Worth their salt

Healthy options and bold flavors are spicing up interest in the better-for-you snack category.

Today’s better-for-you snack alternatives have a lot going for them. They are often lower in fat and salt and higher in fiber and protein than traditional options. While these better-for-you products have raised the bar in the snack category, industry observers say consumers are asking for that bar to be raised even higher, demanding more from salty snacks than ever before.

Improvements in taste are bringing new consumers to the category while helping fuel repeat purchases. Observers say that as the taste of better-for-you snacks continues to improve consumers are more willing to try them. Unfortunately many retailers are missing the opportunity by giving a back seat to healthier snacks while favoring traditional products and brands.

“Retailers should be looking for ways to promote these types of products in large and substantial ways,” says Terry Meyer, executive vice president for Good Health Natural Products, based in Greensboro, N.C. “The trust they build with the consumer by providing the promise of better-for-you items and delivering a cost-effective alternative to traditional salty snacks is immeasurable.”

Aside from taste, observers says consumers are also looking for products that are heart-health friendly. To meet the need, Corazonas Foods, based in Long Beach, Calif., uses plant sterols in its snacks, which are clinically proven to help lower LDL (bad) cholesterol. Ramona Cappello, founder and president, says Corazonas’ Oatmeal Squares and tortilla chips provide added nutritional benefits by offering a good source of protein, fiber and whole grains. “We also formulate our snacks with ingredients that are nutritional powerhouses, like flax seeds, almonds, walnuts and blueberries,” she adds.

These enhanced nutritional profiles are playing a key role in category growth. For example, Good Health Natural Products offers Veggie Stix, a whole food nutritional snack that contains significant amounts of 13 vitamins and minerals. “The ability to provide this level of innovation at an affordable price while making it accessible are additional factors helping attract consumers to the category,” says Meyer.

A movement from fried to baked snacks has also fueled the category. Lonnie Williard, vice president of marketing for The Mediterranean Snack Food Co., based in Boonton, N.J., says along with the increase in baked snacks there has been an increase in legume and bean-based snacks, rather than potato, wheat or corn.

“I think this has enabled some of the niche, more entrepreneurial brands, such as Mediterranean Snacks, to raise the standard on healthier snacking innovation for everyone, and focus on providing more nutritious, all-natural snacks that satisfy hunger, rather than just offering empty calories,” she says.

The Mediterranean Snack Food Co.’s Baked Lentil Chips, for instance, have 110 calories in 22 chips per serving. “Our Baked Lentil Chips are a convenient, light, on-the go snack for a healthy and active lifestyle, providing over 200 mg of potassium, four grams of protein and three grams of fiber per one-ounce serving due to the protein rich ingredients of lentils,” says Williard.

Organic, Non-GMO, gluten-free, low sodium and antioxidant-rich ingredients are also hot buttons with consumers. “Many of these characteristics are found in natural snacks and consumers are demanding products that are free of ingredients that are bad for you, but also promote good health,” says Michael Prior, senior marketing manager for Flamous Brands, based in Duarte, Calif.

Officials for Pirate Brands, maker of Pirate’s Booty, have also seen greater interest in gluten-free snacks. Eric Berniker, vice president of marketing for the Sea Cliff, N.Y.-based company, says greasy fried snacks loaded with artificial flavors and colors are out and all-natural, low fat, lower calorie and gluten-free products are in. Additionally, Berniker adds that as consumers become more invested in the category, they are asking for different packaging options to fit their needs. In particular, he says consumers are demanding convenience packaging with portion control that make it easier for families to snack on the run. “This has been a key focus for us and as such Pirate’s Booty and Smart Puffs are now available in multipacks and initial response has been incredible,” he says.

Some of the most popular snacks are those that group sweet and salty, and sweet and savory items together. “Consumers want it all—healthier options and interesting flavor combinations,” says Angie Bastian, founder of Angie’s Artisan Treats, based in North Mankata, Minn.

Most of Angie’s Artisan Treats’ products are Non-GMO Project verified and all are certified gluten-free, kosher and feature the Whole Grains stamp. “My goal is to give consumers a better-for-you flavor adventure whenever they buy our kettle corn and popcorn,” says Bastian.

Taste and healthy attributes are important, but in today’s economy price must always be taken into consideration. While bold and zesty flavors capture interest, consumers are also looking for value, say observers.

At Natural Snacks, in and out promotions with value packs have proven to be a successful promotional strategy. “With consumers looking for a value, promotions are critical for inciting trial,” says Christine Brown, director of marketing for the Addison, Ill.-based company. At the same time, Brown says retailers could be doing more to manage the category’s broad array of products. “For retailers offering gluten-free, low-sodium, low-fat and other healthier snacking options making these items easy to identify among all the other choices is critical to driving sales,” she says.

In an effort to keep excitement and interest high in the category companies are continuing to innovate. Among the top items creating excitement are those that actually deliver on the promise of truly better for you.

In April, Good Health Natural Products began shipping a new line of Veggie Stix vegetable snacks. The reformulated Veggie Stix has up to 25% of the recommended daily allowance of key vitamins such as vitamin A, B6, D and E. “This has generated a tremendous amount of excitement as the innovation we bring to the market with this product is the first of its kind,” says Meyer.

