Sensible snacking

Innovative, healthier-for-you options are keeping interest in the natural snack category high.

By Carol Radice

At first glance, lentils, black beans and seaweed might not appear to have much in common, but they are, in fact, among hottest ingredients in the natural salty snack category today.

According to Mike Keeland, president of Annie Chun’s, the idea to launch the line of seaweed snacks came his from own private focus group—his kids.

Known for its convenience-based all-natural Asian offerings, officials say it was a logical extension for the San
Rafael, Calif.-based company to launch a snack line earlier this year.

“We are always looking for new opportunities to innovate and when my kid’s friends shared a traditional Asian Seaweed snack with them it got me thinking we could develop a premium, healthier version for mainstream consumers—one that didn’t contain preservatives such as MSG,” says Keeland. He said the goal in creating the snack line was to follow the company-wide strategy of taking the mystery out of Asian food and offer it in a convenient form.

“Our products are not meant to appeal to first or second generation Asians, but to attract new consumers to the category, those that had never tried Asian products before,” he says, noting that Annie Chun’s seaweed snacks are airier and crunchier than other types of seaweed. Positioned as a healthy alternative to potato chips, the company’s seaweed snacks are lower in carbohydrates and fat and have a fifth of the calories potato chips do, according to officials. Initially, the line was launched in two varieties—sesame and wasabi—but Keeland says they are exploring expanding the line with additional Asian flavor profiles.

While Keeland admits it takes some consumer education to get people to try seaweed, “The typical consumer interested in our snack line is 30 years or older, someone who likes natural food and is looking for a healthy snack option,” he says. Given its demographic appeal, the company uses social media such as Facebook and Twitter to generate awareness.

Keith Belling, co-founder of San Francisco-based popchips, calls the natural segment a “key driver” in the salty snack category. “Women are an important part of our focus within that segment, with more than 7 out of 10 women saying they are interested in healthier snacks for themselves and their families,” says Belling.

The name of the game, notes Belling, is innovation as well as offering alternatives to fried and baked options. “While baked chips deliver on nutrition, most snackers will tell you they’re not fans of their taste or texture,” he says.

Doug Foreman, CEO of Bean Brand Foods, based in Austin, Texas, says his company set out to create a low-glycemic, corn-free, gluten-free line of snacks. He says Beanitos Bean Chips contain all-natural ingredients and are high in natural vegetable fiber and omega-3s, have five grams of complete protein, are wheat and soy free and contain no trans fats or cholesterol. “What it boiled down to for us is that any snack that we created had to offer a unique proposition—something that wasn’t done already,” says Foreman.

Stand out

By refocusing their efforts on products that differentiate, Foreman says retailers would have an easier time building sales in the natural snack category. “All that does is enforce the impression that this is a commodity category and drive prices down,” says Foreman. In addition to unique products such as theirs being healthier, Foreman says they command a higher price, which means some retailers can make upward of 90% margin on a case of Beanitos chips. This fall, the company will be launching cheddar cheese and chipotle barbeque black bean varieties.

Julie Dunmire, brand director for Salem, Ore.-based Kettle Brand, notes that in the past few years there has been an increased demand for creamy, cheesy flavors. “Response to our new flavor, Fully Loaded Baked Potato, and comfort food flavors like Cheddar & Sour Cream and our best-selling Salt & Fresh Ground Pepper has been really been through the roof,” says Dunmire.

Due out this fall from Kettle is a line called TIAS! Tortilla Chips. According to Marc McCullagh, the company’s marketing manager, the TIAS! line was created to appeal to snackers on the go. “Our consumers want big flavor to snack on right of the bag, no dip required. TIAS! have a light, crispy texture and are loaded with natural flavor,” says McCullagh.

Vincent James, president of The Medit­erranean Snack Food Co., based in Boonton, N.J., says natural snacks, particularly those made from non-traditional ingredients such as lentils, beans and other legumes are a new, rapidly growing segment. “Natural snacks are the answer to consumer demand for a nutritional snack that doesn’t compromise on taste,” says James. “Products that successfully strike that balance, like our Mediterranean Snacks Baked Lentil Chips, are simply flying off the shelves.”

