Health That Goes Crunch

10/13/2013

As consumers’ interest in better nutrition grows, so does their craving for better-for-you snacks.

Call them the munchies, cravings or what you will, but snacking is a big deal in this country. According to the NPD Group, based in Port Washington, N.Y., the typical American eats more than 1,000 snack-oriented convenience foods throughout the year, and the U.S. snacking business is pegged at $87 billion.

Another big deal is the ongoing interest in, and movement toward, health and nutrition. Tose aren’t necessarily divergent paths. That, by a natural conclusion, is a big deal in itself — and a big opportunity for grocers.

Supporting burgeoning interest in healthy snacks is data from Chicago-based Mintel, according to whose recent study, 38 percent of consumers said they ate “more healthy” snacks last year compared with the previous year.

As shoppers walk down the center store snack aisle, they encounter an increasing number of healthier options merchandised alongside traditional snacks. While snack food makers have long offered healthy alternatives, the nature of healthy snacks has evolved, whether it’s less removing of the “bad” (e.g., fat, salt, calories) versus more adding of the “good” (e.g., whole grains, vitamins, antioxidants), or continual innovations in packages and product formats.

The addition of new and revamped products in center store — not to mention across the perishable grocery sections — reflects shoppers’ penchant for snacks that lend themselves to a healthy (or at least healthier) lifestyle, and their demand for products that reflect the busy aspects of that same lifestyle. “Shoppers now look for two attributes when it comes to selecting their snack: convenience and healthy credentials,” says Alexandre Chabert, trade marketing manager at Buddy Fruits, a Coral Gables, Fla.-based marketer of squeezable fruit pouches aimed primarily at children.

Amy Lotker, owner and EVP of marketing and sales at Better4You Foods LLC, in Delray Beach, Fla., agrees. “At the end of the day, Americans crave snack foods and meal replacement choices that are both convenient and healthy,” she says, citing a recent International Food Information Council (IFIC) survey indicating that when choosing foods for health benefits, consumers look for items that improve heart health, maintain overall health and wellness, improve physical energy or stamina, and improve digestive health. “So there’s definitely a push for balance.”

Barbara Ruhs, registered dietitian for Chandler, Ariz.-based supermarket chain Bashas’, says that today’s packaged snacks have earned a rightful place among their traditional counterparts. “Snack companies are getting healthier,” she declares.

New Chips off the Old Block

As for popular healthy snacks, Ruhs reports that while they may emphasize the new and nutritionally improved, shoppers have a taste for perennial favorites. “Consumers like the same things that they have always loved, like chips, crackers and popcorn,” she says, pointing to recent strong growth in products like popped chips and chips made with whole grains.

San Francisco-based Popchips is an example of a healthy brand that has found a following. Boasting half the flat of fried snack chips, Popchips is one of the fastest-growing snack brands in the country; launched in 2007, the product is now found in 30,000 retailers around the country, and has expanded to include new varieties, including veggie chips that complement its potato, tortilla and kettle offerings.

To that point, veggie chips represent a strong growth segment. Green Giant, for its part, has lent its name to a line of Roasted Veggie Tortilla Chips. One can even find kale chips at some grocery stores. Other chip brands have focused on baked chips aimed at the healthy eater. The Salem, Ore.- based Kettle brand, for example, relaunched its Bakes products last year and added two new flavors, Cheddar and Roasted Tomato, and Sour Cream and Onion.

Then there’s popcorn. Omaha, Neb.-based ConAgra’s venerable Orville Redenbacher brand, an early purveyor of healthier popcorn products, has extended its new product pipeline to its ready-to-eat Pop Crunch line in a variety of flavors. Meantime, Skinny Pop, based in Skokie, Ill., is a startup that has gone from zero to 5,000-plus stores in three years, with a cult-like following for its all-natural popcorn. And Kernel Season’s gluten-free line of popcorn seasonings and spritzers relaunched over the summer with new packaging and flavors.

According to Brian Taylor, CEO of Elk Grove Village, Ill.-based Kernel Season’s, healthier popcorn that is custom-seasoned by the consumer fits another trend in the marketplace. “One of the things that makes popcorn so different is that it’s a snack that you get to make yourself, so it’s on trend with the move toward making things at home,” he says, noting that people like the versatility of mixing and matching flavors through seasonings and spritzers, while still enjoying a healthier treat. “It’s a very calorie- and health-efficient way to season your own snack.”

