Smart snacks

Manufacturers continue to innovate the better-for-you snack category, but the question remains—where is the best place for retailers to merchandise product?

By Carol Radice

At their essence, snacks are supposed to be a bit of an indulgence. A stolen—Sometimes decadent—treat amidst the healthy diet that many Americans now strive to maintain.

It was also thought by some industry observers that the better-for-you snack category was only shopped by health fanatics. However, more and more retailers and marketers are surprised at the amount of interest mainstream shoppers are showing in better-for-you snacks.

Of course there are segments within the category faring better than others. Some observers say the popular soy chips appear to be yesterday’s favorite, replaced by options such as bean, vegetable and hummus chips. Gluten-free and non-GMO products are also gaining popularity. Steve Myers, vice president of retail sales for the Mediterranean Snack Food Co., based in Boonton, N.J., says the category as a whole is experiencing strong, healthy growth—particularly salty snacks.

“The hottest thing in salty snacks right now is healthy alternatives to the usual snack fare,” says Myers. “Shoppers are looking for products that are nutritionally superior to what they are currently eating. Everybody likes savory snacks, but they also realize you tend to get a lot of fat, salt and calories with most of these products. That is why products that are baked or popped rather than fried are hot today.”

He adds that Mediterranean Snack Food is focused on producing great tasting, nutritionally superior snack foods made from lentils. For example, their all-natural, gluten-free, GMO-free snacks are high in protein and fiber. “Our newest launch is a lentil based cracker which contains five grams of protein per serving and only 110 calories in 22 crackers,” says Myers.

Another company focusing on beans is Natural Snacks, based in Addison, Ill. Natural Snacks recently launched Michael Season’s Popped Black Bean Crisps, an all-natural, reduced-fat, low-sodium, gluten-free snack in three flavors: Sea Salt, Nacho and Roasted Red Pepper. According to Christine Brown, director of marketing for the company, in the past the focus for suppliers was creating the hot new flavor. Today companies are also focusing on how they process their snacks.

“Increasingly we are seeing better-for-you snacks being popped or baked,” says Brown. “This method is a great fit with our company focus of taking the negatives out and putting the positives in. Black beans were an obvious choice due to their higher protein and fiber.”

While the strategy may sound simple, Brown says it can be a challenge to meet those goals given that many consumers grew up with conventional snacks and view their taste as ‘normal.’ At the same time, she adds, people want to taste exciting new flavors in snack chips—but want it all for a value. “This isn’t a category where there is room for another me-too product—innovation is critical,” says Brown.

As innovation continues, observers are not surprised sales of natural snacks are doing well. Many point out that the category is mirroring the success of natural products in general. “During the past several years, interest has been steady because suppliers have introduced products that are meeting consumer needs,” says James Borteck, vice president of marketing for Food Should Taste Good, based in Needham, Mass. “People are more likely to eat snacks if there is a positive benefit.”

Borteck says upon creation of the company, the goal was to provide great tasting food with smarter ingredients and a better, healthier profile. He believes what differentiates their company and its’ products is innovation and their focus on taste. “Rather than relying on flavorings, we use real ingredients. For example, our sweet potato tortilla chips contain real sweet potato puree and our olive chips contain sliced green and black Kalamatta olives,” he says.

Bean counters

According to Reed Braude-Glidden, president of Beanfields, based in Los Angeles, one of the reasons people are turning to natural snacks with ingredients such as beans and rice is because they want a more filling, satisfying, healthier snack option. Made from wholesome, premium, black beans, navy beans and long grain rice grown in the U.S., Beanfields Bean & Rice Chips are Non-GMO verified, corn-free, gluten-free and come in four varieties: Unsalted, Sea Salt, Sea Salt & Pepper and Zesty Pico de Gallo.

“Parents feel good about giving their kids our fun-to-eat tortilla chips because beans are one of the world’s most nutritionally complete foods,” says Braude-Glidden.

He points out that the product, which is sold in 6-ounce packages, has more nutrition in the 6-ounce sized bag than conventional snack chips that come in larger sizes. In fact, a 1-ounce serving of Beanfields Bean & Rice Chips (about 11 chips) contains four grams of complete protein and four grams of fiber.

Initially known for its large assortment of boldly flavored potato chips such as Red Wine and Vinegar, Spinach and Artichoke, Jalapeño and Cheddar and Balsamic Vinegar and Rosemary, officials for Boulder Canyon Natural Foods say the Boulder, Colo.-based company recently decided to add beans and rice as well.

Steve Sklar, Boulder Canyon Natural Foods’ senior vice president of marketing, says their rice and bean snacks made with adzuki beans and their line of chips made with hummus are proving to be very popular additions. The company has also recently launched Garden Select Vegetable Crisps, a snack chip containing 12 vegetables. Officials have paired the chips with some unique flavor seasonings including a Hearty Cheddar, Tomato and Sour Cream and Chive.

“One of the goals in introducing our Boulder brand was to carry on our tradition of offering unique flavors,” says Sklar. “Just because seasonings are natural doesn’t mean they have to be bland. We feel this, combined with better-for-you ingredients, is a direction that we can own and differentiate from other people out there.”

The uniqueness of the product does not stop with the ingredients, says Sklar, referring to Boulder Canyon’s new compostable bags—made from 100% wood pulp the snacks are now packaged in. “We wanted our brand to be seen as a healthy lifestyle brand and designed our new packaging to reflect that,” he says.

After receiving several requests from their customers asking for vegan- and dairy-free snack options, officials at Snikiddy Snacks, based in Boulder, Colo., recently expanded its Baked Fries snack line with two new flavors—BBQ and Sea Salt. According to company founder Mary Schulman they are also about to introduce a new snack product called Eat Your Vegetables, a line of chips containing a full serving of vegetables available in Sea Salt, Jalapeño Ranch and Sour Cream & Onion. “Our goal in starting this company was to offer parents great tasting, nutritious snack options for their kids—something that we saw lacking in the market,” says Schulman.

