Snacking may have once been regarded as a vice, but consumers have embraced the notion as a way to maintain energy levels throughout the day.  The average American consumer snacks two to three times a day, and some have even taken to snacking more often and foregoing the standard three daily meals.

For the record, research by Advertising Age puts snack bar market sales at $6 billion, more than double its size of just a decade ago. That’s a growth rate far outpacing chips and pretzels, which admittedly has a larger base to grow. That latter segment has grown just 3.5% during the past 10 years but has sales of $34 billion.

Snack selling points also are shifting. According to Greg Jones, consulting partner with b2b Solutions LLC, convenience stores’ growth percentages almost doubled compared to those at food stores and mass merchandisers. Total c-store salty snack sales grew 24% over the past five years, while sales of alternative snacks have increased 20% during that time. Jones found sales of salty snacks had grown 10% and that all subcategories experienced growth. Salty snacks were led by the 44% growth in sales of nuts, seeds and crackers. Potato chips rang in as the second highest salty snack category, growing 6% during the past five years, with an estimated growth of 8.7% in 2012 vs. 2011.

In honor of its 30th anniversary, Kettle Brands brought back four of its favorite retired flavors for a limited time. Red Chili, Jalapeno Jack, Salsa with Mesquite and Cheddar Beer varieties hit shelves last August and will be gone again by this summer.

The Red Chili variety promises to mirror the taste of sriracha sauce combined with a tang of vinegar and cayenne pepper. Jalapeno Jack both visually and flavorfully mimicks a slice of pepper Jack cheese, featuring a salty Jack cheese base mixed with the spice of red and green peppers and a strong jalapeno flavor. Salsa with Mesquite blends tomatoes, bell peppers, onions and garlic with the bright flavor of lime, to produce a sweet, smoky and salty flavor. Cheddar Beer, a fan pick from the brand’s first People’s Choice vote in 2005, combines tangy, sharp cheese with malty beer notes. All of the special editions—indeed all of Kettle’s line—are made with what the company calls a “Natural Promise: all-natural ingredients, no trans fats, no artificial colors or flavors, and no preservatives.”

Another kettle chip brand ventured into a new area of the snack aisle this year, as Classic Foods, manufacturer of Kettle Classics potato chips, introduced Poptillas tortilla chips. Described as light and crispy, the snacks promise bold flavor with up to 25% less fat, because they are popped, instead of fried.

“We wanted to give snack--lovers the savory taste they crave without the worry of adding inches to their waistline,” explained Classic Foods’ director of QA & Innovation Sam Kilgore.

The whole-grain line is made from all-natural ingredients and features no cholesterol, preservatives, high-fructose corn syrup, trans fat, MSG, artificial flavors or colors. The three flavors (Yellow Corn, Nacho Cheese and Salsa Verde) are gluten-free, a notable selling point among both snacks and confections in 2012.

Finding Free

With its status as a go-to for gluten-free applications, quinoa would seem in an excellent position. Then consider that the United Nations declared 2013 to be the “International Year of Quinoa.”

Revivelife Clinic in Ottawa will attempt to capitalize on these attributes with its launch of enerjive Quinoa Skinny Crackers, described as gluten-free snacks that are low in sugar and sodium and made with wholesome, natural ingredients. As the company explains, quinoa is rich in manganese (which helps convert fat into energy), magnesium, iron, calcium and antioxidants. The enerjive Quinoa Skinny Crackers are available in five flavors (Lemon Berry Burst, Chocolate Fix, Garlic Cayenne Heat, Cozy Apple Cinnamon and Rock Salt Crave) and feature 90 calories or less per serving.

New Annie Chun’s Roasted Seaweed Snacks likewise are free of gluten but boast no MSG or preservatives. They also are low in carbohydrates and fat. With 30 calories or less and 2.5g of fat per serving, the all-natural snacks are similar to Japanese nori used for sushi but are roasted and seasoned for a crispy snack. The two flavors in the line are Brown Sugar & Sea Salt and Cracked Pepper & Herbs.

Snack crisps were likewise on the new products menu for Crunchmaster, known for its brand of gluten-free crackers. The new snacks, Cheddar Cheezy Crisps and Cinnamon & Sugar Grammy Crisps, are made with 100% whole grains and certified gluten- and peanut-free, while they also boast 50% less fat than regular cheese-and-graham-cracker snacks. Crunchmaster notes that all of its line is certified gluten-free by the Gluten Free Certification Organization.

