Confections and snacks compete for the same share-of-stomach, but are considered separate categories. 2016 saw the lines between the two areas blur as confection innovation picked up taste, texture, and ingredient cues from snacks.

The term “snackfection” described Hershey’s Snack Bites, Reese’s Snack Mix, and Payday Snack Bites – a trio of launches at the “intersection of snacking and confection.”  The trio blended candy ingredients with pretzels, nuts, peanuts, and almonds to capitalize on “sweet snacking” opportunities.

Chocolate-drenched fruits and nuts also went after sweet snacking. Leading by example were Dove Chocolate Coated Fruit & Nut Snack, with blueberry juice infused cranberries in dark chocolate; and Brookside Crunchy Clusters with berry flavors and almonds.  Pichuberry Organic Pichuberries Covered in Dark Chocolate brought an up-and-coming South American superfruit to sweet snackers; the pichuberry is rich in naturally occurring antioxidants.

“Better for you” inclusions such as fruits and nuts can help reduce guilt. Thirty-eight of American consumers agree that they would feel less guilty consuming unhealthy foods or drinks if they contained a healthy ingredient, says a 2015 survey by GlobalData (formerly Canadean).

The “snackfection” trend piqued the interest of candy bar makers. Mars Chocolate’s Snickers Crisper candy bar used crisp rice and peanuts to add crunch with fewer calories; Crisper was the first Snickers bar to check in at less than 200 calories. Mars says the “crispy crunchy” segment of the chocolate market grew at better than a 9% rate from 2011 to 2013, twice the rate of chocolate overall, citing Nielsen data.

Hershey added crunchy taste to its Reese’s brand with Reese’s Stuffed with (Reese’s) Pieces Peanut Butter Cups in 2016, taking the product from concept to consumer in about eight months—lightning fast for a new product. 

Nestlé was bullish on crunchy inclusions and iconic health ingredients, bringing its Damak brand to the US. This “treasured Turkish premium chocolate brand” uses pistachios from the Gaziantep region of Turkey, said to be the best place in the world for high-quality pistachios.  The launch also reflected the growing attraction of premium chocolate, a sector growing by double-digits for several years now, according to Nestlé.

Premium chocolate growth is opening the door to new brands. Wild Ophelia Peanut Butter Cups hit store shelves in novel flavors such as Caramelized Bananas and Smoked Salt. The brand aimed to “bring unconventional American inspired chocolate creations mainstream and revolutionize the local chocolate aisle.”  Also making waves in premium chocolate was Chuao Chocolatier’s Lovely by Chuao Chocolatier Organic Dark Chocolate Bar. Aimed at women, floral flavors like Coconut Hibiscus and Raspberry Rose stood out.

Even mass-market chocolate and candy brands moved upscale. Hershey’s Kisses Deluxe (twice the size of regular Kisses) went from seasonal gift offering to everyday packaging. Kraft Heinz unveiled premium soft caramels under the Kraft Candy Kitchen brand in flavors like Sea Salt.

Flavor innovation in chocolate took cues from coffee, desserts, and seasonal favorites in 2016. Eight O’Clock Coffee Thins and Krispy Kreme Doughnuts Coffee Thins each introduced the concept of “edible coffee treats.” Chocolate bar-like in appearance, both are made with real coffee beans and marketed as a new way to enjoy a boost of caffeine. The hybrid product gained shelf space in the coffee section of supermarkets, which is new real estate for a “chocolate” bar.

Mars Chocolate’s M&M’s brand took flavor cues from all three areas in 2016 with White Strawberry Shortcake, Hot Chocolate, and Coffee Nut flavors.  The latter beat out Chili Nut and Honey Nut flavors as part of a 75th anniversary “Vote!” campaign where more than 1 million votes were cast for a new peanut-flavored M&M’s addition. Hershey also added new flavors to its Kisses brand with Carrot Cake and Birthday Cake, the latter an especially hot flavor in 2016.

