The COVID-19 pandemic has been a disaster for so many industries, but snack food products actually prospered during the chaos that defined 2020.

According to Mondelez International’s annual “State of Snacking” report, 46% of global adults said they are snacking more during the pandemic than before. Only 12% of consumers in the 12-country survey (including the US said they were snacking less.

Sales results underscored this penchant for snacking. An October 2020 earnings report from PepsiCo noted double-digit growth for its Tostitos tortilla chips, high-single digit growth for its Cheetos cheese puffs and mid, single-digit growth for its Doritos and Ruffles tortilla chip and potato chip brands, respectively.

But stout sales numbers did not necessarily translate into robust new product launch numbers. Snack makers shifted their collective focus from new products to established brands. Worries over supply chain issues of ingredients, packaging, and more resulted in sizeable declines in new product introductions.

According to the Innova Database, US launches of snacks were down just more than 15% during the first 11 months of 2020 compared to the same period in 2019. 


Chipping Away

Potato chip flavor innovation was strong in 2020 despite the overall numbers. Lay’s Flavor Icons included potato chip flavors inspired by top regional restaurants including Philly Cheesesteak inspired by Geno’s Steaks in Philadelphia. Fried green tomatoes also scored on the regional flavor front as the inspiration for Lay’s Wavy Fried Green Tomato Potato Chips.

Hot and spicy flavors were definitely on-trend in 2020, and the Pringles brand paid homage to the trend with a trio of Scorchin’ flavors including Chili and Lime-Flavored Potato Crisps. The Lay’s brand added Chile Limon flavored potato chips early in 2020. Hotter flavors also worked for pretzels where Frito-Lay added Rold Gold Recipe Number 4 Zesty Buffalo Flavored Pretzel Twists.

Whole Foods’ 365 brand had one of the year’s more unique potato chip flavors: Pastrami on Rye, a unique limited edition offering. Also going the limited edition route was the Pringles brand with Sweet Corn flavored potato crisps.

Chips and other snacks jumped on the upcycling bandwagon in 2020. ReGrained, Berkeley, Calif., is known for its namesake bar and SuperGrain+ spent brewers grain ingredient. The company hoped to use 2020 Natural Products Expo West to launch a new four-item line of ReGrained Puffs. Although the conference was cancelled, ReGrained launched its new puffs in four flavors: Mexican Street Corn, Texas Pit BBQ, Aged Sharp Cheddar, Smoked Sea Salt and Cracked Pepper, and Urban Garden. Last June also saw Barnana, Santa Monica, Calif., introduce two flavors of Plantain Tortilla Chips (Himalayan Pink Salt, Lime & Sea Salt), which feature banana waste ingredients.

This February also saw snack maker LesserEvil Healthy Brands, LLC, Danbury, Conn., expand into the children’s segment with LesserEvil Lil’ Puffs for toddlers 12 months and older. Ingredients include upcycled watermelon and pumpkin seeds. Four flavors are Veggie Blend, Sweet Potato Apple, Non-Dairy Cheddar, and Strawberry Beet.

"According to the Innova Database, launches of grain-free snacks have increased more than four times since 2017."

Chips (and other types of snacks) also doubled down on grain-free formulations in 2020. According to the Innova Database, launches of grain-free snacks have increased more than four times since 2017. Campbell Soup’s Late July Snacks No Grain Tortilla Chips are on trend and are “made with tigernut flour” in what may be a first for a tortilla chip. VSB Opco, LLC, Pasadena, Calif., also took its PopChips brand grain free with a Cajun Honey flavored chip.

The chip format was a winner for meat snacks in 2020. General Mills’ Epic brand added Chicken Crisps, said to be a “carb-conscious alternative to crackers.” Wilde Brands Inc., Boulder, Colo., is a brand that helped pioneer the format and it debuted Chicken and Waffle flavored “chips” from 100% natural chicken breast and tapioca flour. Last year also saw Kalahari Snacks, Cambridge, Mass., introduce Kalahari Crisps Air Dried Beef Chips, which took the biltong concept into chips.

The real story in meat snacks in 2020 was a huge jump in plant-based meat snacks. Launches nearly doubled from 2019 to 2020 (the first 11 months of the year) and launches of plant-based meat snacks are up 10 times from 2018, from a very small base.

Last January saw The Hershey Company introduce Krave Plant-Based Jerky in flavors such as Korean BBQ. Conagra Brand also went this route as did Gardein Ultimate Plant-Based Jerky in three flavors. Interestingly enough last year saw Hershey sell the Krave brand back to its founder Jon Sebastiani, and his Sonoma Brands business. Soon afterward, Sonoma purchased Chef’s Cut Real Jerky Co., a premium brand.

The most unusual plant-based “meat snack” probably came from Beanfield PBC and its Vegan Cracklins in a unique Mexican Hot Cocoa flavor. Cracklins is made from Navy beans, cassava flour, and chickpea protein. Meat snack standard-bearer Slim Jim (Conagra Brands) also went plant-based with its Slim Jim Fire Fries Buffalo Style Flavored Potato Snacks. “No Meat, Just Fries” appears prominently on each bag.

