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Snacking Trends: A Look at the Next Big Nibbles

Protein portions, permissible indulgence and a focus on flavor come out winners as noshing habits evolve
Lynn Petrak, Progressive Grocer
Snacking Trends: A Look at Next Big Nibbles
Retailers like SpartanNash's Family Fare banner are creating in-store snacking stations to entice shoppers in the perimeter.

A few years ago, food industry analysts noted that the United States had become a nation of grazers, with people searching for solutions that fit their on-the-go lifestyles and elevated tastes. Then came the pandemic, supply chain backups, inflation rates not seen in more than 40 years, and global upheaval.

Even the most prescient trend forecaster couldn’t have anticipated the simultaneous headwinds that would blow into the market and change the way that people buy and consume products. The overall snack sector has been affected by this spate of changes, with people seeking equal parts comfort and health as they nosh and nibble during day and night schedules that are decidedly different from the past decade. Driven by taste, price, convenience and circumstances that are regularly in flux, consumers are reshaping the snack market.

If it seems a little up and down, that sentiment is shared by Sally Lyons Wyatt, EVP and practice leader, client insights at Chicago-based IRI, who has shared insights on the “seesaw state of snacking” in a recent webinar. “The bottom line is that COVID and inflation have not stopped consumers from snacking; however, we are seeing a seesaw state,” Wyatt notes, citing increases in some categories and package sizes, and declines in others. 

Likewise, Jeff Frank, group VP, grocery products for Austin, Minn.-based Hormel Foods Inc., says that there has been a shakeout of sorts in snacking habits. “Snacking and grazing and ‘snealing,’ as we call it — eating snacks as meals — were all significant trends before the pandemic, but there’s no question that the pandemic accelerated changes,” he observes, noting that the shift to at-home eating has been a major catalyst. “We can all relate to working from home and having the refrigerator and pantry a few steps away, and now those behaviors have endured into the current time.”

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Snacking Trends: A Look at Next Big Nibbles
Despite inflation and lingering COVID-19 concerns, consumers are eager to serve snacks at in-person gatherings.

The World of Snacking

Before we go any further, let’s take an overarching look at the current state of snacking: According to IRI, 45% of people in the United States consume three or more snacks a day, and core snacking outpaced total food and beverage in 2021. An earlier study by Chicago-based Mintel revealed that 94% of Americans snack every day.

While more people are snacking more of the time, there’s been a shift in both palates and plates when it comes to eating occasions. The annual “State of Snacking” report released earlier this year by Deerfield, Ill.-based Mondelez International shows that 64% of consumers prefer snacking as a regular eating behavior over traditional mealtime, up five percentage points since pre-pandemic 2019. An overwhelming 79% of respondents in Mondelez’s research said that their definition of what constitutes a snack has evolved over the past three years. 

Similarly, IRI’s data indicates that 45% of consumers often eat snacks instead of meals at home, a statistic that’s higher than it was five years ago, according to Wyatt. She points to pandemic-related lifestyle changes — especially work-from-home and hybrid work schedules — as strong drivers for the snack-versus-meal tipping point. The consumption of snacks at work and school dipped from 2019 to 2021, while snacks consumed at home and while walking or driving from place to place rose across several segments, IRI research shows. Late-day snacking is also on the rise, with 60% of consumers snacking at night and 43% noshing late at night. 

While snacking is stacking up, there’s also a new definition of convenient snacks emerging from the wild ride of the early 2020s, as people seek a different kind of ease. Wyatt points out that 51% of consumers are looking for snacks that can be eaten on the go, but that doesn’t necessarily mean out of the house, as in-home convenience is trending in the United States — think pre-cut vegetables with dip that can be eaten at a home office desk, or a mini charcuterie kit that can be shared around the table when kids come home from school.

As consumers have adjusted and readjusted their snacking patterns to align with their work-life circumstances, they’re also tweaking their eating habits due to cost. Wyatt notes that as the economy has been “swinging like a pendulum,” consumers are scaling back on some snack types but not others. Case in point: Although there has been an 8%-10% spike in prices, the categories of snack bars, cookies, crackers, tortilla chips and potato chips are still showing strong growth.

How long this robustness lasts depends on the future pace of inflation, and the fallout from other price-affected areas, like housing and fuel. Many economists have projected that inflation will remain a thorn in consumers’ and retailers’ sides for at least the next few months.

Optimists can take heart in the fact that even with price concerns and stubborn COVID-19 variants, there’s an eagerness to serve snacks as part of gatherings that have been put off for a year or two. “Now that things are opening up a bit more and you see snacking continue, another area [of growth] is entertaining,” Frank affirms. “We look at snacking and entertaining as related but separate occasions.”

His colleague, Jeff Baker, group VP, deli at Hormel, says that snacks for individual consumption, as well as for group gatherings, are poised to do well as summer arrives. “During the pandemic, people invested in their homes,” Baker points out, adding that many consumers are now using features like renovated patios and equipment such as smokers when entertaining guests. “We have casual gatherings covered with party trays, and charcuterie fits perfectly when trying to impress guests.”

As consumers continue to refine their snacking habits based on what they’re concerned about or doing at the time, there are some noteworthy trends in today’s snack market. 

