Confections and snacks often share usage occasions, but one thing they do not share is rosy growth prospects. While confectionery has struggled, snacks have gained. In 2017, some confectionery giants appeared to recognize that the “grass is greener” in snacks.

Confectionery makers have felt the heat with rising public concern over public health issues such as obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. Government regulation is a looming threat, especially with soft drink taxes proliferating. Confectionery could be next.

This past November saw Mars purchase a minority stake in the maker of Kind snack bars. In December, Hershey announced the purchase of Amplify Snack Brands and its SkinnyPop, Tyrrells, Oatmega, and Paqui brands for $1.6 billion. In June 2017, Nestlé announced plans to sell its US confectionery unit, citing poor growth prospects. Nestlé officials said they expected to wrap up a deal by March 2018.

Meanwhile, Hershey announced that 50% of its standard- and king-sized confections and snacks would have fewer than 200 calories by 2020 (up from 31% that currently meet that goal). This type of thinking influenced 2017’s launches as confectionery makers sorted through health issues.

Seeking to sidestep health concerns, chocolate candy brands continued to move into snacks with hybrid products offering a bit of both. Nestlé offered a Sweet & Salty Snack Mix for its Buncha Crunch, Rasinets, and Butterfinger brands. Hershey Crunchers Cookies ‘N’ Crème Snack did much the same. This hybrid approach also resonated with bakery companies like Tasty Baking, which launched TastyKake Kake Chip, a snack with the crunch of a chip and the sweetness of cake.

Hershey’s Gold Peanuts & Pretzels bar also was a response to health pressures, a carmelized creme bar with a blend of crushed peanuts and pretzels for good measure and contrasting texture. Another response was Nestlé’s new Butterfinger Smokin’ Hot Peanut Butter Cups, a limited edition flavor using spicy flavor to offset sweetness.

Thinner products have invigorated cookies and chips. Blissfully Better Coffee Thins, a small batch candy free of artificial flavors or ingredients and offered in flavors like Toffee Crunchy Quinoa, took a similar approach for chocolate. Godiva Masterpieces Milk Chocolate also rang the bell for measured indulgence with individually wrapped mini-chocolates “perfect to enjoy anytime.”

Dark chocolate is viewed by many as more healthful than milk chocolate, inspiring mass-market brands to “go dark.” Mars’ Twix Dark Chocolate Cookie Bar and Nestlé’s Dark Chocolate Nestlé Crunch Bar followed suit. 

Coffee (including trendy cold brew coffee) inspired innovation in 2017. Trader Joe’s Cold Brew Coffee Chocolate Bar and Wild Ophelia American Crafted Chocolate Cold Brew Coffee Bites showed how. Nestlé Skinny Cow Divines Incredibly Indulgent Coffee Filled Chocolate Candy and Kafe Premium Coffee Candy also did so.

In more of an indulgent direction, dessert and bakery flavors flourished in 2017. Hershey’s limited edition Flavor of America Chocolate Candy Bar line included a New York Cherry Cheesecake bar while Hershey’s Kisses added a White Chocolate Cupcake flavor. M&M’s Chocolate Candies added a Vanilla Cupcake flavor while Hershey’s Kit Kat had Red Velvet Miniatures for Valentine’s Day.

Sensory innovation uplifted sugar confectionery and chewing gum. Crunch was a top theme. Hershey’s Jolly Rancher Triple Pop Lollipop included a “chewy watermelon outside layer, a hard-candy blue raspberry middle layer and a sour green apple powder center,” stacking different sensory elements. 

Mondelez’s Stride Sugar Free Gum Charged with Crunch Reactors in a new Lemonberry flavor added crunch to chewing gum. A flavorful gel filling gave Trolli Sour Brite Blasts Juicy Exploding Cubes Gummi Candy a new way to entertain adventurous consumers. 

Functional candies remain a niche market, but one offering future innovation paths. Energon Qube Power Up Performance Gummies are to be consumed before or during workouts to enhance performance. Zellie’s Naturally Sugar Free Gum and Thrive Lollipops are both sweetened with xylitol, a sweetener said to help improve oral health, fighting the perception that candy harms teeth. 

Mars Wrigley relaunched its Alert Caffeine Gum roughly four years after FDA pushback shelved a planned rollout, targeting the growing energy-enhancement opportunity. 

Bravura Foods' Sugar Free Candy
The U.K.'s Bravura Foods, London, targets full taste with no sugar. New line also touts "free-from" attributes.

The clean label trend made waves in candy and gum. Mondelez’s Purely Trident went clean label, a sugar free chewing gum made with natural flavors and no artificial colors or flavors. Smashmallow created a new candy niche with Smash Mallow Snackable Marshmallows, gourmet marshmallows made with organic cane sugar and simple ingredients in flavors like Root Beer Float.

Candy flavor innovation is often seasonal, with emphasis on holidays during the spring and winter months. Summer is overlooked. That was addressed with Starburst Summer Splash Fruit Chews, Tic Tac Pina Colada Flavored Mints, and Bubble Fresh Cotton Candy flavored Mentos Sugarfree Gum.


Snack Attack

The snack categories saw a torrent of innovation in 2017, with renewed focus on healthful snacking, even in categories not known for it.

Frito-Lay made potato chips more healthful with Lay’s Poppables Potato Snacks, a light, airy, multi-dimensional, bite-sized snack replacement for potato chips. Cape Cod Thins Potato Chips went with a thinner chip, another way to reduce guilt.

The snack categories saw a torrent of innovation in 2017, with renewed focus on healthful snacking, even in categories not known for it.

Crunchy texture as a way to shake things up also popped up elsewhere, like snack nuts. Toward the end of 2017, Frito-Lay launched Doritos Crunch Nuts Snacks, a snack nut coated with cheese or ranch flavors.