Officials at Corazonas say that its’ most popular snacks are those that feel a little indulgent, but are actually nutritious. This year the company launched two new Oatmeal Square flavors, White Chocolate Macadamia Nut and Blueberry. “Most consumers have never seen these types of flavors offered as a healthy yet decadent snack, plus they taste delicious enough to replace traditionally unhealthy foods, like baked goods,” says Cappello. “We’ve received tons of positive feedback from customers who are thrilled they finally have a healthy yet still delicious alternative to a white chocolate macadamia nut cookie or a blueberry muffin, especially one that lowers their cholesterol and benefits their hearts.”

Brown says Natural Snacks is coming out with a line of bold flavors for its Thin & Crispy Potato Chips including Hot Buffalo Style and Smokey Chipotle Cheddar options as well as unsalted flavors such as Lemon Pepper, Balsamic Vinegar and Cracked Pepper.

In September, Mediterranean launched HummuZ crispz, an all-natural, low fat, gluten-free snack. Williard says the product, which is baked with real garbanzo beans, is “lighter than a cracker and sturdier than a chip.” HummuZ crispz come in three Mediterranean cuisine-inspired flavors: Roasted Red Pepper, Roasted Garlic and Olive Tapenade and are available in four-ounce servings. “With a 14 crispz serving coming in at only 120 calories, these are a protein rich, delicious, smart snack for health-conscious consumers looking for truly good tasting gluten-free options,” she says. Additionally, the company recently introduced additional single-serve portion packages of its Baked Lentil Chips and Lentil Crackers. “Demand for healthy snacking on-the-go has increased, as consumers increase their snacking between meals, so availability of healthier options like Mediterranean Snacks is really answering that need,” says Williard.

Officials at Flamous Brands say they are seeing a big surge in interest for Non-GMO snacks. “Flamous Brands has always taken the stance that only better-for-you ingredients should be used in our products and that includes knowing these ingredients are verified Non-GMO,” says Prior. The company’s newest product is Zatar Chips, a Mediterranean multigrain sprouted chip made from garbanzo beans, flax seeds, sesame seeds and a special blend of Flamous spices.

“Zatar is based on an authentic recipe that has been enjoyed as a complete meal for hundreds of years,” says Prior. In addition to the varied selection of better-for-you ingredients, the chips are also organic, gluten-free, kosher and Non-GMO Project Verified. Prior says Flamous Falafel Chips are gourmet, USDA-organic and contain more than 20 vegetables, herbs, spices and legumes. The chips are also high in both fiber and protein. “Our crispy, zesty chips can be used in a number of different ways, pair them with salsa, guacamole, cheese or virtually any kind of dip or spread,” says Prior. One way the company drives trial of their Flamous snack products is by including a sample bag in each case.

Pirate’s Booty launched a .5-ounce 12-pack of Aged White Cheddar earlier this year. According to Berniker, the 65-calorie packs were a natural addition to their portfolio given the number of requests they received for a lunchbox- friendly snack size for younger kids. “It is also a perfect size for Halloween trick-or-treaters, parties and an option that parents can feel good about giving out because of its healthier benefits,” he says.

With consumers demanding healthier options more each day, Berniker believes it would only make sense to continue to increase the size of the natural snack category at retail. “Ultimately, consumers will shape the set size by voting with their wallets,” he says. “But as everyone knows it is better to be ahead of the trend versus following it.”

In response to the rapidly growing interest in popcorn and low calorie snack options, earlier this year Angie’s Kettle Corn introduced Angie’s Boomchickapop Sea Salt. At 35 calories per cup and all-natural, it is made with just popcorn, sunflower oil and sea salt. This month the company is adding a second flavor, Lightly Sweet. It is 37 calories a cup and provides a touch of sweet with sea salt. “Given that popcorn is among the fastest growing segments in the natural salty snacks category, retailers should consider allocating more space to the popcorn segment,” says Bastian.

Some observers credit Michelle Obama and her initiative toward fighting childhood obesity with educating parents and teaching them that there are healthy snack options for their kids. “To fit the needs of health conscious families, our research and development department has been busy developing a full line of great tasting, low fat, whole grain, gluten-free snack crackers for kids,” says Jim Garsow, director of marketing for Loves Park, Ill.-based TH Foods, maker of the Crunchmaster brand.

Garsow says that Crunchmaster’s recently introduced Cheddar Cheezy Crisps and Cinnamon & Sugar Grammy Crisps are already experiencing tremendous interest from both retailers and consumers. “Both are gluten-free, whole grain alternatives to traditional processed wheat snacks,” says Garsow. The products will roll out nationally this month.
Earlier this year Axium Foods, based in South Beloit, Ill., launched the Mystic Harvest brand. “The better-for-you snack category continues to grow and is receiving more attention,” says Cindy Kuester, vice president of sales and marketing. “Snacks that provide additional benefits such as lower in fat or higher in fiber are creating a lot of buzz.”

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