Snacking Trends: A Look at Next Big Nibbles
Consumers' penchant for snacking and their renewed interest in entertaining are evident in the success of charcuterie meats and cheeses.

Protein, Please

The collective craving for protein, a movement that began before COVID-19 came along, continues. “People are definitely leaning into protein — that’s part of what’s on trend in today’s market,” Hormel’s Baker says.

Shopper demand for protein-rich snacks is evident in certain high-performing categories. “When I started doing research, meat snacks kept popping up,” Wyatt notes. “Meat snacks have had one of the most phenomenal years of any category I’ve seen in a long time.” According to IRI’s data, dried meat snacks were up 22.4% for the 52-week period ending Dec. 26, 2021.

There’s also a notable uptick in cheese snacks. Recent cheese products reflect innovation, like recently launched Whisps Cheese Crisps & Nuts, whose ingredients are in the name, and Crispy Brie Bites from French brand Fromager d’Affinois. 

Of course, protein doesn’t come just from animal sources, and plant-based high-protein snacks are also making their way into shoppers’ baskets. There have been plenty of different plant-based snacks hitting the shelves in recent months, like Beyond Meat Jerky, a joint venture of Beyond Meat Inc. and PepsiCo, and Bel Brands USA’s Babybel plant-based cheese snacks. 

That said, there’s ample room for growth in the plant-based snack segment, which, despite making some inroads, has yet to go mainstream.  Wyatt points out that a mere 10% of consumers “usually” or “always” look for plant-based snacks, while 28% “sometimes” seek out these items. 

Where Functionality and Comfort Meet

“Permissible indulgence” isn’t an oxymoron, but an often used descriptor for the type of eating that today’s shoppers are doing — including snacking. While consumers are mindful of wellness as they seek to enjoy longer, healthier lives, they also turn to snacks as a form of comfort during a prolonged period of disruption and worries. 

Two things can be true in this climate, as snacks that fall under the permissible-indulgence billing are faring well. In its market report, Mondelez indicates that 88% of consumers consider a balanced diet as one that includes small indulgences; moreover, 68% say that they couldn’t imagine a world without a sweet treat during the day.

Hormel’s Baker likewise underscores the demand for these kinds of snack options. “When you can provide [shoppers] with indulgence and convenience, that is a very important place to be,” he asserts. 

As for how permissible indulgence translates into snacking behavior, consumers are taking different measures to fuse snacking with their cravings and their intent to live well. On some occasions, shoppers seek out products that taste good but offer some kind of functionality or “free-from” claim, such as Birch Benders’ recently introduced line of no-sugar-added keto-friendly cookies. Other examples include Nestlé Rallies nut butter bombs made without artificial colors, flavors or preservatives; Super Dark Chocolate Nut Butter Cups from Hormel’s Justin brand that are made with 80% cocoa and 5 grams of sugar, with no added stevia or sugar alcohols, and are non-GMO project verified, gluten-free and USDA-certified organic; and Spudsy Sweet Potato Fries that are vegan, grain-free, non-GMO and made from upcycled potatoes.

Portion-controlled snacks also fall under the permissible-indulgence umbrella. The Voortman brand recently downsized its popular sugar-free cookies with a new line of minis sold in a 5-ounce multiserve pouch for on-the-go snacking, while Keebler has unveiled Fudge Stripes Dip’mmms available in a single-serve portable tray.

At the same time, many consumers are trying to have it both ways by balancing out their intake of better-for-you snacks and nibbles consumed for pure satisfaction and delight. “In research we’ve done, consumers say they are looking at the snacking portfolio as ‘debits’ and ‘credits,’” explains Andrew Quinn, director of marketing for Hormel’s deli solutions group. Quinn cites an example: “I had a banana at my desk in the morning, a granola bar at 10 a.m., a sandwich at lunch, and some peanuts in the early afternoon.”

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Snacking Trends: A Look at Next Big Nibbles
The Wholly Guacamole brand has paired guacamole and chips for even more convenient snacking.

Big Flavor 

Finally, although flavor is a perennial selling point of snacks and a focal point for new varieties, things are getting really spicy out there. Or, if not spicy, at least bold and interesting.

IRI’s Wyatt confirms that demand for flavor is showing up in snack product performance, as evidenced in brisk sales of hotter flavors like scorpion pepper, spicy sesame ginger and flaming hot queso, as well as zesty menu-influenced flavors. Traditional favors are holding strong as well, per IRI, including fruity flavors like strawberry and mixed berry, and flavor stalwarts like cheese and peanut butter.

Recent new product launches reflect this trend, among them Mann Packing Co.’s Mezete On the Go hummus packs in Fire Roasted Red Pepper, Red Hot Chili and Zesty Mixed Herb varieties. Meanwhile, the stalwart Lay’s brand has rolled out Lay’s Layers, bite-sized “multidimensional” chips in Three Cheese and Sour Cream & Onion flavors.

In addition to spicy snack foods, spreads paired with snacks are also getting a punch of flavor. The Challenge Butter brand recently unveiled a line of snack spreads in dessert flavors of Vanilla Fudge, Chocolate Dessert and Salted Caramel, and savory flavors of Everything Seasoned, Garlic Parmesan and Herb Seasoned, and the venerable cereal brand Cinnamon Toast Crunch is now the headliner in a flavorful new spread from B&G Foods. 

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