Just like there two sides to flavor—sweet and savory—you could say there are two sides to the story of snacks and confections. There’s good news and bad.

For manufacturers, it’s good that one-third of American consumers say they have snacked more often during the past 12 months according to Innova Market Insights’ 2021 Lifestyle & Attitudes Survey. That’s in contrast to the 24% who said they snacked less.

Not surprisingly, more consumers are working from home and that’s a key driver to snack consumption. Among Americans who say they have worked at home during the past 12 months, 40% say they have snacked more often.

On the other hand, effects of the COVID-19 pandemic appear to have had an adverse effect on manufacturers. Despite rising demand, Innova Database research shows launches of new snacks in the USA dipped 11.8% from January to November 2021 versus the same period in 2020. Confectionery launches rose just under 1% during the same time.

These lagging new production introduction figures most certainly could be traced to the COVID-19 pandemic and related supply chain disruptions impacting everything from ingredients to packaging materials.

Snack Solutions
The top subcategory for snack innovation – snack nuts and seeds – saw launches decline 0.8% through November 2021. The next two most prolific snack categories also saw declines—with meat snacks launches down 3.4% and potato-based snacks off 5.6%.

Two bright spots were snack mixes, up 14.1%; and popcorn, which gained 6.3% through November 2021.

Increased levels of “working from home” are perhaps prompting American snack consumers to seek more novelty. Innova finds that about one-third of Americans associate working from home more during the pandemic with increased flavor adventurousness.

This has been good news for snacks with bolder profiles including tangy or spicy flavors. Without a doubt one category leader is Frito-Lay North America. This Plano, Texas-based company (a unit of PepsiCo) has been quite active throughout the past 12 months. Last April brought the launch of Doritos Xxtra Flamin' Hot Nacho chips, followed by Doritos Tangy Pickle and Tangy Ranch Tortilla Chips in August. Frito-Lay closed last year with Doritos Twisted Lime in December. Since then, it’s already come back with new Doritos Flamin' Hot Cool Ranch chips and Ruffles Flamin' Hot Cheddar & Sour Cream Flavored Potato Chips.

Other fun new offerings included a Hatch Chile Salted Kettle Corn from Sauce Goddess Gourmet LLC, San Diego. Blue Diamond Growers, Sacramento, Calif., introduced Blue Diamond XTREMES almonds in three flavors: Cayenne Pepper (Hot), Ghost Pepper (Hotter) and Carolina Reaper (Hottest). Another interesting new item was Nashville Hot Seasoned Chicken Protein Chips from Wilde Brands Boulder, Colo. It illustrates the trend of Nashville Hot Chicken as a flavor to continue to watch in 2022.

Comfort flavors also won for snacks in 2021. Last year saw SmartFoods Inc. (PepsiCo) rollout its namesake popcorn in several flavors including Cinnamon Sugar Cupcake, Cinnamon Sugar Doughnut, and Glazed Donut (co-branded with Krispy Kreme). For its part, General Mills introduced Cinnamon Toast Crunch Popcorn and a Cocoa Puffs Popcorn with Cocoa Glaze. Elsewhere, The Hershey Company introduced Reese’s Popcorn drizzled with chocolate and peanut butter.

Sweeter flavors inspired by breakfast cereals worked for breakfast cereal makers eyeing a piece of the snack pie. Fall 2020 saw General Mills introduce a Remix line of snacking mixes with its top-selling cereals including Cinnamon Toast Crunch and Golden Grahams. Post Consumer Brands, Lakeville, Minn., introduced Post’s Fruity Pebbles and Cocoa Pebbles Crisps. The company came back this January with two more snacks: Pebbles Shake Ups! Cocoa Explosion and Pebbles Shake Ups! Sweet & Salty. Both combine Pebbles “boulders” with other Post cereals and additional mix-ins.

Flavor mash-ups helped make 2021 interesting. Frito-Lay contributed with its Lay’s Limited Time Flavor Doritos Cool Ranch Flavored Potato Chips. Taco Dippers, LLC, Warwick, R.I., introduced Dean Street Rice and Beans Taco Chips. Sonoma Creamery LLC, Sonoma, Calif., also extended its Cheese Crisps line with a Pork Rind variety for pork rind aficionados.

Disrupters included snack bar brands such as Clif Bar & Company, which developed Clif Pop’n Crunch Snack Clusters.

