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PG WEB EXTRA: Keep on Snacking

Stamp of Approval

In their quest for improved health, many consumers are choosing snack items touting their superior nutritional benefits, but is it worth it to munch on better-for-you fare? Absolutely, says Cynthia Harriman, director of food and nutrition strategies at Boston-based Oldways/The Whole Grains Council, creator of the Whole Grain Stamp, among other healthy-eating initiatives.

“According to USDA researchers, snacks provide almost one-third of the calories we eat,” explains Harriman. “To enjoy good health, we need to make sure that snacks aren’t just empty calories, but that they contribute to our daily needs for fruits, vegetables, whole grains and other nutrient-rich foods.”

Zeroing in on one segment in particular, she adds: “Fortunately, consumers have lots of choices [in] whole grain snacks today, so there’s something to appeal to every taste. Five years ago, only 302 snacks qualified for the Whole Grain Stamp, while today 2,037 qualify.”

Aside from newly introduced products, there are some old standbys that shoppers may not even realize belong in the whole grain segment. “Whole grain snacks aren’t anything new: Popcorn is probably everyone’s favorite whole grain snack, and it’s an all-time classic,” notes Harriman, going on to list “a few interesting trends in snacks that have been submitted to us for review in the last six months,” such as:

  • Flavored Popcorn from the likes of Pop Art’s Nori Sesame, Tandoori Yogurt, Thai Coconut Curry and Rosemary Truffle varieties
  • Not-just-plain-old-corn Chips, including Nature’s Path/Que Pasa Ancient Grains Tortilla Chips, Live Better Brands/Way Better Snacks Simply Spicy Sriracha Tortilla Chips, and Lundberg Family Farms Shasta Chipotle Lime, Mojave Jalapeño Cheddar and Redwood Smoky BBQ Multigrain Chips.
  • New and Imaginative Crackers, among them Crunchmaster Sea Salt Brown Rice & Quinoa Crackers, Mondelēz/Nabisco Wasabi Brown Rice Triscuit Thin Crisps, and Kashi Fire Roasted Vegetable Snack Crackers

“We don’t have direct data on consumer reaction, but it stands to reason that if people can meet some of their nutritional needs while snacking – instead of simply eating empty calories – and also enjoy fun tastes and textures, they’re going to be pretty happy,” says Harriman. “Responsible snackmakers need to make sure they're taking out the bad stuff (like trans fats or excess sodium and sugar) while they add in the good stuff, and many are doing so.”

ONE Way to Go

So what can retailers do to encourage more consumers to buy snacks that are better for them?

“Grocers can -- and are -- educating consumers about healthier snacks and enticing them to make good snack choices,” replies Harriman. “Supermarket dietitians (SRDs), increasingly found at most major grocery chains, play a key role in this. In October 2012, Oldways created the Oldways Nutrition Exchange (ONE), a program to provide resources, from blog content to tweets to store demo ideas, for supermarket dietitians. One popular series, created in conjunction with Oldways’ ‘Mediterranean Foods Alliance’ program, highlights12 ways to use popular foods, including potential snack foods like yogurt, hummus, dates, avocados, olives and nuts.”

The organization also conducts a Supermarket Dietitian Symposium every year “to help manufacturers learn how to work effectively with SRDs to promote health,” she says. “We started both these programs because SRDs told us they were being bombarded by manufacturers that recognize the immense power SRDs wield in influencing consumer choice at the point of purchase. While [SRDs] need specifics about healthy products to do their jobs, companies were sending them sales information, branded recipes and handouts with incorrect nutritional details. Oldways acts as a hub for SRDs, gathering information about products, vetting the information with our own registered dietitian, and then adding our own content to package this key information into themed ‘toolkits’ of resources we post on the ONE section of the Oldways website.”

Thus, ONE “makes it easy for SRDs to find reliable information when they need it – which makes it easier for them to do their jobs,” observes Harriman. “For instance, our creation of a ‘12 Ways to Use Greek Yogurt’ handout makes so much more sense than having 450 SRDs across the country each create her own! That leaves them more time to be in the aisles, advising shoppers.”

Oldways’ ultimate aim in working with in-store dietitians “is to help healthier foods sell better in supermarkets,” she says. “That way, at the end of the year, we hope manufacturers (and grocers) will look at the bottom line and say, ‘Gee, those healthier choices made more money for us than what we used to make. Let’s do more of that!’ We're just nudging the invisible hand of the free market in a healthier direction.”

‘Virtuous Spiral’

That direction looks set to be the start of a long journey. “We think the trend toward better-for-you snacks will increase,” affirms Harriman. “Recent efforts have started what we call a ‘virtuous spiral’ upward as companies invest in the R&D necessary to create snacks that are both good-tasting and good for us.” Among the requirements that she says future snacks will need to fulfill are being “delicious but also nutritious;” having “good stuff, like whole grains, added in” and “bad stuff, like excess sodium, sugar or unhealthy fats, taken out”; and offering clean ingredient labels – all of the previous items “need to be accomplished without a 45-item list of chemicals and additives.”

