The health and wellness movement has invaded the snack aisle. In recent years, everything from potato chips and crackers to popcorn and cookies has been altered to meet the demand for better-for-you bites.
Natural and organic ingredients have become highly popular. So has anything made with whole wheat or containing less sodium and fewer fats. For shoppers concerned with calories, pre-portioned products are readily available, and some food makers have even found ways to pack a percentage of recommended dietary allowances into their snack items, retailers told SN.
According to Susan Richter, snacks category manager for Food Lion, Salisbury, N.C., there are several trends driving the category.
“They include those that promote portion control, such as the 100 Calorie Packs, and items with whole grains, those that are baked [rather than fried], contain lower sodium and have a lower fat content,” Richter told SN. “We have also noticed new flavors, such as sweet-potato chips.”
Flat Earth Fruit and Veggie Crisps, SnackWells, Sunflower Chips, Pretzel Thins and a wide variety of 100 Calorie Packs from Nabisco are among the top-selling healthy snacks at Food Lion's stores.
Shoppers choosing such sundries not only have a desire to live healthier lives, they also want convenience.
“People want to get the most out of what they are eating,” Richter noted. “They can eat apple cinnamon chips and meet some of their daily fruit and whole grain requirements, and with pre-portioned packs, it's easier to eat while on the go.”
Shoppers searching for more traditional chips will find an ever-growing selection of reformulated varieties, said Ted Taft, managing partner, Meridian Consulting, Wilton, Conn. Many manufacturers have made their foods more figure-friendly by forgoing fryers.
“Baked vs. fried is a big trend right now,” said Taft.
Baked Doritos have sold well at Dahl's Food Markets for years now, according to Mark Brase, vice president of marketing for the Des Moines, Iowa-based chain.
“Consumers are more interested in healthy foods in general, including snack foods,” he said. “We carry pretty much anything that is made available to us, including all sorts of baked chips, which have been really hot with our shoppers.”
Along with Doritos, Frito-Lay also makes oven-cooked Lay's and Tostitos chips.
As these brands caught on, other baked chips, like those made by Michael Season's, began showing up in stores.
Michael Season's baked potato crisp flavors include Original, Sweet Barbecue and Cheddar & Sour Cream, and each 5-ounce bag — priced at $2.99 — boasts 70% less fat than regular potato chips and no genetically engineered food ingredients, preservatives, MSG, hydrogenated oils or artificial flavors.
While baked chips are faring well, certain types of health-oriented snacks are not quite there yet, said Jim Hertel, managing partner, Willard Bishop Consulting, Barrington, Ill.
“We are seeing a broad uptick in shoppers' interest in healthier, natural and organic-type snacks,” he told SN. “But we are not seeing that interest translated into velocity or true profitability with things like [natural and organic] crackers or salty snacks.”
Hertel believes that consumers may view “better-for-you salty snacks” as an oxymoron. Taste could be a deterrent, too. As with many traditional-turned-healthy products, it can take a while for food makers to figure out how to deliver a strong flavor profile along with the health benefits, he said.
Anthony Gigliotti, vice president, sales and marketing, Boyer's Food Markets, Orwigsburg, Pa., agrees. The retailer carries a few healthier snacks, such as Blue Chips and Eat Smart varieties made by Snyder of Hanover.
While some shoppers have switched to products like these lately, most still prefer full-flavored foods.
“About 90% want the regular products, and only 10% or so are buying the healthy stuff,” Gigliotti said. “I would imagine that stores in big cities and urban areas sell more.”
A rep pushing Frito-Lay's new Miss Vickie's brand came by Gigliotti's office recently with several varieties of all-natural, kettle-cooked chips. Flavors included hand-picked jalapeno, creamy buttermilk ranch and country onion with three cheeses. The items were still full of fat, but the packages were dotted with messages touting the natural ingredients, according to Gigliotti.
“Natural and organic are the two things that really catch shoppers' attention,” said Gigliotti, who decided to source the Miss Vickie's varieties. “So are whole grains.”
Kashi aims its line of products at shoppers like these. Several of its snacks boast seven whole grains, including crunchy and chewy granola bars and cookies in flavors like Happy Trail Mix and Oatmeal Dark Chocolate.
With so many health and wellness messages engulfing consumers these days, determining which advice to follow can be challenging. This is particularly true of snacks, said Jim McCarthy, president of the Snack Food Association, Arlington, Va.
“There's been a lot of misinformation over the years, but retailers can help educate consumers about how to incorporate snack foods into their diets in a healthy, balanced way,” he said.
Giant Foods, an Ahold company, is one retailer that is doing a good job teaching shoppers about nutritional eating, noted McCarthy. The chain routinely offers shoppers healthy eating brochures that focus on moderation.
Whole Foods Market, Austin, Texas, offers advice on selecting more nutritional snacks on its website.
In an online “Tips for Packing a Healthy Pantry” list at WholeFoods.com , the chain recommends getting rid of products that include hydrogenated fats. Whole grain crackers are a suggested swap-out. Granola bars, seeds, nuts and organic popcorn are also listed as better alternatives to conventional snacks.
Options continue to proliferate for health-conscious shoppers who crave traditional snacks.
“There is a big movement right now to get Americans to lower their sodium intake, and there are a lot of low-sodium chips, crackers and other snack foods out there,” he said. “These are great options to have along with traditional snacks, but most people don't realize that there is more sodium in a slice of bread than in a one-ounce bag of regular potato chips.”
Frito-Lay introduced the Pinch of Salt line in April. The low-sodium versions of the company's Lay's and Ruffles potato chips, Tostitos tortilla chips and Fritos corn chips have between 30% and 50% less sodium per serving.
Some shoppers at Orchard Markets, Spring Lake, Mich., are passing up potato chips and nabbing nuts instead, according to Tim McGovern, who is grocery manager there.
Planters nut mixes are commonly chosen. Organic and all-natural popcorn is also popular with patrons.
“We have Orville Redenbacher organic popcorn, and a new line of Redenbacher natural popcorn that has no artificial flavors, colors, preservatives or trans fats,” said McGovern. “In the cracker category, we sell a lot of Wheat Thins, both original and low-sodium, and Triscuits regular and low-sodium sell well.”
Chips made with healthier oils, such as sunflower oil, are also part of the healthy snacks section at Orchard Foods, he added. These include SunChips, Lay's, Kettle Chips, Ruffles and Walkers.
Sunflower oil and canola oil are being used more frequently by manufacturers, said McCarthy. A unique food processing technology is also being used.
“I just got back from a potato chip meeting in Poland, and one of the technologies that is continuing to be developed in Europe involves stripping oil from potatoes so there is less in the finished product,” he said. “Using these machines results in a full-flavored product that has one-third of the fat of regular chips.”