Other meat snack launches doubled-down on meat. Country Archer Provisions Grass Fed Beef Jerky with Classic Flavor focused on a “Zero Sugar” formulation while Kroger upgraded the meat snack concept with its Private Selection Korean Inspired Pork Belly Bites made from smoked and cured pork belly. Moving to January 2021, Slim Jim revitalized the core franchise with help from SONIC drive-in restaurant with new SONIC Chili Cheese Coney flavored Slim Jim.

Puffed snacks showed enthusiasm for plant-based ingredients. Earthly Treats Inc. says its Real Food From The Ground Up Butternut Squash Stalks are made “with real butternut squash.” Snikiddy Organic Mac N Cheese Baked Puffs (Utz Brands Inc.) are more conventional and target lovers of that ultimate comfort food – macaroni and cheese. 

Meanwhile, Sweet potato was the signature ingredient for Sweet Potato Puffs in a Vegan Buffalo Ranch flavor from Spudsy, Costa Mesa, Calif. Interestingly, Spudsy won PepsiCo’s second annual North America Greenhouse program award. Its sweet potato puff snacks are certified non-GMO, vegan and gluten free. PepsiCo noted that Spudsy’s “Save the Spud” mission helps reduce food waste by upcycling imperfect sweet potatoes to create its sweet potato flour. Spudsy was on track to save approximately 1 million sweet potatoes by 2021.


Popcorn, Nuts, Seeds & Fruit

Popcorn innovation in 2020 was muted with launches down by around 19% when comparing the first 11 months of 2020 with the same period in 2019. Even so, flavor innovation took the category in some interesting new flavor directions.

Two PepsiCo units—Frito-Lay and Quaker Oats—partnered last spring to introduce Smartfood Cap’n Crunch’s Crunch Berries Popcorn Mix. It combined air-popped, berry-flavored popcorn with real Cap'n Crunch's crunch berries. Smartfood also added Snickerdoodle flavored popcorn late in 2020.

In January 2021, Smartfood revealed what may be its most indulgent line extension yet: Smartfood Krispy Kreme Original Glazed Doughnut Popcorn, just the ticket for fans of sugary Krispy Kreme doughnuts. For its part, Frito-Lay was on a hot streak with its Flamin’ Hot flavor joining the Cheetos Popcorn lineup. And in January 2021, Frito-Lay extended Cheetos Popcorn into snack mixes with its Crunch Pop Mix, which paired Cheetos Crunchy snack with Cheetos Popcorn.

Conagra Brands also was busy across several brands. Its popcorn launches included Angie's BOOMCHICKAPOP Salted Maple Flavored Kettle Corn Popcorn, ACT II Llama Party Cotton Candy Flavored Microwave Popcorn and Orville Redenbacher's Avocado Oil Microwave Popcorn.

Snack nut and seed launches declined by nearly 22% through the first 11 months of 2020 compared to the same period in 2019. Even so, the year had several highlights. Kraft-Heinz partnered with Anheuser Busch to develop Planters and Natural Light Beer Flavored Peanuts. Diamond Foods introduced a Diamond of California Snack Walnuts line with eight varieties: Hot Honey, Himalayan Pink Salt, Teriyaki & Wasabi, Salted Dark Chocolate, Hickory Smoked Bacon, Chile Lime, Cinnamon Churro, and Sweet Maple (unique to Walmart flavor). Diane’s Kitchen LLC, Troy, Mich., also introduced Daily Crunch Coffee-Soaked Sprouted Almonds.

Fruit and nut blends included a trio of clever launches. Kraft-Heinz introduced Planters Breakfast Blends Cinnamon Roll, which combined peanuts, almonds, blueberries, and cinnamon bun cookies to focus on the breakfast opportunity. Ocean Spray Cranberries Inc. ended 2020 as it broke out of the beverage aisle and introduced Ocean Spray Craveology Snack Mix in three varieties: Spicy Coconut Curry, Vanilla Chai and Tuscan Herb. The mixes include blends of walnuts, pecans, roasted peanuts, roasted pumpkin seeds, and roasted almonds, as well as cranberries. Last year also saw KIND Healthy Snacks break away from bars to introduce KIND Nut & Seed Clusters and KIND Nut & Fruit Clusters.

Seed and fruit snack highlights included Conagra’s BIGS Takis Fuego Sunflower Seeds in Hot Chili Lime Flavor and DAVID Roasted and Salted Bacon Mac & Cheese Jumbo Sunflower Seeds. Leaning more toward health was Mariani Packing Company, Vacaville, Calif., which introduced 1.4oz single-serve packages of Mariani Family Probiotic Apricots and Probiotic Prunes. Separately, Safe Food Corp., Edgewater, N.J., introduced Sunny Fruit Prebiotic Added Organic Dried Figs, which leveraged both probiotic and prebiotic ingredients.