“Can I have a snack?” must be one of the most frequently asked questions in households with children. Kids and adults both love to snack, resulting in a $40 billion-a-year snack market, according to Mintel International (Chicago). The good news is that snacking is important to a child's growth and development. With comparatively small stomachs yet with high needs for a steady supply of fuel during the day, meals alone usually do not fill their needs. Snacks are an important part of their total caloric intake. However, the landscape of the snack market is changing, and manufacturers have the ability to be proactive in regards to the trends in the marketplace.

Changing Demographics and Childhood Obesity

Historically, snack companies have been able to rely on an influx of consumers aging into their category. However, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of kids in the U.S. between the ages of six to 11 years old is projected to decline 1.9% from 1998 to 2008. Albeit a slight decrease, it represents sales that are hard to recapture. Most kids already eat snacks; therefore, market share increases are unlikely. However, because kids are not as brand or product loyal as some adults, new products and packaging may lure them away from competitor's brands. If the new product also can earn the all-important endorsement of the child's parent (a.k.a. the “buying agent”), there is a greater likelihood for sustainable sales potential. Offering healthier alternatives often leads to that endorsement, more so now than ever.

Health concerns, increasingly profiled in the media, have given the snack category a formidable obstacle. Obesity in this country has skyrocketed, so much so that The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC, Atlanta) has increased efforts to raise awareness through its Division of Nutrition and Physical Activity. Beginning in October 2000, CDC funded a number of state health departments to help them develop and carry out targeted nutrition and physical activity interventions, in an effort to address the problem of obesity. According to 2003 industry data, “there is twice the number of overweight children as there was 30 years ago.”

Many snack companies have begun efforts to tackle this problem, including the two market leaders in the healthy snacks market, Pepsi/Frito-Lay/Quaker Oats (Purchase, N.Y.) and Kraft Foods/Nabisco (Glenview, Ill.). Kraft Foods is perhaps the most well-known company to address the issue of obesity, with public promises to reduce portion size, reformulate products and, where possible, to reduce fat and sugar. A company press release states, “We're doing this because we believe the rise in obesity is a public health challenge of global proportions. It's an important issue, and we have an important role to play.”

Pepsi has developed several ways to help consumers, particularly young ones, learn about more healthy lifestyles. Through its Frito-Lay division, directors of school cafeterias received a video titled “Sensible Snacking.” The company also provides support to kids' programs at the YMCA (Chicago). Pepsi's Quaker Oats is the lead sponsor of the Marathon Kids program, a free physical fitness program for children in Texas in grades K-5. The objective is for children and their families to develop a love of running and adopt

Shifting Need in New Products Arena

Although the size of the kids' snacking market may be shrinking in general, there is a growing awareness of the link between diet, health and obesity, resulting in an increased need for the sub-segment of healthy snacks.

Given this multi-faceted need to improve the healthfulness of snacks, how can manufacturers increase the healthfulness of kids' snacks--making them desirable to both children and their parents?

What Parents Want

Manufacturers and kids alike want to know: What will drive a parent to the much-desired “yes” at the shelf?

Original research conducted by Next Step Marketing Research (Barrington, Ill.), utilizing Consumer Quiz (Alsip, Ill.), was undertaken for this article in order to understand several factors influencing this approval:

1. To determine “what makes a snack healthy?” in a parent's mind,

2. To evaluate parental perceptions of current kid snack offerings and

3. To understand what benefits healthy snacks offer, from a parent's perspective.

In order to reach a broad sample of parents, an Internet-based market research survey was fielded with primary household shoppers, whose household included at least one child aged 12 or younger. The final sample included survey results from 1,176 qualified consumers. Of the households surveyed, 74% included respondents with at least one child between the ages of six and 12. The answer to these three questions are as follows:

1. What makes a snack healthy? Respondents were given a list of 13 attributes and asked, “When choosing a healthy snack for your child, which of the following do you consider to be important? Select up to three benefits.” Results are shown in the chart “Parental Values.”

