Beyond Better For You: 11 Emerging Snack Trends to Track

Abbey Lewis, Editor in Chief, CSProducts

CHICAGO -- After years of driving snacks sales growth, indulgence is giving way to the disruptive force of better-for-you (BFY). According to Chicago-based SPINS, c-store sales of natural and specialty snacks hit $59.8 million in 2017, a 10.5% leap over the year prior.

The BFY movement has also triggered a wave of innovative, natural and specialty snacks products. Some of these reflect unique and sometimes unusual subtrends that would be standouts all on their own. Startup brands such as Epic, Mighty Organic, Farmer’s Pantry and SuperSeedz are finding space away from specialty shelves and closer to the core. And ingredients that once seemed foreign, such as lotus seeds, sorghum and millet, are no longer just footnotes at the end of a long ingredient list—they are promoted on the front of packaging.

Although these subtrends’ emergence during the age of BFY snacking is no coincidence, consumers’ shifting preferences and increasingly sophisticated flavor palates are also responsible. Ethnic-inspired snacks are on trend, according to Technomic’s 2016 Snacking and Consumer Trend Report, powered by Ignite. In fact, uniquely flavored snacks drive purchases, with 42% of consumers saying they’d buy healthful snacks more often if the flavors were unique.

While many retailers are still just getting used to the idea of BFY snacks in a c-store setting, they should also keep an eye on these subtrends, which are sure to pop up in the next wave of new products. Here are 10 emerging trends in snacking, as well as one that might be a little tough to swallow (literally) ...

1. Produce snacking

The on-the-go snackable fruits and vegetables subcategory is a $1.1 billion business. And it grew at a compound annual growth rate of more than 10% each year from 2012 to 2016, according to Nielsen.

“Looking at these trends, it is clear that there is a continued interest in organic produce and a movement toward transparency in general,” said Matt Lally, client manager for Nielsen Fresh, Chicago, in a recent report. “Today’s consumer is interested in eating simpler, cleaner products, and this is reflected in the continued growth we are seeing with organic fresh produce.”

Packaged single servings of fresh fruit account for 44% of on-the-go produce snacking, while packaged single servings of fresh vegetables account for 17% of on-the-go snacking dollars. Nielsen attributes this nearly 30-point gap to the excess of fruit products in the market, with four times more fruit snacks than veggies.

When stocking the correct mix of on-the-go snacking produce, variety is important. Popular snackable produce options include grapes, cherries, apples, berries, bananas, stone fruits, oranges, mandarins and baby carrots. While these items can be merchandised as stand-alone units, this subcategory includes products that are individually packaged and intended to be consumed in a single sitting. Personal-sized cut fruit or vegetables, dried fruit and nut snack packs, fresh fruit smoothies and fruit cups all qualify.

Example: Dole Go Berries

2. Authentic cuisine

Flavor and taste are the most important considerations when choosing a snack for 85% of consumers, according to Technomic. For many, nothing tastes as good as home cooking, whether home is New York, Brazil or China.

This authentic, home-cooked-meal trend has been dubbed “kitchen symphony” by Innova Market Insights, Arnhem, Netherlands, and includes flavors such as sage, chili-lime, coffee and regional barbecue flavors—anything that represents authentic cuisine, the holy grail when marketing to millennial shoppers.

Traditional ingredients, flavors and recipes, regardless of ethnicity, are strong indicators of authenticity. The more authentic a food feels, the more likely a consumer will be to purchase it.

“The connected world has led consumers of all ages to become more knowledgeable of other cultures,” said Lu Ann Williams, Innova Market Insights’ director of innovation, during a webinar. “As a result, there is growing demand for greater choice and higher levels of authenticity in ethnic cuisines.”

Mainstream, core brands are already jumping on this bandwagon. Lay’s released two new flavors this year inspired by regional dishes. Brazilian Picanha features flavors from the Brazilian dish that consists of grilled meat, and Bacon Poutine is a potato-chip-based take on Canada’s national staple, a dish that consists of french fries and cheese curds coated in gravy.