Outside of chocolate, innovation in fruit snacks, jelly beans, and gummy candies picked up.  Jelly Belly launched Organic Jelly Beans in a 10-flavor assorted mix; the beans had a pectin center versus the usual cornstarch. Jelly Belly also added Organic Fruit Flavored Snacks, made with real fruit juices and purees. Ferrara Candy’s Black Forest brand added Organic Gummy Candy in Worms and Bears shapes. Ferrara said the launch was “America’s first nationally available certified USDA organic gummy.”

Wrigley extended its Starburst brand into gummies via Gummies Fruit Chews in Original and Sours flavors. Jelly Belly added a fourth edition to its BeanBoozled Dare to Compare Flavored Jelly Beans lineup with two new “nasty” jelly bean flavors – Spoiled Milk and Dead Fish—mixed among several others. The BeanBoozled Challenge is responsible for at least two YouTube videos with more than 20 million views each.

Intensive flavors and new packaging were highlights for mints. Dentyne Ice Sub Zero Avalanche Mint was flecked with cooling crystals for an intense cooling sensation. New England Confectionery’s Sweetheart Mints came packed in a metal tin with a mirror inside, enabling a quick appearance check while freshening the breath. NECCO says that 80% of mint sales are to women, the intended audience.

Chewing gum innovation also included seasonal and dessert flavor highlights. Wrigley added a Hot Cocoa flavor to its Hubba Bubba Bubble Gum while Project 7 let consumers Build a Flavor with S’Mores and Key Lime Pie chewing gum flavors. These flavors can be enjoyed alone or mixed to create a third flavor, a new way to customize the chewing gum experience.

Marshmallow candies could emerge as a promising new niche in 2017. Sonoma Brands launched Smashmallow Marshmallows in 2016, the first “snacking” marshmallow with 70 to 90 calories per serving. Sold in seven flavors including Mint Chocolate Chip and Espresso Bean, Smashmallow positions marshmallows as an everyday snack.

Snack innovation was a free-for-all in 2016 as the “everything is a snack” concept gained traction with help from Millennials. A 2016 survey of Americans aged 20-29 by the Private Label Manufacturer’s Association found 49.6% agreeing they had “no set schedule or times for meals.”  The same study found that while 58.2% of Millennials preferred traditional salty snacks for snacking, one-third or more also favored fresh fruit, raw vegetables, cookies, candy, donuts, cheese, yogurt, or cottage cheese – indicating that almost anything can be a “snack.”

New processed snacks doubled in 2016 with an influx of chips based on vegetables, lentils, beans and greens. Forager Project covered all three with Organic Vegetable Chips, the Vegetable variety using ingredients left over from the making the company’s cold pressed juices. Saffron Road’s BeanStalks puffed snack used green peas, cannellini and pinto beans to deliver 4g of plant protein per serving.

Plant-based snacks drew interest from well-known brands in 2016. Frito-Lay launched Simply Tostitos Black Bean Chips along with SunChips Veggie Harvest Veggie & Whole Grain snacks. Both were part of a new push toward premium snacks by Frito-Lay, a sector the company says is growing four times faster than the rest of its snack portfolio.  Kettle Foods rooted around with Kettle Uprooted Real Vegetable Chips in varieties made with sweet potatoes, beets, and parsnips.

Other lesser known vegetables greeted snackers including jicama and lupini beans. Known as the “Mexican potato,” jicama is a fiber- and potassium-rich root vegetable with an apple/potato taste, but with half the calories or carbohydrates of a potato. JicaChips Ancient Root Vegetable Chips extended jicama into chips.  Lupini beans look like oversize lima beans and are common in Latin America and Italy, but unknown in the US. That could change with Brami Snacking Lupini Beans – a shelf-stable snack rich in protein and fiber yet low in fat – in flavors like Sea Salt and Chili Lime.  

Chickpeas are rising in plant-based snacks. Chic-a-Peas Baked Crunchy Chickpeas landed alongside nuts and seeds in stores as a high fiber and protein snack. Chickpeas also powered Hippeas Organic Chickpeas Puffs, a high fiber and protein puffed snack nutritionally superior to the usual puffed snack.

Another new snack ingredient to consider in 2016 was insect protein. Chirps Cricket Chips used cricket flour as an ingredient (along with corn, navy beans, and pea flour) for a chip with four grams of protein per serving. Chiridos Air-Puffed Chips also used cricket flour for a gluten-free chip with 5g of protein per serving.

