The New Normal for Snacks

The post-pandemic consumer will demand better-for-you meal solutions more than ever before
Gina Acosta, Progressive Grocer
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At Fresh Thyme Farmers Market, healthy snacks are showcased near the front end.

Meet the new American grocery shoppers.

After more than a year of extreme fear and stress due to the COVID-19 pandemic, these consumers are prioritizing health and safety more than ever before.

At the grocery store, whether they’re shopping on their mobile phones or cruising the center store in person, they’re looking for better-for-you nourishment by scanning labels, zeroing in on unfamiliar ingredients, skipping items loaded with sodium, sugar and fat (which they may have overindulged in during the pandemic), and looking for as many health benefits as possible in every snack or meal.

Health and wellness were surging trends in retail and consumer packaged goods before the pandemic, but for the shopper, the buzzwords have gone from “trendy” to “must have” when it comes to food, and especially sweet or savory snacks. “Better for you” is now mainstream as the post-pandemic consumer redefines what it means to lead a happier, healthier and more productive lifestyle during chaotic, unbalanced times.

“Coming out of the pandemic, I think we’ve all realized there really is nothing more important than our health,” affirms Mark Mastern, CEO of Joolies, a grower of organic California Medjool dates in Southern California’s Coachella Valley. “Maintaining a healthy lifestyle is top of mind for consumers, yet at the same time, there are so many stresses people are facing as we continue to face unknowns and transition back to ‘normal’ times.”

Joolies is perfectly positioned to capture the post-pandemic shopper looking for better-for-you snack solutions. Consumers are snacking more than ever before, and they expect their snacks to offer nutrition, portability and wellness. Joolies’ Medjool dates are a good example of a snack that offers consumers a healthy option, a sugar swap and a superfruit ingredient while at the same time satisfying cravings for comfort food, according to Mastern. Medjool dates are known to be high in antioxidants, and a good source of fiber and potassium.

Many retailers and suppliers looking to leverage the opportunity in healthy snacks used to hang their hats on gluten-free and organic labels, and left the “superfood” products to natural food stores. However, more shoppers than ever, spanning a wide range of socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds, are looking for low-sugar chocolate bars, sour cream and onion protein puffs, and ketogenic malted milk balls. To capitalize on these post-pandemic health and wellness movements and reach the right customers, retailers and manufacturers should recalibrate their offerings and get in front of these trends now.

“In both candy and snacks, I think you’ll see solid growth after the pandemic,” says John Downs, president and CEO of the Washington, D.C.-based National Confectioners Association. “I think, given lifestyle preferences in this country, and given our demographics, and as we come out of the pandemic, these two categories will continue to be solid.”

Consumers are clamoring for fruit and nut snacks made with simple ingredients, like Have A Ball's energy snacks.

A Not Too Sweet Strategy

According to New York-based global consulting firm Mckinsey & Co., wellness became the primary public concern during the pandemic, with 68% of consumers saying they were very or extremely concerned about their health. A new survey by U.K.-based market research firm FMCG Gurus shows that 56% of consumers, many of whom turned to sugar as a stress reliever during the pandemic, say that they plan to prioritize their post-pandemic health by reducing their sugar intake. Meanwhile, the Washington, D.C.-based International Food Information Council’s 2021 Food & Health Survey, released in May, reported that 72% of U.S. consumers said they’re limiting or avoiding sugar in 2021.

To capture more consumers looking for better-for-you sweets, companies are investing in low-sugar innovation, and there’s no better example of this than The Hershey Co., which is strategizing to grow the better-for-you chocolate category with new and differentiated capabilities.

Earlier this year, Pennsylvania-based Hershey introduced Organic Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups and Kit Kat Thins as part of its goal to provide better-for-you options. In June, the company completed its acquisition of better-for-you chocolatier Lily’s for $425 million.

“Lily’s popular low-sugar products are a great strategic fit with our multipronged better-for-you snacking strategy and will perfectly complement our existing iconic Hershey’s better-for-you offerings,” notes Chuck Raup, Hershey’s president U.S.

Hershey is implementing a multipronged strategy to expand its portfolio to deliver more reduced-sugar, organic and plant-based alternatives. The strategy includes continuing to offer portion-controlled treats in a variety of pack types, extending core brands to better-for-you offerings and renovating existing products, focusing internal efforts and external investments to develop future sugar reduction capabilities, and teaming with top better-for-you brand partners to co-develop and launch new offerings.

“Expanding our expertise, building new capabilities and delivering more choices in better-for-you confection is the next big category opportunity for us to lead,” says Kristen Riggs, chief growth officer at Hershey.

As part of its better-for-you confection strategy, the company has also partnered with West Palm Beach, Fla.-based ASR Group, a leading sweetener company, to co-lead an equity investment in Bonumose Inc., a Charlottesville, Va.-based startup with breakthrough innovations in plant-based food ingredients, including rare and natural sugars.

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At the Sweets & Snacks Expo in Indianapolis, Michigan-based Kubisch Sausage Co.'s Long John Snacks showed off its range of on-trend meat snacks.

Savory Snacking to Stick

The pandemic didn’t just give sweet snacks a boost.

Consumers also turned to salty snacks to cope with the new realities, increased screen time, and more at-home entertainment activities, according to The NPD Group’s “The Future of Snacking” report. Savory snack foods, specifically, benefited from a pandemic lift. According to Port Washington, N.Y.-based NPD, these behaviors will have staying power, with a strong outlook for savory items, especially those that are healthier options.

Ready-to-eat popcorn, seen as a better-for-you savory choice, was among the top-growing snack foods in terms of consumption in 2020, and its surge is expected to continue. The category is forecast to grow 8.3% in 2023 versus 2020 levels, making it the fastest-growing snack food, NPD’s snacking research finds. As more consumers leave their homes for work, education and social gatherings, better-for-you snacks that are plant-based, low in sodium and full of functional benefits will gain momentum.

Snacks such as Shrewd Food’s Sriracha Cheddar Protein Puffs (14 grams of protein, 2 grams of carbs and no artificial ingredients); Papa’s Skinless Popcorn (non-GMO); Kibo Chickpea Chips (150 milligrams of sodium and 7 grams of protein); and Root Smarts Green Plantain Chips (“Farm to bag in 24 hours!”) are growing in popularity. There will also be growth opportunities for keto bars, refrigerated snack solutions, and ready-to-eat meat (sticks, jerky, and bacon to go) as the line between meals and snacks continues to blur and a growing number of keto eaters seek out portable protein.

Post-pandemic sustainability concerns will also be motivating factors driving the popularity of some snack solutions. The pandemic raised consumer awareness about global epidemics, animal welfare, packaging and ethical sourcing.

There was a little bit of a pause on sustainability, because everybody was dealing with the pandemic,” Downs admits. “As we come out of the pandemic, I think sustainability gets back up on the agenda and everybody will be focused on those things that they were focusing on, in terms of what their values were and their commitments were and their targets were and all the progress they were trying to make against the things that mattered in terms of their operations, whether that’s carbon emissions or whether that’s water conservation, or whether that’s recycling and packaging.”

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