Example: Lay’s Brazilian Picanha chips

3. ‘Snackfection’

Salty and sweet snacks are as old as the chocolate-covered pretzel. The “snackfection” movement goes beyond that, placing chocolate as a core snack option, especially combined with salty ingredients such as nuts or pretzels. This subtrend is a sure hit for what Mintel calls “power snackers,” or those who average five snacking occasions daily from a variety of snack subcategories, including chocolate.

These products are also gaining in popularity among consumers who need to control their salt or sugar intake but still want a treat.

The Hershey Co., meanwhile, has even trademarked the term “snackfection.”

“The feedback we’ve received from consumers to date is that sweet snacking—think chocolate and textural ingredients—as well as other food-value inclusions, such as nuts, seeds, cookie pieces, berries, etc., are high-value components that are a gateway to permissible indulgence and sweet snacking throughout the day,” said John P. Bilbrey, chairman, president and CEO of the Hershey, Pa.-based company, during a recent earnings call.

Example: barkThins Snacking Chocolate

4. Smoky flavors

This flavor trend goes beyond simple barbecue. Think about burnt marshmallows, Jamaican jerk flavors, smoked paprika, roasted tomatoes and bacon.

Popcorn is an ideal vehicle for this flavor combination. New offerings from Popcorn, Indiana include Smoky Queso and Bacon Ranch. Other new entries into the popcorn subcategory include Sinfully Thin’s Smoky Red Popcorn and Snacks 101’s Smokey Chipotle Baked Popcorn.

“Despite competition from other snack foods, the salty-snack market continues to grow at a steady rate,” said Caleb Bryant, senior foodservice analyst for Mintel, Chicago. “The functional benefits of meat snacks and the convenience and health halo of ready-to-eat popcorn are driving strong growth in each category; however, this success is also due to increased flavor and format innovation. Brands are demonstrating that popcorn can be a platform for any type of flavor.”

In the meat-snacks category, smoky flavors are common. But the latest takes are truly inspired, with hyper-regional barbecue or broader global influences such as Korean- and Latin-inspired smoky flavors hitting the market. Lorissa’s Kitchen meat snacks come in both Korean Barbeque and Sweet Chili flavors, while Epic offers its chicken meat bites in Currant & Sesame BBQ, as well as its Pork Cracklings in Maple Bacon Seasoning.

Example: Strong & Kind Honey Smoked BBQ

5. Sorghum

Some consumers are familiar with sorghum via sorghum molasses, a popular sweetener in traditional  Southern cooking. But this cereal grain is also widely used around the world for brewing, flatbreads and cereals.

In the United States, until recently, cattle were the main consumers of sorghum, which is a main component of livestock feed. But thanks to the gluten-free movement, sorghum is becoming popular with people. Ground into flour, sorghum can be a substitute for whole-wheat flour.

Sorghum can also be popped like popcorn; substituted for wheat flour in snacks such as baked goods, pretzels, crackers or chips; or eaten like cereal. Snacks brands such as Boulder Canyon, Amy’s Kitchen, General Mills, Kashi, Kellogg’s, Kind and Pillsbury have all listed the grain on ingredient lists.

The New York Times even named sorghum one of 2017’s biggest food trends. According to the United Sorghum Checkoff Program, a group that works to improve profitability for sorghum producers, this should be a breakout year for the grain, with an estimated more than 500 product lines set to hit the market by the end of 2017.

Example: Boulder Canyon Ancient Grains chips

6. Globalization

It’s a small world.

While many of the aforementioned trends have a global component, there are certain flavors, shapes and brands that simply wouldn’t exist without a growing sense of global community.

Younger consumers generally look for ethnic-inspired snacks, with 33% of millennials preferring those snacks, according to the Technomic study. With the reach of social media and millennials’ growing global awareness, flavors from Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam are on the rise.

Menu items such as pho and banh mi, a Vietnamese soup and sandwich; pancit, a Filipino noodle dish; and adobo, a vinegar-based marinade for meat, are growing in popularity and can translate into the snack format. Bright flavors such as cilantro, lime, vinegar, jalapeno, soy sauce and sambal, a Southeast Asian hot sauce, can be found in offerings such as Takis Fuego Hot Chili Pepper & Lime corn snacks, Harvest Snaps Mango Chile Lime flavored black bean crisps, and Doritos Dinamita Chile Limon tortilla chips.