Further, a major ongoing trend in whole grain snacks “is the increasing use of less-common grains, like millet, sorghum and teff,” notes Harriman. “Sorghum, for instance, is especially suited to snacks because its neutral flavor allows spices and flavorings to ‘pop’ at lower concentrations. Wheat, corn and rice -- the grains most often used in snacks -- are great, but there are so many other grains with different tastes and textures, and we’re glad to see them getting more attention.”

Corn Futures

As Harriman points out, popcorn has always been a healthy whole grain snack. How are popcorn makers leveraging this good nutritional news? Someone who knows a thing or two about doing that is Angie Bastian, co-founder of North Mankato, Minn.-based Angie’s Boomchickapop, “a natural snacks company that produces non-GMO and gluten-free kettle corn and popcorn in a growing variety of flavors,” whose newest variety, Boomchickapop Sweet & Salty Kettle Corn, introduced in January 2014, contains just 70 calories per cup. Additional varieties in the line are Boomchickapop Sea Salt, Lightly Sweet, White Cheddar, and Caramel & Cheddar Mix.

Bastian describes the company’s recently launched “Grow Some Boom” campaign, as “an effort to help educate consumers on the ease of growing snacks at home. … Select retailers will carry packets of non-GMO, organic popcorn seeds, and consumers can grow popcorn right in their own backyard. Our retailers are really excited about this campaign, and although we’re in the early stages, we fully expect our customers to embrace [it].”

Angie’s is “also taking Boom on the road with our traveling Vespa fleet!” notes Bastian. “We have “BOOM-branded” Vespas that are making their way around the country for sampling events. Angie’s Boomchickapop is a fun, youthful brand, and we think this is a great way to showcase that spirit. When you see those Vespas tooling around, you can’t help but smile and appreciate the good-natured team we have to promote Boomchickapop.”

Such marketing tactics have garnered an “incredibly positive” reaction from snackers, according to Bastian, who says, “With added distribution and a loyal customer base, Angie’s experienced a more than 96 percent growth in sales in 2013.”

When asked what grocers do to get shoppers to buy healthier snacks, Bastian is emphatic: “Carry more of them! Consumers are speaking loud and clear about how they are paying more attention to the ingredients in their snacks, and grocers need to meet that demand.”

She continues: "At the end of the day, it’s all about choice and transparency. … Better snacking is all about knowing what is in your food and making intentional decisions, and it is so thrilling to see consumers pay more attention to that every day.”

And Angie’s adventures in snacking show no sign of ending. “We’re having so much fun taste-testing and creating more BOOM for people everywhere,” asserts Bastian. “We’re excited to see where our BOOM will take us!”

Other new popcorn entries include Cape Cod Popcorn in Sea Salt and Kettle Corn varieties, each with 40 calories or fewer per cup and certified gluten-free by the Gluten-Free Certification Organization. Further, in response to consumer requests, Hyannis, Mass.-based Cape Cod, a division of Snyder’s-Lance Inc., in Charlotte, N.C., has reintroduced its previously retired White Cheddar variety.

Similarly, Smartfood, from Pepsico’s Frito-Lay division, has rolled out reduced-fat, gluten-free Smartfood Delight popcorn in Sea Salt and White Cheddar flavors, the latter containing 50 percent less fat than the brand’s regular White Cheddar Popcorn. “At 35 calories per cup, Smartfood Delight snacks offer popcorn lovers a flavorful new option they can feel good about eating,” says Dave Skena, VP of marketing at Plano, Texas-based Frito-Lay.

Top of the Pops

But what about those who want a more hands-on popcorn experience? That’s where Kernel Season’s comes in. In February, the Elk Grove Village, Ill.-based company relaunched its complementary items, which offer everything needed to create a snack to accompany movie night at home: Butter Spritzer, Popping Oil and, of course, Popping Corn.

“The … items add to the Complete Popcorn Snacking Solution available to consumers in the popcorn aisle,” says company spokeswoman Jessica Harris, who adds that the relaunched products “have increased in volume, offering a better value to consumers, and feature updated branding, a new package structure and an overall more appealing shape to match the rest of the Kernel Season’s product lineup.”

Continues Harris: “Our Popping Oil, a superior and healthier oil blend of soybean, premium sunflower and canola, is 100 percent natural and features a delicious butter flavor. Kernel Season’s Butter Spritzer, the No. 1 popcorn spritzer, is also all-natural and helps adhere our popcorn seasoning to the popcorn. Our Popping Corn is non-GMO and 100 percent whole grain high-expansion butterfly kernels. This means our popcorn pops up big and fluffy, and because our kernels come from the same U.S. farmer, we have a more consistent crop, resulting in [fewer] unpopped kernels.”

Harris contends that shoppers are increasingly returning to raw popcorn kernels over ready-popped snacks, citing IRI data for the 52 weeks ended Feb. 23 that while the FDMx popcorn category has declined by 1.8 percent, with the microwave popcorn segment down by 2.9 percent, Kernel Season’s is up by double digits, “as consumers perceive air-and kettle-popped corn to be healthier.”

Could popcorn and its complements get any more popular? Harris thinks so, based on the January 2014 “Nation’s Knack for Snacking” survey, which found not only that popcorn is the go-to snack for nearly half (46 percent) of American snackers, and that one in four (27 percent) use seasoning to enhance the flavor of their popcorn, but also that 29 percent plan to eat even more popcorn in 2014.

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