Texture also took an interesting twist. When they weren’t focused on hot and spicy ingredients, Frito-Lay product developers found time work on a new texture experience. This January saw the company introduce Lay’s Layers multi-dimensional chips in two flavors: Three Cheese and Sour Cream & Onion.

Immune health was a hot topic early in the pandemic—and has remained. Last spring saw Ocean Spray Cranberries Inc., Middleboro, Mass., introduced a Fruit Medley line with an Immunity Blend (in addition to Probiotic and Fiber blends). Cibo Vita, Totowa, N.J., also launched Nature’s Garden Probiotic Immune Booster and a Probiotic Mega Immune Mix

Confections = Comfort
Consumers certainly have developed new coping strategies to manage stress and relieve tension during the pandemic. One “go-to” method has meant indulging a sweet tooth.

“Treating” behavior drove up chocolate launches in the USA in 2021 with chocolate bars or blocks growing by nearly 20% from January to November 2021 versus the same period in 2020. Interestingly, however, introductions of new chocolate pieces—either wrapped or unwrapped—were both down.

New product introductions involving “other sugar confectionery” products and “gummies/jellies” increased respectively by 6.8% and 12.1%. Mints and gum showed also resilience with new mint introductions up 10.5% and new gums increasing by 5.8% in year-over-year comparisons.

Gummies saw lots of big brand innovation. Making their 2021 debuts were Jolly Rancher Sours Gummies (Hershey), Nerds Gummy Clusters (Ferrara), Skittles Original Gummies (Mars Wrigley) and Fruit-tella Soft Gummies (Perfetti Van Melle). One interesting new gummy collaboration involved Hard Seltzer Beverage Company LLC, Boston (Boston Beer Company) and Sugarfina USA LLC, El Segundo, Calif. They developed a line of non-alcoholic Truly Hard Seltzer Sugarfina Gummy Bears.

Last fall also Mars Wrigley officially launch STARBURST Airs “aerated gummies,” billed as a light and airy new version. They’re available in Original and Tropical Sour packs and were expected to reach nationwide distribution this year.

Bakery flavors powered candy bar innovation in 2021. Mars Incorporated introduced a Snickers Cinnamon Bun Bar and a Snickers Almond Brownie Bar. Chuao Chocolatier, Carlsbad, Calif., added a Carrot Cake White Chocolate Bar. Hershey joined joined in with a Kit Kat Limited Edition Key Lime Pie bar and Gingerbread Cookie flavored miniatures.

Speaking of Kit Kat, the brand greeted 2022 with Kit Kat Duos Strawberry and Dark Chocolate bar and Kit Kat Thins in a Chocolate Hazelnut flavor.

One trend to watch in 2022 involves new “vegan” or “plant-based” chocolate bars. Last fall saw Hershey start test sales of Hershey’s Oat Made plant-based chocolate bars. Vgan Chocolates, Des Plaines, Ill., offers its own organic line including varieties such as Almonds & Salty Caramel and Grapefruit & Chia. Canada’s Mid-Day Squares, Lachine, QC, also offers a line of plant-based functional chocolate bars.

New textures stirred up chocolate in 2021. Hershey introduced Reese’s Big Cup with Pretzels and Reese’s Potato Chips Big Cup—all to add crunch with salty flavor at the same time.

Chewing gum went in new directions. Mondelez International launched Trident Fresh Sugar Free Gum Peppermint Infusion with Herbal Accents, which features a green infusion center in this white pellet gum. A second variety is Trident Spearmint Cool with Cucumber Accents.

Mazee LLC, Newark, N.J., notes that its all-natural Glee Natural Chewing Gum is “plastic free,” alluding to the use of chicle as a clean-label, non-plastic ingredient. It’s one of a growing number of chewing gum brands (primarily outside of the U.S.) that say they are “plastic free.”

Zero sugar confections could be a new direction for 2022. One high-profile example involves Twizzlers Zero Sugar Licorice from The Hershey Company.

Tom Vierhile is vice president, Strategic Insights, North America for the Netherlands-based Innova Market Insights. He has more than 20 years of experience in new consumer packaged goods reporting and analysis. Tom holds a bachelor’s degree in marketing from St. Bonaventure University and an MBA from the State University of New York at Buffalo.  Follow him on Twitter at @TomVierhile.