Crackers, too, are well suited to retooling with healthier ingredients and formats. Vernon, Calif.-based Van’s Natural Foods, for example, offers crackers made with ingredients like brown rice, quinoa and millet.

Even granola has evolved to include new, more healthful twists. New York-based Purely Elizabeth, for example, recently expanded distribution of its Ancient Grain Granola. Available in Original, Cranberry Pecan, Pumpkin Fig and Blueberry Hemp, the granola is free from refined sugar and contains all-natural and organic ingredients such as certified gluten-free oats, Salba chia seeds, puffed amaranth and quinoa flakes.

Foods that are also suitable for snacking occasions, like pizza, have been infused with healthier ingredients, too. Lotker points to Better4U’s All Natural Ultra-Tin Multigrain Sprouted Grain Pizzas: “Sprouted grains are in demand because they deliver a number of significant nutritional benefits, including increased amounts of dietary fiber, nutrients, protein and a lower glycemic index, which is helpful for people with diabetes.”

Bashas’ Ruhs notes that, in addition to startup and niche companies, major manufacturers and brands such as Frito-Lay have provided both traditional and healthier snack choices. She points to Frito-Lay’s switch of oils for frying, its gluten-free options and its regular communications with dietitians to educate people about healthier snack choices. “Companies like that will help lead the way,” Ruhs observes. “They know snacks and know how people snack.”

And Now for Something Completely Different

While long-popular snacks like chips, popcorn and crackers have undergone a healthy makeover, other snack makers are meeting consumer interest in good-for-you indulgences by thinking outside of the proverbial box.

Veggie chips, crackers, straws and puffs may be sold next to traditional salty snacks, but some veggie snacks are truly unique to the traditional market. Stamford, Conn.-based Saffron Road, for example, offers a packaged snack of crunchy chickpeas, while Fairfeld, Calif-based Harvest Snaps Snapea Crisps, made from all-natural peas, purport to deliver nutrients such as vitamin B, calcium, iron, folate, potassium and dietary fiber.

Houston-based Simply 7 Snacks has combined unique vegetable snack formats with bold flavors, introducing new products like Lentil Chips Jalapeño and Hummus Chips Roasted Red Pepper. “We also launched a new line of pomegranate chips, which come in Sea Salt, Black Pepper and White Cheddar, combining the crunch of traditional chips [and] the slight sweetness and health benefits of the pomegranate, all with delicious, all-natural spices and seasonings,” explains Missy Hunter, marketing manager at the company, whose name stands for its seven core principles: no trans fats or cholesterol, no artificial colors or flavors, no additives or preservatives, gluten-free ingredients, all-natural recipes, simple ingredients, and “simply delicious.” “We’ve watched the growing pomegrana trends with great interest and realized we were in the perfect position to do something with pomegranates that no one else has done.”

Many of the new packaged snacks are aimed at a range of audiences, including kids. This fall, Buddy Fruits is launching a new blended fruit-and veggie snack geared toward the youngest consume “We fine-tuned the right, balanced mix between the ingredients,” Chabert says. “Even the pickiest little eater will enjoy his or her favorite vegetables.”

Redefining Diets

Reflecting the shoppers who seek them out, today’s healthy snacks in center store have functions and benefits that address specific health and nutrition issues. As Better4U’s Lotker notes: “Consumers now demand healthy snacks that adhere to their specific dietary needs, including gluten-free, organic, clean-label, whole grain, reduced-calorie, omega-3, and vitamin- and mineral-fortified products. These are trends that speak to common sense and show no signs of slowing.”

Likewise, Hunter predicts continued interest in products that meet certain dietary needs. “We also see that gluten-free and non-GMO are huge drivers for our category,” she says. “They aren’t just fads — they are significant concerns that consumers have about their health and the safety of the food they are eating. Because of that, interest is coming across all customer segments.”

Hunter says the healthy snack wave isn’t just bringing an occasional high crest, but rather a sea change. “Tere are definitely key trends in the industry that people focus on, some bigger than others, like non-GMO, gluten-free, ancient grains, superfoods, etc.,” she notes, “but all of these trends are part of a larger movement toward a healthier lifestyle. People are starting to become more attentive to what they’re putting in their bodies and want to know what’s in what they’re eating.”

Consumers like the same things that they have always loved, like chips, crackers and popcorn.”
—Barbara Ruhs, Bashas’

All of these trends are part of a larger movement toward a healthier lifestyle.”
—Missy Hunter, Simply 7 Snacks

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