Example: Chex Xtreme Hot Chile & Lime

7. Lotus seeds

The seeds of the lotus flower, a giant lily found in wetlands, are known for their medicinal and nutritional value. They are also naturally gluten-free.

While not mainstream in the United States, popped lotus seeds are gaining traction as a healthy snack across Europe, and they made an appearance this year at the Specialty Food Association’s Summer Fancy Food Show. The snack even grabbed the attention of one of the biggest names in natural-food retail. Elly Truesdell, global senior coordinator of local brands, product innovation and development for Whole Foods Market, raved about Rooted Food Co.’s Cheese & Chives and Jalapeno varieties. “The size of the snack bag was great,” she told the Specialty Food Association, “and I loved the natural variety in sizes of the seed puffs.”

Example: Rooted Food Co. Popped Lotus Seeds

8. Savory snack bars

As more American snackers shun sugar, a snack and nutritional-bar manufacturers are releasing products with a savory finish.

Kashi released its Basil, White Bean & Olive Oil bar and Quinoa, Corn & Roasted Pepper bar. Larabar now offers its Superfoods bars in Coconut Kale Cacao, Hazelnut Hemp Cacao and Turmeric Ginger Beet varieties.

Smaller-niche yet highly visible brands are also making a name for themselves in the savory-bar subcategory, including Mediterra. Its new savory bar line includes Kale & Pumpkin Seeds, Bell Peppers & Green Olives, and Sundried Tomato & Basil.

Example: Sheffa Foods Savory Bar

9. Chocolate and chickpeas

Chickpeas are high in protein and fiber and can be prepared in a variety of ways. This includes puffed—see Hippeas brand snacks—and roasted, as in the GoBitos line. Manufacturers are also realizing that the chickpea opportunity extends beyond the salty and savory flavor palate. Like the pretzel before it, as it turns out, the salty, roasted characteristic of a chickpea pairs extremely well with chocolate.

Chickpea purveyors Biena, The Good Bean and Lebby have released chocolate-coated-chickpea lines, in addition to their traditional roasted and savory products. These healthy yet indulgent snacks also offer 4 grams of protein and 4 to 5 grams of fiber.

Example: Biena Milk Chocolate Roasted Chickpeas

10. Nonmeat jerky

As meat jerky continues to benefit from a health halo, thanks to its high protein levels and easy, grab-and-go nature, nonmeat versions are also starting to make headway in jerky sets.

At this past summer’s Fancy Food Show, Nanduto Home Cooking exhibited its Cassava Leaves Jerky. Alison Tozzi Liu of the James Beard Foundation called the product, which is more like a thin rice cracker, “unexpected and innovative.”

Other jerky-ready, plant-based proteins and ingredients include soy protein, seitan, eggplant and coconut. These ingredients are put through traditional jerky processes and featured alongside meat-jerky-friendly flavors such as barbecue and chili. The brands Primal Strips, Louisville Vegan Jerky, Stonewall and Vegan Dream offer grab-and-go meatless jerky options in a variety of styles and flavors.

According to SPINS, the nonmeat-product industry experienced 3.5% growth in dollar sales last year, with plant-based jerky a part of that new-product growth equation.

Example: Primal Strips Meatless Vegan Jerky

Bonus: Jellyfish snacks

While it is unlikely to make its way onto core salty-snack shelves in the United States anytime soon, jellyfish is a delicacy in Asian countries. To make it into a snack, the seafood undergoes an arduous drying process that leaves it with a very stringy appearance.

Now a new form for jellyfish snacks may be on its way. Dutch scientists recently discovered a technique using alcohol that leaves the jellyfish paper-thin and more like a potato chip in both appearance and texture.

Improbable? Maybe. But the jellyfish is the most sustainable fish product in the ocean, according to scientists. And, with one serving of jellyfish crisps containing only half a gram of fat, the snack fits the BFY trend, meaning it could be one of the most authentic, global, on-trend products yet.

Example: Whale Brand Jelly Fish Crispy