By far, the most sought-after characteristic of a healthy snack was “low in sugar”; 67% of respondents considered this the most important attribute. Sugar, correctly or incorrectly, has many associations with undesirable side effects in children, amongst them: obesity, diabetes, hyperactivity and dental decay. The sharp increase in sugar consumption has prompted a well-distinguished panel of nutrition and health experts to request a government-funded study on the health consequences of sugar consumption. One of the main results of increased sugar consumption is that it squeezes more healthful alternatives out of the diet. By decreasing their child's sugar consumption, parents are looking to take out the negative consequences (obesity, etc.) and replace them with the positive consequences (replace sugar with more healthy ingredients).

Vitamin and mineral fortification was next in importance, with close to 37% of parents ranking it as “one of the three most important attributes in selecting their child's snack.” With increasingly busy schedules on the part of both children and parents, mealtime may not be perceived as necessarily providing adequate vitamin and mineral intake. The addition of vitamins and/or minerals to snacks may allow children to “make up” any real or perceived dietary deficiencies. Given the mainly moderate levels of fortification present in snacks, the approach “It couldn't hurt” appears to be taken by many parents. This also is evidenced by the rich range of successful vitamin- and mineral-fortified products (e.g., orange juice with calcium, vitamin A, C and E). Jeanne P. Goldberg, director of the Center on Nutrition Communication at Tufts University (Medford, Mass.), believes, “While it may reassure parents, fortification is not an approach which guarantees a diet adequate in essential nutrients at appropriate levels of caloric intake. However, there are certain instances where fortification has made a significant contribution to a deficiency in the food supply, for example, iodine, folic acid and iron.”

A full 30% of respondents chose “No additives and preservatives” as one of the three most important snack attributes. This implies a greater interest in snack products in a more basic and natural form. It is interesting to note that parents perceive this benefit more desirable than “All natural” or “Organic,” which provide related benefits. This implies that for broad appeal, promoting “no additives or preservatives” would offer a more meaningful consumer benefit. Scientifically speaking, additives and preservatives are not harmful. They serve many useful purposes such as retaining or improving nutritional value, delaying spoilage, maintaining consistency and/or texture, and enhancing flavor, texture or color. However, the fact remains that many consumers perceive additives and preservatives as “adding in the bad,” and manufacturers must find a way to deal with this perception.

It is interesting to note that, unlike products geared to adults, the characteristics of low sodium, low cholesterol and added fiber fall lower on the list of priorities.

2. Perception of current kids' snacks. Which products currently hold the perception of “healthy” amongst parents? Parents were asked, “Please rate the healthiness of the following snacks on a scale of 1 to 7, with 1 indicating the snack is extremely unhealthy and 7 indicating the snack is extremely healthy.”

Research results show that products on the high end of the scale, such as yogurt, cheese cubes and granola, already have a “halo” of goodness (whether real or perceived). These products may be “easy” entrants for product line extensions or perhaps even packaging innovation in order to make the current product more convenient or fun. Meanwhile, products on the other end of the scale, such as chocolate bars and potato chips, may hold an opportunity to reinvent a popular snack in a more healthful format. See chart “Parents Rate Snack Healthfulness.”

3. How does a healthy snack benefit a child? When the Consumer Quiz survey asked, “How does a healthy snack benefit your child?” parents responded enthusiastically. The top six benefits they stated are listed below. Showing how a snack will meet these needs (through formulation changes, packaging, promotion and cross-promotion, and advertising) will perhaps lead to that much desired “yes” at the shelf.

The benefits rated as “very important” included that their child “will have a healthy body” and “will be alert in school.” Benefits rated as “somewhat important” included that their child “will have more energy and will not be sluggish,” “will not get sick as often,” “will maintain/achieve a healthy body weight,” and “will have more stamina in sports.”

