The New Trend in Snacks
Calbee's San Joaquin Almond Nut Chips are made with almonds sourced from Naraghi Family Farms in California's San Joaquin Valley

Innovation Rules

In the grain-free segment, creativity is a given as snack makers strive to create items that satisfy with regard to taste and texture.

“Biena Roasted Chickpea Snacks and Puffs contain naturally grain free chickpeas as the foundational ingredient,” notes Poorvi Patodia, founder and CEO of Boston-based Biena Snacks. “Chickpeas provide naturally occurring fiber and protein, which lowers overall carbs and net carbs for those also looking for low-carb options.”

In October 2020, Biena added a popular flavor profile to its Roasted Chickpea Snacks family: Lil’ Bit of Everything. “The Everything flavor has been everywhere, from breads to dips to even a seasoning,” explains Patodia. “We are dialed in to what snackers crave, and knew this flavor profile would taste amazing as a crunchy chickpea snack. Our entire roasted line is grain-free and perfect for both snacking and using as a topping to elevate foods like salads, soups and avocado toast.”

According to Patodia, Lil’ Bit of Everything “has seen a ton of popularity among consumers in the past 12-18 months, and adding it to a quality, allergen-friendly product has helped the snack take off.”

“To make our San Joaquin Almond Nut Chips ... we harness the power of almonds to create a tasty, crunchy and on-trend alternative to corn-based tortilla chips,” says Sandra Payer, director of marketing at Fairfield, Calif.-based Calbee America Inc. “Straight from the San Joaquin Valley in California, where the climate is ideal for growing, the high-quality almonds used in these one-of-a-kind grain-free nut chips are sourced from Naraghi Family Farms.”

While the chips just launched this past September, “we see promising results so far,” adds Payer. “Products made with an alternative base, like San Joaquin Almond Nut Chips, are outgrowing the traditional tortilla chips category, so there is definitely a trend and increased demand for such products.”

“Crunchmaster likes to use cassava root and coconut in its grain-free products, because it enables us to deliver a delicious product while meeting our consumers’ trifecta of diet preferences: grain-free, Paleo and vegan,” explains Braden Bennie, senior marketing manager at the brand of Loves Park, Ill.-based TH Foods Inc., whose latest grain-free product, Crunchmaster Bistro Crisps, rolled out in October. “Cassava root and coconut also meet consumers’ need for gluten-free and non-GMO ingredients, which has become table stakes for this consumer — they will choose another option if products are not compliant on these two claims.”

LesserEvil's grain-free products, like the newly introduced PeaNOTS and Sun Poppers lines, feature a prominent callout on the front of their packaging.

Additionally, Crunchmaster’s Grain Free Crackers line will debut a new recipe during the fourth quarter, using olive oil and an optimized formula to ensure that the products comply with Paleo and vegan claims.

“When merchandising and promoting grain-free snacks, it’s important to focus on two key customer groups — those who are already aware and seeking grain-free options, and those who aren’t yet familiar with the benefits of grain-free snacks,” advises Bennie. “First, prominently labeling products with nutritional value and claims ... on the front of the package lets customers know right away they’ve found a grain-free snack. These claims also are prominent in our sales materials.

“For those who aren’t familiar or proactively looking for grain-free snacks, education is essential to help customers understand the benefits and why they might choose a grain-free product over a competitive option,” he continues. “Crunchmaster promotes the benefits of its products through its website and social media to help educate consumers before they even reach the grocery store aisle.”

“At LesserEvil, we like to experiment with ingredients that are sustainable and can create something truly innovative and delicious,” says Charles Coristine, president and CEO of Danbury, Conn.-based LesserEvil Healthy Brands Co., which recently introduced two new grain-free snacks at Natural Products Expo East in September, PeaNOTS and Sun Poppers. “We use cassava flour as a base in many of our products. Additionally, our new Sun Poppers are crafted with upcycled watermelon and pumpkin seeds. Our new PeaNOTS use peas, a water-efficient crop.”

LesserEvil’s grain-free products feature a prominent callout on the front of their packaging. “We work with the Paleo Foundation to certify our products as both Certified Paleo and Certified Grain-Free/Gluten-Free,” notes Coristine.

“Almond flour has been a major player in this space for years, and we use it in several of our products,” says Andrea Horowitz, senior manager, content and communications at Chicago-based Simple Mills, “However, we have been introducing new products made with a variety of nut and seed flours, including pumpkin seed, sunflower seed, flax seed, cashew and watermelon seed. These ingredients add key nutrients to our products while supporting our mission to encourage a diversified diet that will benefit both our physical health and the health of the planet.”

Case in point: Simple Mills’ new Sweet Thins snack line is made from a blend of watermelon seed, cashew, sunflower seed and flax seed flours. “Sales have steadily increased and will continue to rise as new innovations hit store shelves,” notes Horowitz of the brand’s products as a whole. “Consumers are intrigued by alternative ingredients and interested in experimenting with never-before-used ingredients — especially those that pack a nutritious punch.”

“Our products contain potato starch and sweet potato flour, which are used to replace what would be grains,” says Ashley Rogers, founder and CEO of Newport Beach, Calif.-based Spudsy, maker of the grain-free Sweet Potato Fry snack line in Hot, Vegan Ranch, Sea Salt and Cheese varieties — a departure from the usual corn-based offerings in this space. “Sweet potatoes are a great source of nutrients, and we only use upcycled sweet potatoes to make our delicious snacks. We do this because we are on a mission to help reduce food waste with our Save the Spud campaign. By utilizing ‘imperfect’ spuds, we’re able to not only offer a grain-free option, but also upcycle; this year we’re on track to save over 1 million imperfect sweet potatoes.”

Spudsy has drawn attention to its grain-free products via ads and influencer content.

Of course, for those eschewing grain, meatbased snacks have always been a logical choice. “At 4505, we benefit because our products are — and have always been — naturally grain free,” observes Greg O’Neal, chief marketing officer of San Francisco-based 4505 Meats, which recently launched 100% grain-free Butcher’s Snacks sausage links packed with up 24 grams of protein per link.

“4505 Meats pork rinds have had great success being merchandised in mainline salty snacks, right next to chips, popcorn, and other grain-based salty snacks,” notes O’Neal. “The brand has also seen success being merchandised in healthier alternative snack sets. In terms of off-shelf and feature merchandising, we love to participate in dietary — e.g., keto — and seasonal — e.g., New Year, New You — thematics that cater to grain- and carb-conscious shoppers.”

4505 Meats has recently introduced 100% grain-free Butcher's Snacks sausage links, which are packed with up to 24 grams of protein per link.

Healthy Variety

Snacks are just the tip of the grain-free iceberg, with Barons Market’s Shemirani pointing to grain-free options in such other categories as frozen pizza, pasta, cereal and desserts. In the better-for-you snack segment particularly, however, grain-free items are poised for further growth.

“Thanks to consumer acceptance and understanding of the healthy benefits of grain-free, the trend is likely to continue to play out within salty snacks, crackers, breads, cookies and more in new formats,” predicts Daymon’s Hedges. “Similar to the rise of gluten-free food, manufacturers will experiment with formulations of different ingredients to develop the best-tasting products that mimic traditional items made with grains. New and trending flavors will mimic popular flavors in traditional items, as consumers want the same variety and choice.”

“We’ll continue to see more variety in the types of alternative flours being used in grain-free snacks,” says Simple Mills’ Horowitz. “We’ll also see sustainability play a larger role in ingredient sourcing. These days, consumers aren’t only interested in their own health, they’re concerned about planetary health as well, and want their food choices to reflect those values.”

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