BAKE SALES

Crunch these numbers: Baked Lay's potato chips crossed the $100 million mark in 2006, an increase of more than 28% over the previous year, according to Information Resources Inc. Baked Ruffles saw sales shoot up 14%. It seems consumers are grabbing a lot more baked snacks. Baked doesn't necessarily scream diet food anymore, said Michelle Peterman, vice president of marketing for Kettle Foods, which

Crunch these numbers: Baked Lay's potato chips crossed the $100 million mark in 2006, an increase of more than 28% over the previous year, according to Information Resources Inc. Baked Ruffles saw sales shoot up 14%. It seems consumers are grabbing a lot more baked snacks.

“Baked doesn't necessarily scream ‘diet food’” anymore, said Michelle Peterman, vice president of marketing for Kettle Foods, which enjoyed an overall sales increase of 50% last year, in large part due to the introduction of its Bakes line of potato, pita and pretzel chips.

Numerous surveys point out that Americans want to eat better, which is encouraging news for manufacturers of baked chips and rice cakes. But most people are reluctant to give up taste and that sense of indulgence that comes with a salty, full-fat snack. That means they want health as well as a bit of indulgence. In recent years, baked snack manufacturers have improved technology and production methods to the point where they can meet that challenge.

“We're finding that with some of the baking technology out there we can deliver full flavor as well as low fat,” said James McCarthy, president of the Snack Food Association.

Sales figures back that up. Whereas the healthy snacks category grew by a little more than 6% last year — three times the rate of indulgent — baked snacks are basking in double-digit sales growth.

Why now? Baked chips, pretzels and the like aren't exactly new to the scene. Lay's introduced its Baked! line of snacks back in 1994, and pretzel companies like Snyder's of Hanover have been around for almost 100 years. What's changed is not just that healthy snacks are in demand, but that consumers have high expectations for them.

“The health category has matured to the point where people won't just accept ‘reduced fat,’” said John Kirkpatrick, a snack food consultant based in Salem, Ore. “They're becoming much more discriminating.”

Further differentiating this generation of snacks are flavor and texture. Companies are moving beyond the traditional barbecue or sour cream and onion flavors to variations like Kettle's orange ginger wasabi and Death Valley chipolte. The addition of exotic grains and seeds is providing a better crunch and texture. Manufacturers are also joining the portion-control trend; Kettle plans next year to release its Bakes line in 100-calorie packs.