Healthy Snack Trends: Mini Meals, Protein, Fruit, Popcorn, Nuts, and More

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Nutritional Outlook, Volume 21, Issue 1

Snacks are not only becoming healthier, they are also becoming more wholesome, satisfying, hearty, and nutritious, blurring the boundaries between snacks and meals.

A snacking evolution is taking place. Snacks are not only becoming healthier, they are also becoming more wholesome, satisfying, hearty, and nutritious, blurring the boundaries between snacks and meals. Opportunities are emerging to tackle cravings while catering to wholesomeness and indulgence. Meanwhile, small portions will extend further, riding the snackification trend. Innova Market Insights has listed “From snacks to mini meals” as its number 8 trend for 2018.

Innova Market Insights research notes how the nutritional content of snack foods is changing in terms of protein content, fiber, vitamins, and minerals. The ongoing strength of the high protein trend, which is about satiation, is also illustrative of this shift. In terms of a healthier reformulation in new product development, in 2017 YTD, 4% of the snack launches tracked globally feature a “low fat” claim and 6% of total snacks carry a “no trans fats” claim. At the same time, the percentage share of sugar claims (low sugar/no added sugar/sugar free) in new snack launches grew from 2% in 2012 to almost 4% today.

Fruit Snack Attack
Highly dramatic compound aggregate growth occurred in “low sugar” (+48%), “sugar free” (+35%), and “no added sugar” (+29%) over this period, which was accelerated due to the rise in natural fruit snacks. The focus appears to be on “no nonsense” clean label snacking, particularly with fruit options featuring claims such as “just fruit” (e.g., Just Fruit Bars from ZEGO Snacks [San Francisco]), “contains no monkey business” (e.g., Crunchy Coconut Bites Chia Seed from Ape Snacks [London]), and “with no added nonsense” (e.g., Real Fruit Yo Yo’s from Bear [Charlotte, NC]).

Savory Soars
Salty/savory snacks continue to lead globally in terms of launch activity, with around 35% of the total recorded in the 12 months to the end of May 2017. This puts it ahead of snack nuts & seeds (which was just under 29%) and fruit-based snacks (which has just under 18%). The other three sub-categories are much smaller, with meat snacks and finger foods/hors d’oeuvres just under 7% each and popcorn at just under 5%.

Ongoing innovation in the salty snacks market has resulted in a growing range of ingredients and flavors being used, often in increasingly complex formulations. While potatoes, corn, wheat, and soy continue to be key ingredients in snack foods, an increasing range of basic raw materials are now appearing as alternatives. This is not only to add variety, but also to give a healthier image, or even to allow gluten-free claims. Launches have included bread crisps, pita chips, plantain chips, cassava chips and sweet potato chips, as well as products featuring a whole range of non-traditional ingredients in the form of different vegetables, fruits, seeds, and pulses.

This trend is clearly illustrated in the launch activity from better-for-you snack brand Boulder Canyon, part of Inventure Foods (Phoenix, AZ). At the very end of 2016, the company extended its U.S. range with several new-style snack crisps made with a range of wholesome ingredients, including vegetables and so-called ancient grains. The introductions included Lentil, Carrot, Quinoa Crisps; Snap Pea Crisps; and Ancient Grains Crisps, all baked not fried, gluten-free, trans-fat-free, non-GMO and with zero cholesterol and 130 calories or less per serving.

An even more unusual initiative has been the launch of Tortilla-Style Cricket Chips from Chirps Chips (San Francisco) made with a high-protein powder of dried and milled crickets, as well as GMO-free corn. The chips are also marketed as gluten-free and all-natural and come in Cheddar, Sea Salt, and BBQ flavors.

A Growing Role for Nuts
Nuts are an increasingly popular snacking option and taking a rising share of launch activity in the global snacks category. Factors driving growth include rising publicity about their health attributes, the greater availability of different types and mixes, and technological advances that have allowed the development of new coatings, flavors systems, and packaging formats.

The nutritional properties of nuts continue to be promoted, with nearly 40% of global snack nut & seed launches recorded by Innova Market Insights in the 12 months to the end of May 2017, using a health claim of some kind. This figure rises to over 60% in the United States.

