Snacks may be the most dynamic food category today. New Cargill consumer research looks at growth opportunities.


A new Cargill report pinpoints consumer preferences within some of snacking’s most dynamic product categories: snack bars, salty snacks, candy, and sweet baked goods

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Snacking is key to the modern diet. With consumers constantly on the go, and with opportunities for sit-down meals dwindling, many today instead focus on consuming snacks, or mini meals, throughout the day. The market for functional snacks is growing rapidly as a result and presents opportunities to brands who can find a way to stand out on the crowded shelf. To help brands find those opportunities, ingredient supplier Cargill (Minneapolis) recently shared consumer research it commissioned to pinpoint consumer preferences within some of snacking’s most dynamic product categories.

“This growing propensity to eat small is creating a booming market for new and innovative snack foods. The category is now considered one of the highest growth segments within the $688 million U.S. functional food and beverage category, according to data from Nutrition Business Journal,” the reports states. “All this means that unique and creative snack foods represent a significant market opportunity for brands that can decipher the needs and wants of the evolving snack food consumer.”


Consumer Demands: Snack Bars, Salty Snacks, Candy, Sweet Baked Goods

The consumer study was conducted in partnership with Decision Analysts on a national sample of 1200 U.S. grocery shoppers. The consumer study found that consumers are looking for healthier snack options-as long as those snacks still taste good.

The study looked at four snack categories, which Cargill said are the most active these days: snack bars, salty snacks, candy, and sweet baked goods.


Snack Bars

25% of respondents said they consume snack bars daily, while 23% of children consume snack bars daily. The report found that adults are more likely to consume a snack bar as a meal replacement.

Attributes: Consumers buying snacks bars for themselves sought these attributes: high in protein (72%), contains protein (68%), contains fiber (57%), natural (57%), and made with whole grains (56%). Adults buying snack bars for children prized these attributes: made with whole grains (67%), contains fiber (66%), natural (64%), high in protein (65%), and contains protein (63%).

Cargill’s marketing manager, Pam Stauffer, pointed out to Nutritional Outlook that it’s interesting to see adults prizing protein content first for themselves, most likely for satiety benefits if consuming bars as meal replacements, versus prizing whole-grain content first when buying for kids.

Salty Snacks

“Salty snacks are holding their own in the overall snacking market,” the report states.

Attributes: When shopping for salty snacks for themselves, adults prize these qualities: natural (35%), low sodium (35%), high protein (35%), made with whole grains (32%), and high in fiber (32%). When buying salty snacks for their children, they look for: natural (54%), contains protein (53%), high in protein (51%), made with whole grains (51%), and contains fiber (45%).


While candy is still doing well as a category, the report points out that adults and children are less likely to eat candy during the day and instead more as dessert after dinner. Sugar content is a leading concern for consumers purchasing candy.

Attributes: When buying candy for themselves, adult respondents said they prefer: made with natural sweeteners (36%), natural (35%), high in protein (30%), contains protein (27%), and contains fiber (26%). Parents are least likely to give candy as a snack to their children, but when they do, they look for: made with natural sweeteners (52%), natural (44%), high in protein (40%), contains protein (39%), and high in fiber (36%).

Sweet baked goods

Sweet baked goods, such as cookies, are most often consumed as dessert following a meal and less likely to be considered an in-between daytime snack.

Attributes: For adults, these are the key preferences for a sweet baked good: natural (44%), made with natural sweeteners (38%), made with whole grains (33%), contains protein (32%), and high in protein (31%). For sweet baked goods purchased for children, adults valued: natural (64%), made with natural sweeteners (58%), made with whole grains (57%), made with organic ingredients (50%), and high in protein (49%).


Health versus Taste

Taste is extremely important when it comes to snacks, as consumers still equate snacks with indulgence and giving themselves a treat. Interestingly, the report found, while adults put taste first when choosing a snack for themselves, they prioritize features other than taste when choosing snacks for their children.

“Good taste and affordability are generally the most important qualities for choosing a snack, although it is interesting to note that adult consumers place the highest emphasis on taste and flavor when choosing a snack for themselves. Parents choosing for kids place higher emphasis on the nutritional value and healthfulness of a snack,” the report states. For what it’s worth, ingredient suppliers such as Cargill say they can help companies create products that excel both on taste and on healthfulness.


Sweet vs. Savory

Finally, here’s a question many of us have asked someone: Do you prefer sweet or savory foods? In the research results, respondents were in fact pretty evenly split, with 38% saying they prefer sweet snacks, 41% saying they prefer savory snacks, and 21% saying they prefer a mix of the two.

Usage occasion might influence when a consumer will reach for a salty snack versus a sweet one. According to the report, respondents said they were more likely to reach for salty snacks or a snack bar if eating snacks between meals as a “pick me up.” By contrast, consumers were more likely to reach for sweeter snacks like candy or sweet baked goods when consuming them as a dessert after dinner.



Based on the report, Cargill includes some recommendations for product formulators, including recommendations for functional ingredients that consumers are looking for today. Ingredients like protein and fiber will continue to be successful, but Cargill also points out that “the next generation of products with superfoods and botanical ingredients is just around the corner,” including such ingredients as turmeric, CBD, pumpkin seed, matcha, and probiotics.

Another last takeaway from the report? “Anything can now be a snack,” leaving a lot of room for innovation, the authors wrote.

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