PepsiCo’s Frito-Lay North America division announced a multi-year effort to validate many of its products as gluten-free, and package labeling will follow. Admittedly, much of the company’s classic snacks, Lay’s Classic Potato Chips and Fritos Original corn chips, are made with corn or potatoes and, according the company, “…are, and always have been, naturally made without gluten ingredients.”

However, the company claims to have developed a gluten-free validation process with input from the Food Allergy Research and Resource Program and the Celiac Disease Foundation. It’s a process of testing ingredients and finished products to ensure they contain less than 20 parts per million of gluten before making a claim of “gluten-free.” That level is in line with the FDA limit in its Proposed Rule for Gluten Free Labeling.

“Frito-Lay will make label reading especially easy for gluten-sensitive consumers, as it is starts to include its own Gluten Free symbol or claim on qualified snack products,” stated Marilyn Geller, chief operating officer, Celiac Disease Foundation.

“We understand that living with gluten sensitivities can present some challenges, and when you or a loved one is diagnosed, it can be overwhelming and confusing. We are doing our due diligence to ensure that our validated products comply with the proposed standards by testing ingredients and finished products, so the shopper can trust our gluten-free claim,” said Kari Hecker Ryan, Ph.D., RD, group manager of nutrition science and regulatory affairs, Frito-Lay North America.

Frito-Lay’s gluten-free package claim will appear as a “GF” icon and/or a statement on the back of a bag. However, the company also announced the launch of a gluten-free recipe section on its corporate website to further assist those with Celiac Disease or gluten sensitivities in their snacking choices. The recipe section includes gluten-free ideas for items that can be paired or made with such Lay’s snacks as Lay’s Classic Potato Chips, Fritos Original corn chips and Tostitos Scoops tortilla chips.

The company also ventured further into the kettle-cooked arena, an attempt to meet “the growing demand for snack options that pack a rich flavor experience with less fat than traditional potato chips,” a release explained. Lay’s Kettle Cooked added a pair of new options: Applewood Smoked BBQ and Sun-Dried Tomato & Parmesan.

“Consumers of Lay’s Kettle Cooked potato chips, many of whom are Baby Boomers, are increasingly looking for more unique flavor experiences, while at the same time maintaining balance in their diets,” explained Tony Matta, vice president of marketing, Frito-Lay North America, before noting the unique flavor-layering efforts behind the new varieties.

Weight-conscious consumers also are the target for Popcorn, Indiana’s Fit, a line of better-for-you popcorn that debuted January 2013. Each of the four flavors (Sea Salt, Parmesan & Herb, Extra Virgin Olive Oil and Onion Dijon) promises 40 calories or less and 2g of fat per cup and are certified gluten-free.

Also emphasizing flavor is Pop! Gourmet Popcorn, which introduced Butter Toffee Popcorn with Almond Roca Buttercrunch, an all-natural butter toffee popcorn made with roasted almonds.

Showing Heart

Almonds may be well known for their heart health benefits, but chocolate also has garnered a degree of attention for purported healthy attributes.

A Swedish study found men age 49-75 who ate about one third of a cup of chocolate chips every day had a 17% lower risk of stroke—12 fewer strokes per 100,000 people—compared to a group who did not consume chocolate. For every quarter cup increase in chocolate consumption, stroke risk dropped 14%. Although dark chocolate’s benefits have been established (2012 saw the European Food Safety Authority rule that cocoa powder and dark chocolate could claim to help people improve blood circulation), about 90% of the chocolate intake in Sweden, including what was consumed during the course of the study of 37,000 men, was milk chocolate.

“The beneficial effect of chocolate consumption on stroke may be related to the flavonoids in chocolate. Flavonoids appear to be protective against cardiovascular disease through antioxidant, anti-clotting and anti-inflammatory properties. It’s also possible that flavonoids in chocolate may decrease blood concentrations of bad cholesterol and reduce blood pressure,” said study author Susanna C. Larsson, associate professor in the Division of Nutritional Epidemiology, National Institute of Environmental Medicine at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden.

Another study, this one out of Melbourne, Australia, found dark chocolate could have a significant role in the reduction of heart disease risk. The study looked at 2,013 patients with metabolic syndrome and, therefore, at high risk for heart disease. Patients who consumed 100g of bittersweet chocolate a day had fewer cardiovascular events, such as heart attacks and stroke, and led the researchers to suggest that eating the special chocolate every day for 10 years would reduce heart problems in high-risk patients.