Potato chip launches dipped in 2016, but new flavors like Sriracha proliferated. Neal Brothers added a Spicy Srirachup Kettle Chips flavor that blended ketchup with Sriracha to manage the heat level. Frito-Lay had “limited time only global flavors” for Lay’s including Brazilian Picanha (steak & chimichurri sauce) and Indian Tikka Masala. A “Passport to Flavor” marketing program offering “miles” and “passport stamps” supported the debut. Wise Foods went local with its Food Truck Favorites Potato Chips based on food truck recipes. The Beef Barbacoa Tacos flavor was

inspired by Boston’s North East of the Border food truck. Gourmet cheese inspired Cape Cod’s Limited Batch Smoked Gouda Kettle Cooked Potato Chips.

Some potato chips went the healthy route. Vegan Rob’s Kettle Chips went vegan in flavors like Spinach & Matcha. This brand also launched Turmeric Chips “supergrain” crispy pumpkin-flavored chips with algal flour as an ingredient. Popchip added a Potato Ridges Popped Chip Snack with “72% less fat and 55% less calories than the leading ridged chip brand.”  Pirate Brands’ showed that fruit chips and potato chips could co-exist with Fruit & Potatarr Crisps, with potato chips and banana chips in the same bag.

Meat snacks went artisan, ethnic, and clean label in 2016, to help extend the category’s win streak. Per GlobalData, meat snacks are the fastest-growing snack category, expected to grow at a 10.5% compound annual growth rate for the period from 2015 to 2020.

Meat District Jerky Co. offered Tri Tip Beef Jerky – a premium cut of meat – in flavors like IPA Peppercorn. Little Red Dog Bak Kwa had a moist jerky recipe popular with street food vendors in Singapore and Malaysia that roast jerky over charcoal, offering it in in flavors like Lemongrass Ginger. Jack Link’s went clean label with Lorissa’s Kitchen in flavors like Premium Steak Strips made with 100% grass-fed beef.

Meat snacks popped up in trail mixes in 2016 with Oberto Trail Mix blending beef jerky with pecans, walnuts, pumpkin and sunflower seeds, dried cranberries, golden raisins and chocolate chunks. Oberto says jerky has about 15% household penetration in the US, well under the 50% household penetration for trail mix. Combining the two could broaden the audience for jerky while making trail mix higher in protein. Trail mix also went in the opposite direction, with Ginger’s Healthy Habits Veggie Trail Mix from raw vegetables (tomatoes, zucchini), nuts and seeds.

Popcorn and pork rinds went artisanal in 2016, while pretzels added heat and meat. Little Kernel Mini Popcorn moved hulless, miniature popcorn kernels into ready-to-eat popcorn in flavors like Truffle Sea Salt. Meanwhile, Pork Clouds Fried Pork Skins encouraged its consumers to pair the snack with a craft brew, offering flavors like Rosemary & Sea Salt. Elsewhere, Snack Factory’s Pretzel Crisps debuted in a Bacon Habanero flavor. The company said that bacon flavored snack sales are up six-fold since 2010.

Sodium has long been an issue for snacks. ConAgra Foods addressed the issue with David Simply Seeds Jumbo Roasted Sunflower Seeds. The Lightly Salted flavor had 80% less sodium than regular sunflower seeds.

Looking ahead, snack makers will want to pay attention to innovators from unexpected places. PRO2snax Produce & Protein Snack offered a “healthy protein” refrigerated snack combining cheese, nuts, fruits, and pretzels in sectioned plastic trays. The manufacturer, Reichel Foods, says that fresh fruit is the fastest-growing snack in the US and that half of consumers are trying to consume more protein. 

New snack ideas are also rising from center-store categories. Hormel Foods added Skippy P.B. Bites in 2016, a puffed snack with a non-sticky peanut butter coating promoted as a healthful way to satisfy after school hunger.  

Originally appeared in the March, 2017 issue of Prepared Foods as See a Need. Fill a Need.

2017 Retail New Products Annual