A wide variety of health claims are used for launches, with the current interest in clean labeling and “free from” clearly evident in product activity. The leading claim overall was allergy free, used for over 11% of global launches, ahead of “gluten free” with 10.6%. If “natural” and “no additives/preservatives” claims are combined to indicate interest in clean labeling, however, either one or both were used for a leading 14% of launches. This rises to 23% if “organic” claims are also included. Other key claims are “high in/source of fiber” on just over 10% and “high in/source of protein” on 9.5%, while there is also significant, but lower, interest in “low cholesterol,” “low sodium” and “no trans fats” claims.

Rising interest in vegan diets has also driven activity in nuts and nut mixes, as well as in the snacks category overall. The use of vegan-friendly labeling has risen markedly in recent years in the food and drinks market as a whole. In the snacks category, many products have always been naturally vegan or have managed to use vegan claims with relatively little reformulation or repositioning.

Over 7% of global snack nut & seed launches used a vegan positioning in the 12 months to the end of May 2017, rising to 12% in Western Europe, nearly 16% in the United States, and to an astonishing 26% in the UK, which has seen particularly high levels of interest. Alongside vegan-friendly positionings, many products are also able to appeal to other fashion trends of the moment, including raw and paleo diets.

Popping Up in Growth
Popcorn is one of the smaller snacks sub-categories, but has seen consistent growth in recent years, mainly as a result of the promotion of ready-to-eat popcorn as a convenient, tasty, and better-for-you snack option for in-home consumption (particularly sharing social occasions); for on-the-go snacking; and at cinemas and sporting events.

There was a double-digit rise in global launch numbers recorded by Innova Market Insights in the 12 months to the end of May 2017, taking the sub-category’s share of snacks introductions up to 4.7%. In the United States, the traditional home of both popcorn and snacking, popcorn had an even stronger role, with its share of launches up from 8.8% to 9.6% over a 12-month period. The United States accounted for a quarter of global launches, just behind Europe, despite the large number of countries covered in that region.

Double-digit value growth in 2016 took sales to nearly US$1.3 billion through multiple retailers alone (IRI data). As the market has developed, traditional popcorn flavors such as cheese, butter, and caramel are continuing to be popular. But, there is also a definite move to more unique and bold options, featuring stronger cheeses, such as Parmesan and spicier components such as jalapeno and sriracha, as well as more sweet and savory combinations of all kinds.

Other innovation areas include more indulgent options, such as S’mores popcorn from The Little Kernel (Manalapan, NJ) and the Zebra range from Popcornopolis (Vernon, CA), both introduced in the first quarter of 2017. Popcorn is also being combined with other ingredients, as in Crunch ’n Munch Caramel Popcorn with Peanuts and Buttery Toffee Popcorn with Peanuts from Conagra (Chicago).

A new slant is also being developed by Takaokaya USA, Inc. (Vernon, CA), with its T-Pops Tokyo Style Popcorn in Nori Toasted Seaweed, Matcha Green Tea and Curry variants, while Pop IQ from ANE (Norwood, MA) has moved into the popping of other grains, with its range of organic, non-GMO, domestically-produced air-popped sorghum grains, featuring a “smart snack,” superfood positioning. Four flavors-Kettle, Tuscany, Sea Salt & Pepper and Cheddar-are all packaged in stand-up pouches.

An Innovative Playing Field
As the snacking phenomenon drives ever onward into the core of our daily lives and as the definition of snacking has continued to broaden, it seems clear that high levels of new product and promotional activity are continuing to help drive sales in an increasingly crowded and competitive marketplace.

While taste and availability remain key to the market, there is also a widespread focus on better-for-you options. However, these options do tend to fare best when tied in with other key trends, including premium and super-premium products, often with unusual flavors and ingredients; the development of existing brands; the use of new ingredients, formats and packaging; and the targeting of new usage occasions and need states.

The traditional snacking sector is on the wane. Innovators are positioning creative snack products as mini-meals that serve as the future of snacking innovation. A counter revolution in snacking is taking place, whereby alternative ingredients are being used to help reformulation efforts.



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