No cookie cutter

Salty snacks might make up the lion’s share of natural snack sales but increasingly consumers are turning to better-for-you cookies too. Stephanie Lester, owner and founder of Caveman Bakery, based in New York, maker of 100% natural, chewy, gluten-free cookies, says a chief reason consumers are attracted to natural cookies is their basic ingredient profiles. She points out that consumers want simple, satisfying foods, made with real ingredients that they can pronounce.

“People are more conscious about the type of food they eat today and as they become more educated about the health benefits of eating natural, wholesome foods, they are gravitating to products across many categories—cookies included—that are based on this concept,” says Lester. “People shop the cookie aisle and increasingly are willing to consider healthy options. We have individually wrapped our cookies to extend the shelf life, keep the cookies fresh and also address portion control issues.”

Caveman cookies are comprised of nuts, honey and berries, not inexpensive fillers, thus the price-point is slightly higher than the typical conventional package of cookies. “Wholesome ingredients are better for you, but they also cost more which makes price one of the biggest barriers for products such as ours succeeding in mainstream channels,” says Lester, adding that even though their products are totally different, shoppers still want to compare them to Oreos or something similar. “Despite this, in conventional channels our products sell best in the cookie aisle called out with signage. When it is placed in a diet section—shoppers just aren’t accustomed to look for cookies there,” she says.

Energy bars are also gaining popularity with more than just the athletic set. Once a devoted product of sports enthusiasts looking for an energy boost, today’s nutrition bars, as some would rather call them, are fulfilling a number of roles from meal replacements to healthy snack options.

Tara DelloIacono, a nutrition strategist with Clif Bar & Co., based in Emeryville, Calif., says that the use of whole grains in natural snacks is on the rise as food makers reformulate snack foods to help consumers meet the whole grain intake recommendations contained in the USDA Dietary Guidelines. “We think we got it right the first time at Clif Bar & Co. by including nutritious whole grains in our foods, including recent bar introductions such as Clif Crunch and CLIF Kid Zbar,” says DelloIacono.

As consumers become more educated DelloIacono says they want snacks that are made with recognizable ingredients, taste great and come from a company that embraces sustainability and other values they share. Consumers are also looking for snacks made with organic ingredients over those that simply claim to be “natural.” Portability, she adds, is another trend impacting the natural snack category, as active, on-the-go consumers seek snacks they can easily take with them to get through their busy days. “At Clif Bar, the majority of ingredients we use are organic—some 40 million pounds annually. We’re also seeing more consumers who think it’s important to get more protein in their diets,” says DelloIacono.

The combination of sweet and salty has become a popular snack option as well. In response to this, Abbott Nutrition, based in Columbus, Ohio, a division of Abbott Laboratories, based in Abbott Park, Ohio introduced ZonePerfect Sweet & Salty nutrition bars. With a focus on nutrition, each bar contains 10 grams of protein and 19 vitamins and minerals including vitamins C and E and selenium. ZonePerfect Sweet & Salty Cashew Pretzel offers roasted cashews and sweet yogurt bits coupled with salty pretzels. ZonePerfect Sweet & Salty Trail Mix combines raisins and toasted oats with walnuts, roasted cashews, peanuts, almonds and peanut butter.

A guessing game

Though growing in popularity, healthier snack bars such as ZonePerfect can often be difficult to find in the store, leaving consumers to frequently guess where they may be. Some observers say this is a challenge retailers must overcome if nutrition bars are to be considered a legitimate snack choice. Still other observers say the jury is out as to whether mainstream consumers have evolved enough to even want these products placed in the conventional snack aisle.

Sarah Ciccarello, vice president of customer marketing for Clif Bar & Co. believes nutrition bars can be hard to find in some stores because, as can be the case with any emerging category, there is lack of agreement among retailers about where they place them. “If a store has a well-developed offering of natural food products, generally the bars are found among those grocery aisles. For retailers with a smaller selection of natural foods, you’ll most likely find the nutrition bars in the health section,” she says.

Ciccarello adds that the most successful retailers devote enough shelf space to reflect the explosive growth of the category, carrying a mix of products to meet the varied needs of consumers such as healthy snacking, energy, functional nutrition or protein/recovery. Retailers are also utilizing racks or secondary placements for impulse purchases in high-traffic areas with product affinities to the bars such as produce, salad bars, sports drinks and check stands. “The high number of turns in the category also lends itself to increasing distribution of multi-packs for value and convenience,” she says.

Natural Snacks’ Brown says while interest in natural snacks remains high, to increase visibility the products should be placed near conventional snacks and their various attributes need to be called out. “Retailers who tag products with signs indicating low-sodium, gluten-free, all natural, etc., have seen sales increase the most,” she says.

Not all manufacturers believe mainstream consumers are ready for natural snacks in the conventional aisle just yet. Boulder Canyon’s Sklar says despite the interest and innovation in the category he is not sure it has reached the point yet where they belong in the aisle next to Frito Lay. “My fear is [we will] just become another chip to the consumer,” he says. “Whereas in the natural set people are more apt to recognize the qualities and features of our products. They are also less likely to be price sensitive when shopping a natural set which is why I feel grocers would benefit by having natural snacks in a separate section.”

Snikiddy’s Schulman agrees with Sklar and says that for the short term natural snacks may be best served by remaining in the natural set. “It’s not that we don’t believe our products belong in the conventional aisle, because we do, but at this point in time I’m not sure the awareness levels among mainstream consumers are where they need to be to justify that placement. Right now we feel the best place for us is in the natural aisle,” she says.

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