Crunch Time for Food Companies

Wall Street Journal chronicles snack makers' quest for 'Goldilocks' solution on texture

Doritos Jacked

NEW YORK -- Food companies are paying closer attention to consumer's texture preferences as they drill down on attributes that make new products stand out on store shelves, reported The Wall Street Journal. Food developers are putting specific textures at the top of the list of traits they want to achieve, and they are emphasizing "mouth feel" in descriptions on packaging.

Texture "is just as important as taste or flavor, in many cases," Jack Fortnum, president of the North American business at Ingredion Inc., a Westchester, Ill., food-ingredient processor that holds hundreds of consumer taste tests a year, told the newspaper. It says the tests can, for example, help clients calibrate the precise amount of crunch in a new product.

There were 20,790 new food packages world-wide making a texture claim in 2012, roughly double the number in 2008, according to the report, citing Netherlands-based Innova Market Insights.

Consumer researchers Jacqueline Beckley and Melissa Jeltema said there may be "unexpressed need" behind people's preferences for different food textures.

The two researchers, founder and vice president, respectively, at Understanding & Insight Group, of Denville, N.J., studied 500 consumers in December, showing them photos of foods and recording their responses to statements about texture.

Consumers, they found, fall generally into one of four major categories of texture preference and "mouth behavior." "Chewers," the biggest group at 43%, enjoy the prolonged chewing action involved in eating, say, a soft cookie.

"Crunchers," at 33%, favor the sound and force of a bite, as with hard granola bars. "Smooshers," at 16%, are into the smooth and creamy feeling, whether from a sweet dessert or mashed potatoes ("smooshing" is a way of manipulating food between the tongue and roof of the mouth without using the teeth). And "suckers," at 8%, prefer the long-lasting hard-candy experience.

"Companies, if they understood these differences, could better develop particular products for different groups," Jeltema said.

Many companies see texture as a way to address consumers' emotional reasons for eating. "If it's been a more stressful day, a person will eat crunchy things that compact into smoother things in your mouth," Christine Kalvenes, vice president of innovation for Frito-Lay, told the Journal. "That helps with that emotional transition."

To build on the "tooth-rattling crunch" it says 20-something males crave, PepsiCo's Frito-Lay unit launched bigger and thicker chips last year for its Doritos' Jacked line.  The company explored how thick it could go with the chip, and how big. They settled on a chip that was 40% bigger and thicker and provided a crunch that "rattles all the way through your ears," Kalvenes said. "It breaks into little shards in your mouth that continue to crunch all the way through."

You "don't eat Doritos when you want to be comforted and soothed," she added.

Chips Ahoy! Chewy Gooey cookies offer an extra-soft texture for chewy-cookie lovers. "There are people that …wanted more of a softer texture but with a little bit of surprise," Amelia Strobel, senior director of consumer insights and strategy for Chips Ahoy! maker Mondelez International Inc., told the paper.

Midwesterners prefer soft cookies while Northeasterners prefer hard cookies, Mondelez said. In 2011, the company developed a concept it dubbed "middle"--a chocolate-chip cookie with an extra-soft filling. The result, Chips Ahoy! Chewy Gooey cookies, launched in 2011 with Chocofudge and Megafudge fillings; it added Caramel last year and Brownie last month. The fillings move the cookies out of after-school snack territory, Strobel said. "The way it coats your mouth a little more, it tends to pull you a little more into an evening treat."

Werther's Original, a hard-candy line from German confectioner August Storck KG, knows all about suckers. Sucking on candy "forces you to take a moment to wind down," Kelly Cook, director of marketing, told the paper. Hard-candy lovers tend to roll the candy around, letting the flavor coat the inside of the mouth. "This is their stress relief," Cook said.

This month, Werther's is launching a Sugar-Free Caramel Chocolate flavor.

General Mills Inc. recently turned its new-product focus to the surprising statistic that about a quarter of 18- to 34-year-olds don't eat breakfast, making them part of the larger population of "breakfast skippers." "They want the nutrition of a bowl of cereal and milk, but want to take it in the car or have it while they are doing their makeup," Betsy Frost, marketing manager, told the Journal.

The company considered the idea of a breakfast bar. Then came the idea for a liquid drink, something satiating and nutritious. "We came up with a tight range [of texture]. 'Smooth' was within this range, and 'filling' meant a little more thickness," she said. "But when we gave [consumers] a thicker shake, they didn't like it."

The shake proved to be too thick to drink through a straw. "Too much work," Frost said. The shake General Mills launched this year, called Bfast, is less thick, strawless and available in chocolate, berry and vanilla flavors. The boxes say, "Chug it."

Diamond Foods' Emerald Nuts entered the cereal aisle in 2011 with Breakfast On the Go, single-serve packets of nuts with things like granola bits, dried fruit and chocolate-covered espresso beans. It took two years of experimenting. "We were trying to find the Goldilocks solution," Craig Tokusato, senior vice president for nuts at Diamond Foods, told the paper. "What's the right level of chew, what's the right level of crunch."

Click here to read the full Wall Street Journal report.