Despite its size and relative maturity, the snacks market shows strong worldwide growth. This reflects ongoing demand for between-meal snacks both at-home and on the go. New product introduction levels also remain very high. In part, that’s because manufacturers must remain competitive in a relatively concentrated savory and bagged snacks industry. Moreover, these traditional snack processors face an increasingly wide range of other foods and drinks that also are positioned as snacks.

Innova Market Insights finds that snacking has become part of daily life and the US has the world’s largest and most developed snacks market. In fact, US snack product activity and trends appear to influence global markets.

The snacks market, as defined by Innova Market Insights, includes not only traditional savory or salty snacks and snack nuts and seeds, but also products such as fruit snacks, meat snacks and popcorn, as well as finger foods and hors d’oeuvres. The sub-categories where the US is particularly strong on a global scale include not only traditional salty/savory snacks, but also meat snacks and popcorn, as these all are well established. Although the US accounted for 12.3% of global snacks launches overall in 2016, this rose to 13.7% for salty/savory snacks, nearly 16% for meat snacks and 24% for popcorn.

It’s often clear that health is not a key driver in snack purchase and consumption decisions—particularly for impulse lines. Nevertheless, more companies continue to position products on health platforms of various kinds. Meanwhile, salty snack innovation is resulting in growing range of ingredients and flavors used, often in increasingly complex formulations. 

Although potatoes, corn, wheat and soy continue to be key snack food ingredients, there’s a growing range of basic raw materials now appearing as alternatives. These new ingredients not only to add variety, but also contribute a healthier image and/or facilitate gluten free claims. New examples include bread crisps, pita chips, plantain chips, cassava chips and sweet potato chips. There are even more non-traditional ingredients involving different vegetables, fruits, seeds and pulses. 

This trend is clearly illustrated by Inventure Foods and its Boulder Canyon brand. The company ended 2016 with several new-style snack crisps made with vegetables and ancient grains. These introductions included Lentil Carrot Quinoa Crisps, Snap Pea Crisps and Ancient Grains Crisps. All new entries are all non-GMO, baked (not fried) gluten free and trans fat free with zero cholesterol and 130 calories or less per serving.

More recently, there’s been growing interest in fruit-based chips, particularly apple chips, which have experienced double-digit growth rates during the past two years (although from a small base). Seneca Foods Corporation dominates the market but there new entries from Bare Foods Co., Snapz USA Inc., Good Health Natural Products Inc. and other smaller companies. 

With the success of the apple chips market, more options are starting to appear. For its part, Seneca has extended its line beyond an Original variety to now include specific apple varieties, such as Granny Smith and Golden Delicious; as well as flavors, such Caramel and Sour Apple. There has been an associated rise in interest in other fruit chips, such as pear chips.

For the record, Innova Market Insights tracking data show fruit snacks—including apple chips—as a key growth area within the snacking category during the past few years. In fact, fruit snack products have seen their share of launch activity in the snacks space more than double from 8% to nearly 18% globally during the past five years. This growth has been less marked in the US than some parts of the world. However, even US new product introductions rose by more than 150% during the same five-year time period. And fruit snacks’ share of introductions rose from just under 7% to nearly 12% from 2011 to 2016. Today, fruit snacks now represent the third largest snacks sub-category after savory/salty snacks and snack nuts and seeds.

Fruit has traditionally been used as a snack. However, it’s only recently that fruit products—targeted specifically at the snack market—have started to appear. The fruit snacks segment now is more diverse but is led by dried snacking fruit, fruit bars and processed fruit snacks. 

The intrinsically natural and healthy image of fruit has helped to drive the market forward. Innova Market Insights data show 86% of US fruit snacks launches used some kind of health positioning in the 12 months to the end of October 2016. With clean labeling relatively easily achieved, half of the fruit snacks launches recorded used either a natural or no additives/preservatives positioning, rising to nearly 60%, if organic claims also are included. Recent concerns over sugar content in the diet has also resulted in rising use of sugar content claims, including no-added-sugar, low-sugar and sugar-free and one-third of launches carried this type of positioning.

Popcorn and meat snacks are both established markets in the US, despite relatively low launch numbers in comparison with some other product types. Both accounted for just 8.5% of US snacks launches in 2016 but, like salty snacks, had a proportionally high share of global activity and a strong influence on product and market trends and both have focused increasingly on better-for-you options in recent years. 

Popcorn has undergone something of a renaissance, moving on from perceptions of an unhealthy, movie-time junk food to an appealing anytime snack that can also address health benefits. The US has the world’s largest and most developed popcorn market and, despite its maturity, sales continue to grow in both ready-to-eat and microwave lines, driven by high levels of competition. While the popping corn market is unlikely to catch on because of its relative inconvenience to prepare and the need for cleaning up afterwards, microwave popcorn offers fun, convenience and a fresh, hot, homemade product for sharing among family and friends and different age groups. Growth has been further boosted by a recent focus on its clean-label, better-for-you image.

In the meantime, ready-to-eat popcorn has seen strong growth as it can offer a more direct alternative to conventional snacks, both sweet and savory, being suitable for anytime consumption. It can tick the box in terms of health, being natural, low in calories and high in fiber.  Then there are increasingly bold flavors and flavor combinations, including combos with kernels and other, sometimes unusual, ingredients. RTE popcorn also benefits from the rising interest in “free-from” foods, and manufacturers reference gluten-free positionings.

Although the US snack nuts and seeds subcategory is much smaller than the potato chips market, it still is substantial, with sales of more than US$5 billion a year through multiple retailers. It also takes second place in terms of launch activity, with more than a 26% share of total US snacks introductions as recorded by Innova Market Insights in 2016. That figure remains well behind salty snacks at 38% (of total new product introductions) but also is well ahead of third-placed fruit-based snacks, at just under 12%. 

US nut companies have endeavored to market their nut and nut mix products as nutritious, delicious and portable—all suitable for in-home between meals snacking and for anytime, on-the-go consumption. Alternatives to peanuts are increasingly being marketed to drive the snack nuts market forward, led by varieties such as almonds, pistachios and cashews. 

Almonds have performed particularly well, with US consumption rising five-fold in recent years.  According to Innova Market Insights, nearly 22% of global launches of snack nuts and seeds featured almonds as an ingredient in 2016. This rises to more than one-third in the US, up from just over a quarter five years previously. 

The range of snacks featuring almonds also has expanded considerably. Innova Market Insights has seen almonds move beyond traditional plain or natural almonds to salted, smoked and caramelized varieties. There’s a growing range of flavorings, which go from more traditional options such as honey, lemon and ginger to more exotic seasoning such as jalapeno and wasabi. Almonds also feature strongly in mixes, both with other premium-style nuts (such as cashews and pecans) as well as blends of fruits, nuts and seeds. 

Perhaps not surprisingly, these multi-component snack blends now have moved well beyond traditional dried fruit accompaniments such as raisins. Today’s new offerings to include a wide range of single and mixed fruits, particularly berries such as strawberries, blueberries and cranberries, and even more unusual “superfruits” such as goji berries. Likewise, there’s a growing range of ingredient seeds and grains, including ancient grains such as quinoa, chia, amaranth and teff.  Consumers are becoming more aware of these grains’ unique flavors and nutritional properties.

As the snacking phenomenon drives ever onward into daily eating habits—and the definition of snacking has continues to expand—it seems clear that high levels of new product and promotional activity will continue.  

Originally appeared in the April, 2017 issue of Prepared Foods as Snacks 2.0.