One of the year’s more interesting efforts, however, centered around the formulation of chocolate that would not melt in hot weather. The Dairy Milk bars from Cadbury in the UK stay completely solid, even if exposed to temperatures in excess of 100˚F for more than three hours. Two Cadbury engineers submitted an 8,000-word patent application for the development, the secret being a change in the “conching step,” when a container filled with metal beads grinds the ingredients. The innovative aspect breaks down the sugar particles into smaller pieces and reduces how much fat covers them and, thereby, makes the bar more resistant to heat.

The Cadbury development may reduce the melting of the chocolate, but one survey this year found women, in particular, more concerned with the guilt experienced when indulging in chocolate. The Hershey Co. survey found nearly three in five women (58%) would prefer to savor their chocolate without guilt, leading the company to introduce Hershey’s Simple Pleasures, chocolates with 30% less fat compared to the average of leading milk chocolates.

Reducing chocolate’s fat content was also the goal behind University of Warwick researchers in the UK, who found a way to replace up to 50% of chocolate’s fat content with fruit juice. They infused orange and cranberry juice in milk, dark and white chocolate and found the effort did nothing to the mouthfeel of the resulting product. Although the final product did have a fruity element to it, researchers noted water and a small amount of ascorbic acid (vitamin C) could be used instead of juice to maintain the chocolaty flavor.

Healthy Competition

With all of the efforts to make healthier snacks and candies, it should be little surprise that snacks’ emerging competition in 2012 was from other, more healthful categories.

Snacks have long been associated with a degree of indulgence, but NPD Group research, “Snacking in America,” found increased concerns about health and eating right have prompted a growth in popularity of fruit as a snack. The report also found fruit was consumed throughout the day and during more snack occasions than other typical snack foods. During a two-year period ending in March 2012, consumers snacked on fresh fruit 10 more times a year than chocolate, the next top snack food, and 25 more occasions a year than potato chips, the third-ranking snack.

Of the six need-states prompting a snack, fresh fruit ranked number one in five of them (health and weight, hunger satiety, on-the-go/convenience, routine/habit and satisfying a craving), falling short only in the area of “treat/reward when watching television.”

Fresh fruit’s popularity also extends across demographics. Consumers 65 and older enjoy the most fruit, followed by children under 12. Teenagers (13-17) eat the least amount of fruit, but their consumption was shown to increase as they aged.

“Taking the who, what, when and where of fresh fruit consumption into account, the point to be made is that fresh fruit is a top-of-mind snack with most consumers,” advised Darren Seifer, NPD food and beverage industry analyst. “Among the opportunities this trend presents to producers and produce retailers [is] to market and merchandise fruit around the activities during which it is most likely to be eaten, [thus] usage can be expanded with packaging innovation and promotions for on-the-go activities when it’s least likely to be consumed.”

This is not to suggest that healthier snacks have no place in consumer pantries. Far from it; manufacturers have time and again introduced healthier versions of familiar snacks.

In its Sweet Crisps, 34 Degrees, the maker of all-natural, wafer-thin crisps, introduced three flavors of a product that will “pair perfectly with nut butters, fruit spreads, a variety of cheeses and ice cream.” The flavors—caramel, chocolate, cinnamon and graham—are intended to be not only snacks in and of themselves, but also versatile—to be used as a dessert topping or even incorporated into desserts as a crumb crust.

Curiously, the NPD’s Group snacking report found that consumers’ overall eating behaviors become healthier with increased snacking. According to its research, consumers following the “healthiest diets” snacked twice as often as those with “less healthy” eating habits. The NPD report found consumers with the healthiest diets eat 26% more snack meals a year than the average consumer. “Moderately healthy” consumers ate 1% fewer snack meals than the average consumer, while those with the “least healthy” diets had 29% fewer snack meals than average.

As Seifer explains, “We are no longer as averse to snacking as we used to be. Instead, snacking may be viewed as one way to improve healthy eating habits. This way of thinking about snacking provides an opportunity for manufacturers to make health and wellness innovation part of their product development and marketing strategies.” 

As the economy recovers, industry analyst IBISWorld believes consumer spending on discretionary goods, especially premium chocolate, will grow—and not only in North America. The group believes producers will benefit from the projected surge in per capita consumption of candy and chocolate in developing countries, such as China and Russia, while continuing to reap the benefits of new products introduced in saturated markets in North America and Europe, the two regions that will account for 85% of industry production and approximately 86% of industry revenue.