Other ways to make chips “better for you” included using healthful vegetable ingredients. SunChips Sweet Potato Whole Grain Chips and Sun Chips Veggie Harvest Veggie & Whole Grain Snacks were on-board. One odd new vegetable-based chip was Farmhouse Culture Probiotic Kraut Krisps which are literally made with sauerkraut (and claim to have one billion probiotic cultures per serving), yet are shaped like tortilla chips. 

Cassava emerged as a challenger to white potatoes as a chip ingredient in 2017. Cassava, also called yuca, is a gluten-free root vegetable that is rich in complex carbohydrates. Plant Snacks Cassava Crunch Yuca Root Chips and Nova Crisp Cassava Chips sung the praises of cassava. So did Wai Lana Turmeric Cheese Cassava Chips, a launch alluding to the emergence of yet another healthful snack ingredient: turmeric.

An ancient superfood often used in Ayurvedic medicine, turmeric is rising in food and drink. R.W. Garcia Lentil & Turmeric Tortilla Chips was the first tortilla chip to use the ingredient, and may not be the last. According to a GlobalData Q1 2017 survey, 50% of Americans believe turmeric has a positive impact on health, just ahead of 49% that say the same about chia.

Kettle Brand Potato Chips with Almond Oil

Appealing with bold flavors and alternative oils.

Other iconic health ingredients making waves in chips were coconut and avocado. Real Coconut Company launched Coconut Flour Tortilla Chips, a “subtle” coconut chip with an “assertive” salt flavor. Avocado oil caught on with Boulder Canyon Authentic Foods Avocado Oil Canyon Cut Kettle Cooked Potato Chips providing evidence. 

Avocado is naturally high in fat, and its trendiness demonstrates that attitudes toward fat have become more positive, opening the door to innovation. Ghee, a type of clarified butter naturally high in saturated fat, made its debut in the popcorn category in 2017 with Lesser Evil Buddha Bowl Foods Oh My Ghee! Organic Popcorn. 

Continued interest in protein drove snack innovation with more than 20% of 2017’s new savory snacks boasting elevated protein contents, up from 16% in 2016, per GlobalData’s Product Launch Analytics. Puffed snacks and popcorn were newcomers to high-protein snacking. Supereats High Protein Puffs promise 8g of protein per serving while Calbee Harvest Snaps Habanero Flavored Black Bean Crisps promise 4g of protein per serving. IPS Pop Popcorn delivers 5g of protein per 1oz serving. 

SuperEats High Protein Puffs
Continued interest in protein drove snack innovation with over 20% of 2017's new savory snacks boasting elevated protein contents, up from 16% in 2016, per GlobalData's Product Launch Analytics.

Cheese also cashed in on the high-protein trend with cheese-based chips. Kitchen Table Bakers ParmCrisps Oven Baked Parmesan Crisps touted their high protein, zero carbohydrate content. Cheese is also rising to complement Oscar Mayer P3-type meat snacks. Sargento Foods launched Sargento Sweet Balanced Breaks Snack Combo, a chilled snack combining cheese with chocolate, dried fruit, and nuts.

Chickpeas came on strong in 2017, capitalizing on the love of plant-based protein. Hippeas Organic Chickpea Puffs took chickpeas into puffed snacks while snack nuts saw launches like Biena Chickpea Snacks. Frito-Lay even joined in, though surreptitiously through its new Off the Eaten Path brand from “Rare Fare Foods.” It launched chickpea-based Hummus Crisps in flavors like Garlic Tomato & Basil.

Plant-based snack innovation brought other novelties in 2017. Good Bean Crispy Favas + Peas position fava beans as a new high protein snack. Vegan Rob’s Moringa Puffs were the first puffed snack to use moringa—a tropical bush leaf loaded with vitamins, minerals, enzymes, and more—as an ingredient. Vedic Brands Lily Puffs Vegan Cheddar Puffed Snack was the first puffed snack made from the seeds of a type of water lily common in Asia. 

Meat snacks continued their run with innovations intended to bring new consumers to the market. Jack Link’s A.M. Dried Breakfast Sausage Snack can be eaten as a snack or heated and enjoyed as a hot breakfast for busy consumers. The company estimates that 60% of its sales have been incremental to the meat snack category. 

MeatCrafters Skinny Salamis Artisanal Meat Snacks went after those interested in a higher-end snack. Varieties like Pork Mini Salamis with Truffles and Street Cart Shawarma Lamb Mini Salamis took meat snacks upscale. Craft beer did the same for popcorn with Beer Kissed Caramel Popcorn in varieties like Thyme Rosemary IPA.

Clean label was an innovation influencer, even for big brands. Kraft Foods’ Planters brand launched “pure and simple” Raw Almonds and Cashews snack nuts. Angie’s Boomchickapop (purchased by Conagra for a jaw-dropping $250 million in 2017) added Real Butter Popcorn in flavors like Buttery Caramel, all touting simple ingredients and “nothing fake.”

Bold flavor was arguably the flavor trend in snacks in 2017.  Pringles Loud Corn Crisps were on trend with flavors like Fiery Chili Lime. Frito-Lay’s Doritos Heat Wave Tortilla Chips brought the heat with flavors promising changing flavor through the snacking experience. The Chipotle Cream flavor “start(s) out cool and tangy and then wind(s) up fiery hot.” 

One trend to watch in 2018 is the use of Mexican spice brands in snacks. Pop! Gourmet Kettle Cooked Potato Chips with Tajin Seasoning uses a brand of seasoning familiar to Mexican consumers (and one now gaining shelf space in US supermarkets), a possible sign of things to come. 

Originally appeared in the March, 2018 issue of Prepared Foods as Sweet and Tart.