Less is more

When it comes to taste, Christine Brown, the marketing manager for Natural Snacks, whose brands include Michael Season’s and Mexi-Snax, says “less is more.” According to Brown, the Michael Season’s line features additive-free natural and organic whole grain gluten-free snacks, with a focus on potato chips, puffed snacks and tortilla chips.

She says consumers are also focusing on minimally processed products that are cooked in the healthiest way possible. “Consumers are not willing to give up quality or taste,” says Brown, noting a large number of consumers still think better-for-you foods lack flavor. “One of the single best things a retailer can do is incite consumers to try our products—it is the only way they will be convinced something can be healthy and still taste good,” says Brown.

Observers agree taht creating inventive flavor combinations is key to growing the category. “We resisted the urge to create another me-too natural snack and instead wanted to offer retailers a different and unique product,” says Keeland.

At the same time he feels mainstream consumers may not be ready to see his snacks in with traditional ones just yet. For the time being, he says Annie Chun’s seaweed snacks sell best when placed with other Asian product offerings or in the natural aisle. “Given the extremely fast sell-through rates and the amount of volume we are selling today I do foresee a time in the next handful of years when the demand for seaweed snacks has grown to the point where it will make sense to include them in the main snack aisle,” he says.

Some companies take a different approach and want their natural snacks to be viewed as mainstream. Belling of popchips believes successful merchandising in the snack aisle takes a unique balance of science and “retail magic.”

“A mix of innovative products together with well known brands and a breadth of flavors will keep consumers interested and coming back for more,” says Belling, adding that it’s about getting the product in front of consumers. “It starts with product placement, both on and off shelf and signage to support that presence.”

Some companies note that space constraints are often an issue when it comes to integrating healthy options into the mainstream snack aisle, something Foreman says can easily be addressed. “If retailers revisited the number of facings they have given some conventional snack food companies versus what they need, I think they would see the gross imbalance,” says Foreman.

For all that, Foreman says there are plenty of retailers such as H-E-B that are willing to give natural snacks such as Beanitos premium placement in both in the aisle and on an end cap.

Packaging update

Recently, the Kettle Brand refreshed its packaging to highlight the recognizable woodcut logo while also making it easy for consumers to identify the flavors they seek and connect with the all natural ingredient message. Ad­dition­ally, the company’s Dunmire notes, the line of Kettle Brand Baked Potato Chips was designed to align with the core Kettle Brand line and make the products easy to identify on shelf. “Retailers can continue to expect Kettle Brand to deliver on our natural promise,” she says. “We are committed to delivering delicious, innovative flavors, using only all natural ingredients.”

In a crowded and competitive snack category, company officials say to help natural snacks stand out from the endless array of options retailers need to do one of two things: offer a trusted brand or an innovative concept.
“Innovative snacks stand out because when people see something they’ve never heard of before, they’ll pick it up and find out what it is,” says James.

For the retailer working to build a well-rounded selection of natural snacks, James says it pays to keep in mind that most shoppers who purchase natural foods don’t buy them just because they’re natural. Instead, they choose natural products because of their health benefits and fresh, wholesome taste.  “When choosing snack products to stock, don’t let ‘natural’ be your only criteria—look for products that are also healthy and delicious.”

The Mediterranean Snack Food Co. is expanding its baked snack offerings to include other bean-based snacks, such as Baked Hummus Chips, a naturally gluten-free chip with high protein and fiber. In addition, the company is developing new flavors of their popular Mediterranean Snacks Baked Lentil Chips. James says retailers can look forward to sampling a Rosemary Olive Oil flavor and a Tahini Spicy Hummus flavor by January 2011.

Driving awareness, according to Brown, will be a key factor in the category’s future success in mainstream. She sees it as a positive that retailers are increasingly involving store personnel such as staff dieticians to help consumers read and understand product labels, something she says has been a plus to the better-for-you snack category. “As an industry we need to do everything we can to help consumers understand there are huge nutritional differences in their options. And given that studies show that some 87% of consumers regularly snack, the more we can do to drive awareness that there are healthy options out there the better for all.”

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