New merchandising schemes, access to dietitians and at-a-glance nutrition systems are helping shoppers hunt down the healthiest snacks.
Snack nuts, trail mixes and granola bars are just some of the segments that are benefiting with sales up 7.6%, 9.8% and 7.4%, respectively, in 2011 vs. 2010, according to SymphonyIRI Group.
While the resolve of health-minded consumers has been a boon to better-for-you categories, new health and wellness resources are helping them compare and select the best options.
West Des Moines, Iowa-based Hy-Vee Food Stores  takes the guesswork out of healthy snack choices with check lanes comprising foods meeting strict nutrition criteria. Portable options range from canned, dried and fresh fruit to almonds, sweet potato chips, trail mix and fiber-rich granola bars.
“A lot of people say, ‘If it’s in this lane it’s healthy for you,’ and that’s the reason for it,” Amy Pleimling, a dietitian at Hy-Vee’s Albert Lea, Minn., store, told SN.
Indeed, the set-up encourages trial of snacks overlooked in their inline positions. Take, for instance, the most popular option: Good Source Soynuts. Since gaining its second, and more prominent, spot in the Albert Lea unit’s Blue Zones check lane, sales have snowballed 560%, Pleimling said.
“In the past some people didn’t see [the product] because it was low and hard to find, but now that we’ve got it in both areas it does a nice job,” she said.
Soy nuts are similar in texture and flavor to peanuts but with less fat and more protein. With 90 mg of sodium per serving, they are a good fit for the Blue
Zones lane. “They tend to be a little lower in fat than other nuts and they have soy protein which appeals to those interested in feeling fuller longer,” Pleimling said.
Fiber-rich snacks are also popular with consumers who shop the Blue Zones lane; individually wrapped prunes and single Fiber One bars are the second and third most commonly purchased products.
Though some shoppers arrive in the lane as a consequence of it having the shortest line, many are pleasantly surprised, enough so to make an unplanned purchase, said Pleimling who receives positive feedback.
Similar lanes, but with different nutrition criteria, are being rolled out across Hy-Vee’s operating areas. The chain is adapting over 100 check-lane fixtures in 105 stores across its eight-state territory to accommodate fresh fruit, nuts, baked chips, bottled water, milk and other healthy snacks to replace sugary food and drinks. Unlike the lane in Albert Lea — which is named for the community’s AARP/Blue Zones Vitality Project — all other healthy lanes at Hy-Vee are branded Healthy Bites.
The nutritious havens that cater to on-the-go needs with extras like plastic spoons for applesauce, could draw snackers from competing channels such as drug, which posts the strongest snack sales growth, observed Sue Viamari, editor of SymphonyIRI Group’s Times & Trends report.
“One of the things that’s benefiting the drug channel is the fact that they’re conveniently located and it’s easy to get in and out. Grocery retailers trying to win share of snack dollars need to play up the whole convenience aspect,” she said.
An emphasis on nutrition is also a safe bet since healthy snacks hold 41% of snack share vs. indulgent options at 59%. This marks a 7-share-point improvement in better-for-you snacks compared to just four years ago, noted Viamari.
An influx of better-for-you options is undoubtedly at play as thousands of products are reformulated for health. “The food industry has done a great job in making new options available,” said Richard Mattes, professor of Foods and Nutrition at Purdue University.
Indeed, since introducing the first granola bar in 1975, General Mills’ Nature Valley has brought to market inventive variations such as trail mix granola bars, granola nut clusters and most recently 90-calorie granola thins. The snack has helped push Nature Valley Granola Bar sales north of 20% during the 52 weeks ending Dec. 25, 2011, said Marketing Manager Scott Baldwin. He acknowledged that the brand’s innovations are joined by a myriad of others. “The number of competitors grows by more than 15% every year and has more than doubled since 2008,” he said.
The variety is helping Americans better plan their weekly snacks at a time when 6% approach the occasion as an opportunity to get nutrition, 11% view snacks as a mini meal and 28%, as a way to satisfy hunger, according to SymphonyIRI.
Demand for portable snacks with specific health benefits, like nuts, have been heightened by advice from wellness guru Dr. Oz and others who advocate eating a handful a day for heart health.
“We’ve seen the transformation and perception of snack nuts as something that was high in fat, high in salt, bad for you and that you’d have with a cocktail, to something that’s almost the polar opposite in terms of perception,” said John O’Shaughnessy, general manager of consumer product for Blue Diamond Growers. Ten years ago Blue Diamond sold two to three SKUs in most grocery stores. Today it markets an average of 20, including bestselling Smokehouse Almond, Whole Natural Almond and Wasabi & Soy Sauce Almond varieties.
Nuts have become a popular snack at United Supermarkets , where corporate dietitian Tyra Carter is helping build awareness and understanding of unsaturated fats, omega-3 fatty acids and other benefits. “Nuts have always been considered a high-fat food, but it’s a healthy fat so we moved away from steering clear of all fats and choose healthier fats while limiting our portions,” Carter said. During nutrition classes she recommends consuming a small handful — about the size of an egg — and combining almonds or walnuts with fruit or another different food group member for satiety and nutrition. “We’re trying to increase servings of beneficial food groups and get the idea across that snacks can count toward fulfilling your daily recommendations,” she said.
Carter encourages snack seekers to use the NuVal system that assigns foods a nutrition rating from 1 to 100, and warns that added sugar and salt can deflate scores in otherwise healthy categories. United’s private-label Food Club Natural Almond, for instance, scores an 81. But the same nut, honey roasted and flavored with added salt, is assigned a 36, she explained. A good choice for those seeking something sweet is Emerald Cocoa Roast Dark Chocolate Almonds, with a score of 63, Carter said. “That’s a pretty good score to have a little bit of flavor in there,” she noted. Carter also promotes homemade snacks and shares recipes for trail mix and granola bars.
At Hy-Vee’s Albert Lea store, sales of nuts and trail mixes climbed 5% from fall 2010 to winter 2011, according to Pleimling, who constantly promotes smarter snacking. In-aisle signs flagging nuts as a “superfood” are partly responsible, she said. “Even though the weight stats aren’t showing it right now, I do think people regard nuts as a healthy snack and try to eat those healthy options a little more frequently.”
Hy-Vee also uses the NuVal rating system and encourages shoppers to heed scores when selecting snacks.
Use of the system is key since misconceptions about seemingly healthy foods abound. While fresh apples and oranges garner a perfect NuVal score of 100, sugar-sweetened dried cranberries only get a 1, Pleimling told SN. “The cranberry is a great teaching tool with NuVal,” she said.
During store tours the dietitian also stresses the importance of portion control and makes participants aware of tricks they can use to measure appropriate servings. Pleimling points out that the lid to the Blue Diamond Oven Roasted Almond canister holds an ounce of nuts. One-ounce increments are also marked on a see-through strip on the side of the can. The tool is good to use during distracted snacking. “Rather than mindlessly eating straight from the container, when the portion is done, it’s done,” she said.
Another good rule of thumb is limiting serving sizes to five bites, notes Leticia Holmbo, culinary dietitian for the H.E. Butt Grocery Co. , San Antonio. The chain encourages shoppers to increase the protein or fiber in snacks by dipping granola bars in peanut butter or pairing them with a piece of fruit. If healthful options aren’t available, having a few bites of a not-so-healthy snack is better than forgoing in between eating completely. “Snacking is critical since it keeps hunger from going to extremes. If you’re starved you’ll overeat, be stuffed, skip the next meal. It becomes a pendulum of extreme eating. Snacks will keep you from swaying on that pendulum,” Holmbo said.