What Kids Think

Willy Wonka had it right when he formulated products that were “fun to interact with” and “good-tasting to eat.” Wonka Bars (with one holding the “golden ticket”), Oompa Loompas (candy named after the factory workers) and three-course meal gum (self-explanatory) all met these criteria. However, as he also demonstrated, if you do not listen to adults, you may suffer the consequences. Violet Beauregarde literally turned into a blueberry and blew up after eating the three-course meal gum (which she was warned not to eat). Today's kids are relatively aware of what is healthy and not healthy, with some exceptions. Like Violet, acting upon this limited knowledge may be difficult when temptation exists, and more good-tasting options to help them execute this knowledge may be beneficial.

Another research project, to understand kids' perceptions of snacks, was undertaken by Next Step Marketing Research, with 116 kids aged eight to12. The purpose of the study was:

1. To see if they understand, “what makes a snack healthy?” from a parent's perspective,

2. To evaluate kid perceptions of current snack offerings and

3. To determine when they most feel a healthy snack is needed, yet not readily available.

1. What makes a snack healthy? When asked, “What is important to your parents when selecting your snacks?” kids had a generally accurate view of their parents' perceptions. The two notable exceptions are “low in sugar,” and “no additives or preservatives,” both of which were not cited by kids as much as by parents. It may be that parents are looking for these snack characteristics, but not necessarily passing this information on to their children. Other factors, such as “added calcium,” however, tend to be discussed more openly, if for no other reason than as a justification to “drink your milk.”

Looking at these results from another perspective, kids have the knowledge to figure out what they need to stress to their parents in order to “get to yes.” See chart “Relative Rankings.”

2. Perception of current kids' snacks Kids were asked to rank nine snacks (a subset of the parents' list) on a scale of 1 to 7, with 1 representing “super unhealthy” and 7 representing “super healthy.” Their input shows that it would be fair for a parent to say, “You should know better,” as kids apparently do know better! Their rating of snacks' healthfulness was remarkably similar to their parents'. For both groups, chocolate bars, ice cream and fruit snacks were rated on the unhealthy side of the scale. The “healthy” side of the scale showed some variation, with parents rating cheese higher than kids did. However, both groups ranked yogurt and granola bars relatively high on the healthy scale. See chart “Parents vs. Kids Rate Healthiness.”

3. Desired eating occasions for healthy snacks. Kids were asked, “When is it hardest to find healthy snacks?” Many occasions hold opportunities for snack manufacturers to bring innovation, either through packaging (increasing fun or portability) or product (one that offers healthiness, replenishment, a calming effect, or a whole host of other potential needs). The children's top four responses follow. They start with the most frequently mentioned, and are accompanied by suggestions for parents: “in the car” (need for healthiness and portability), “after school” (need for healthiness and fun), “before bed (need for healthiness and calming properties), and “after sports” (need for healthiness and replenishment).

What Can Manufacturers Do?

The declining child population coupled with the increasing obesity epidemic presents a need for snack manufacturers to develop healthy snack alternatives to drive future profitability. Parents believe a snack can be made healthier by lowering the sugar content, adding vitamins and minerals and taking away additives and preservatives. Manufacturers can make items already perceived as healthy more desirable to kids by adding fun ingredients or packaging. For those products currently perceived as unhealthy, there is an opportunity to bring innovation, to allow a child to eat a “wanted” snack, by making it more healthful. Packaging and advertising should be employed to stress benefits and usage occasions. From a broader perspective, educating both children and adults in the area of nutrition, perhaps dispelling some incorrect perceptions, is also a valuable long-term initiative.

By employing some of the research covered here, and applying internal insight, manufacturers can increase their probability of “getting to yes” at the kids snack shelf.

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Anju Holay founded Next Step Marketing Research (NSMR-Barrington, Ill.) in order to meet the qualitative research needs of the food and beverage industry. NSMR consults with manufacturers to develop and refine product propositions, and with suppliers to translate consumer research into sales messages. With a background in brand management and packaging, Holay offers focus group moderation, one-on-one interviewing, online research and general research analysis/writing. She holds a BS from Northwestern University and an MBA from The University of Chicago. Holay can be reached at 847-912-6398 ornextstepmktg@ameritech.net.