Salty snacks — a tasty opportunity
The salty snacks category is where private brands go to differentiate. Retailers and manufacturers have discovered that salty snacks provide them a canvas to capitalize on consumers’ ever-evolving palates to try new flavors and ingredients.
Consider Spud Crunchies Potato Snacks, a recent introduction from Monrovia, Calif.-based Trader Joe’s, which the retailer describes as “salty, crunchy, shelf-stable French fries made from just three ingredients: U.S.-grown Russet potatoes, expeller pressed canola oil and salt.” And then there’s The Kroger Co.’s new Nashville Style Kettle Cooked Hot Chicken Potato Chips, sold under Kroger’s mainstream store brand tier. As far as capturing the taste of all-the-rage Nashville-style chicken, these chips are spot-on.
Batavia, Ill.-based Aldi is also differentiating in the salty snack category with products like its Sweet Chili Brown Rice Crisps, which are sold under its LiveGfree store brand. So is Seattle-based online grocer Amazon, which offers roasted and salted plantain chips under its Wickedly Prime brand.
Pete Pyeatt, director of product development for DairiConcepts, a Springfield, Mo.-based provider of ingredients for salty snacks and other foods, says many private brands have moved beyond just copying what a lot of national brands are doing in the salty snack category.
“It is wide open; there’s no ceiling on it,” Pyeatt says of potential innovation in the category, which generated more than $27.5 billion in retail sales from February 2016 through February 2017, according to market researcher Nielsen. “There’s an endless combination of the types of flavors [for private brands] to come up with.”
Barbara Moreno, director of marketing for City of Industry, Calif.-based Snak King, which manufactures salty snacks for private brands, says retailers are looking to differentiate with private-branded salty snacks made with unique ingredients and innovative, on-trend flavors.
“We monitor the pulse of the industry to help our partners be first to market with new concepts,” Moreno adds.
Jeff Sutton, business unit director of center store for Elk Grove Village, Ill.-based Topco Associates, which provides innovation and knowledge management solutions for its food industry members including grocery retailers, says, “If you can differentiate and hit the trend, you’ve got something shoppers can’t get anywhere else.”
Potatoes and corn have been salty snack pillars for years and will continue to be so, but the category is adding new base ingredients to give salty snacks a healthier image, Pyeatt says.
A recent report from market researcher Packaged Facts states that salty snacks are benefiting from an influx of health formulations that better fit the nutrition-centered lifestyles of many of today’s consumers.
“This push towards healthier snacks has created a thriving market for alternative ingredient snacks made using pulses and alternative vegetables and grains such as chickpeas, sweet potatoes, kale and spinach among other novel elements,” according to Packaged Facts, which estimates the salty snack segment carried the alternative-ingredient snack market in 2016 with growth of almost 7 percent.
Packaged Facts says that younger people are driving the alternative-ingredient salty snack market, and that there is “a very large gap in the percentage of millennials and Gen-X adults who eat these snacks compared to those who are 50 and older.”
Moreno offers a list of healthier base ingredients she expects will be popular this year and beyond such as alternative vegetables, whole and ancient grains, seaweed, pulses, peas, lentils, beans, nuts and seeds.
“Ancient grains, specifically, offer a number of essential nutrients such as fiber, protein and other important vitamins and minerals,” Moreno adds. “Additionally, as consumers look for increasing their intake of plant-based proteins and gluten-free options, the following ancient grains fit the bill: quinoa, chia, sorghum and amaranth.”
Katie Waeltz, senior director of shopper insights and analytics for Topco, says seaweed is an emerging trend in salty snacks that Topco is watching closely.
“We’ve seen a number of new seaweed snack products launched in the past year and a half,” she says. “It’s being featured as a snack itself, as a chip or crisp, in stick form and as a featured flavor.”
Because consumers are snacking more often and eating smaller meals, they want convenient, portable snacks with ingredients they can feel good about, Sutton says.
“These healthier ingredients are often combined with richer, more decadent flavors,” Sutton adds. “Many of these nutrient-rich snack ingredients are also gluten-free, which continues to be popular among consumers.”
Pyeatt expects the demand for natural and free-from salty snacks to continue, including non-GMO products.
“That is one trend I see that has been going for awhile, but it keeps getting stronger in salty snacks,” he adds.
While it is challenging to create products with fewer ingredients, Pyeatt says DairiConcepts is keeping up with demand. The challenge comes in replacing disfavored ingredients with others that might not be fully developed yet or in great supply.
“Hot is hot” in salty snacks, says Gerry Tarpey, Topco’s associate sourcing manager.
“Today’s consumers are becoming more adventurous and spicy flavor profiles — hatch chiles, jalapeño, sweet jalapeno and sriracha chile — continue to be on-trend,” he adds.
Waeltz expects sour flavors that suggest fermentation and pickling — such as dill pickle and salt and vinegar — will continue to be popular for the near term.
Millennials are looking for a flavor adventure, and Moreno expects to see continued growth from new introductions associated with ethnic and spicy flavors in 2018.
“Bland is out and bold is in,” she says, noting that market researcher Mintel recently revealed that one in four consumers are eating spicy foods more often than in the past.
Pyeatt says DairiConcepts receives many requests to create ingredients combining certain meats with other flavors. Chicken and bacon are popular meat flavors that are being combined with hot flavors like peppers and chilies. Dairy flavors such as butter and sour cream are also popular. There is also more interest in specialty cheese flavors. A combination of sweet and hot flavors also remains on-trend.
Pyeatt stresses that product developers should be careful not to mask base ingredients such as ancient grains with strong flavors that could overwhelm the taste they bring to salty snacks.
In a recent study, market researcher Nielsen took to the salty snack aisle to see which flavors have the most appeal, putting 25 new flavors into non-traditional ingredients and sweet-heat pairings, and then putting them to the test with consumers to discover which flavors have the most potential for further development.
“In terms of uniqueness, the study found that jerky chips made from meat infused with global flavors topped the charts,” according to Nielsen. “Both lamb chips with feta and goat meat chips with curry ranked significantly higher than all other flavors in uniqueness, but they didn’t score as well in terms of need and desire, suggesting that the average consumer may not be running to the store for these flavors.”
Up to the challenge
The salty-snack category is getting more challenging for product developers, who are not only faced with coming up with new base ingredients and flavors but also with replacing certain ingredients.
While challenging, Pyeatt welcomes it. He likes stretching the boundaries while searching for new base ingredients and flavors, which he also considers a learning experience.
“The new requests give us new opportunities to try different things and different ingredients,” says Pyeatt, who has worked in product development for 20 years. “We find such [undertakings] very exciting to work on.”
While Pyeatt says the salty snack category is prime for innovation, he advises product developers to not get too far off the tracks.
“You can get to a point where a flavor profile is just not going to work. Yes, the sky is the limit with innovation, but some ideas that sound good on paper just don’t translate to salty snacks,” he says.