Each fall, Innova Market Insight releases its Top 10 Trends for the coming year. Then the anticipation and excitement begin as we link those top trends to topics we write and speak about—including snacking.

Two of our 2023 trends are particularly relevant to snacking and snack foods. In “Revenge Spending,” we examine consumers’ reaction to various factors that restricted their behaviors in 2022 and may have impact in 2023. Those issues include threats to health such as the enduring COVID-19 pandemic, flu, respiratory viruses, fear of new illnesses. There’s also discomfort about economic pressures. We predict consumers will splurge in small ways on affordable pleasures such as snacks that bring a high level of enjoyment for their low price. Indeed, food and beverage launches that generate excitement with their “limited edition” claim show 30% average annual growth during the past three years.

The second relevant trend pertains to plant-based foods and beverages. This year, we highlight how technology and underused ingredients will shape the trend “Plant-Based: Unlocking a New Narrative." Innovation in plant-based in general and snacks in particular can support continued growth in products that incorporate new types of ingredients.

Blue Stripes Whole Cacao Superfood Trail Mix
Blue Stripes says it is “using the miraculous natural powers that are in the whole cacao—shell, fruit & beans—to maximize its superfood benefits and promote holistic wellness: a physical, mental and emotional balance.” Photo courtesy of Blue Stripes LLC

But first, let’s look at today’s consumer.

Snacking consumers balance enjoyment with health

In 2022, Innova surveyed consumers from 11 countries (including the US and Canada) and asked about their snacking attitudes and behaviors. Snacking brings happiness—so we were not surprised when one-third of US consumers said they bought nostalgic snack products and brands to lift their mood. Another one-quarter said they purchased more indulgent snacks during the past 12 months. The COVID-19 pandemic certainly contributed to stress in 2020 and 2021 and snacking offers some relief, particularly for at-home workers. Perhaps not surprisingly, one-third of US consumers admitted that they did not pay attention or worry about how much they were snacking.

Innova Market Insights also learned more about the “what and when” of snacking behavior. Consumers snack most in the evening, followed by afternoon and then late at night. Additionally, about four in 10 consumers snack when traveling or otherwise on the go. Salty snacks are the top snack consumed and this is no surprise considering choices at grab-and-go locations such as convenience stores and mini-marts. Other popular snacks contain fruits and vegetables or nuts and seeds. When we asked consumers specifically about healthy snacks they named vegetables and fruits first, followed by nuts and seeds, and then yogurt. The top overall influencers of snack choice are flavor, price and convenience.

We are encouraged that consumers appear to be more “mindful” snackers. More than one-third said they consumed snacks with added health benefits and immunity-boosting claims; and at least one-quarter increased snacks with free-from or plant-based claims.

Melissa's Hatch Pepper Kettle Corn
Meet a New Heat: Hatch chilies on Innova Market Insights’ “watch list” for growing appeal. Photo courtesy of Melissa’s / World Variety Produce, Inc

In particular, consumers prioritize health and nutritious ingredients for a morning snack since that product may replace a normal breakfast. In the evening, however, indulgence overshadows health. Weight management and healthier lifestyle are consumers’ top stated reasons for choosing healthy snacks. Other responses, in order, were “to feel better emotionally and physically,” and to “prevent chronic diseases such as obesity and diabetes.”

When it comes to claims, healthy snack shoppers said they looked at protein content—where more is better. In contrast, when it comes to sugar, claims of “low,” “less,” or “no sugar” are most appealing. Growth and advances in the production and use of stevia, for example, demonstrate how plant-based innovation can impact a food category such as snacks. Consumers also express a willingness to replace current salty and savory snacks with healthier versions of the same snack. Innova Market Insights would encourage manufacturers to look for opportunities to reformulate nostalgic and familiar snack foods with better-for-you and good-for-you features. This could be a way to capture those consumers who seeking better health without having to modify their snacking behaviors.

Snack launches span categories, flavors, and health claims

In North America, snack foods represent a number of subcategories. One in five launches between January 2021 and June 2022 was a product with nuts and seeds, while one in eight was a finger food/hors d’oeuvre or potato-based snack. Other subcategories include meat snacks, snack mixes, and fruit-based snacks. Considering our 2023 trend around plant-based innovation, we are not surprised to see snack launches with ingredients such as upcycled cocoa pods.

Consumer responses to questions in our 2022 Innova Flavor Survey can help guide manufacturers who are looking to broaden the flavor profile of their snack launches. One-third of consumers surveyed each named “healthy” flavors or intense and bold flavors as desirable in savory snacks. Pepper, cheese, and barbecue flavors are popular globally; while US consumers expressed the greatest interest in the emerging flavors of mozzarella cheese, chicken, and spices.

Siete Tortilla Chips
‘Tis the Seasoning! “For the seasoning blend, we spent hours in the kitchen getting the ratios just right and the final product is the perfect mixture of tangy, spicy, and cheesy,” says Siete. “Smoked serrano and roasted garlic underlie the sophisticated savory flavor that provides the chips with an addictive depth.” Photo courtesy of Siete Family Foods

Diving deeper into the world of flavors, it’s quickly clear that snacks range from familiar to emerging. Manufacturers continue to season new snack products with generic flavors such as spices and pepper. Garlic and coconut also have grown in use thanks to innovation in products with Mediterranean and Asian inspirations. North American products deviate somewhat from these global trends. Barbecue is the number one flavor in North America, while it ranks only fourth globally. Similarly, sea salt, Cheddar cheese, honey, and lime are more important flavors in North America than elsewhere.

Honey is popular in snack nuts, while lime often is used to offset the strength of chili flavors while adding a touch of cultural authenticity. Popcorn remains strong and highlights butter and white Cheddar cheese flavors. Dark chocolate and peanut butter flavors continue to expand in snacks, and the importance of milk chocolate, dark chocolate, cinnamon, and peanut butter indicates growing overlap of sweet and salty tastes. However, despite continuing strength in sweet and salty combinations, sweet and salty as a distinct flavor has dropped out of the top 20. Snack flavors on our watch list because of their strong growth from a smaller base include Hatch chili, cocoa, and Mexican taco.

Gimme Health Foods Roasted Seaweed
“Add a boost of nutrients when crumbled into classic dishes like soup, salad, and even popcorn. Or as a snack all on their own when you cut into fun shapes to share with friends.” Photo courtesy of Gimme Health Foods Inc.

We are interested in health claim trends with new snack food launches. Snack product launches in 2022 show that “GMO-free,” “halal,” and “natural” are among the fastest growing claims globally. In North America, “sugar-free” claims also are becoming more prevalent. On healthy snacks, “gluten-free” claims remain dominant, along with “grain-free,” which takes gluten-free to the next level by eliminating all grains. High/source of protein, and “no-added sugar” claims also appear on new snack food launches. Other health-related claims on healthy snacks include “organic” and high/source of fiber. Despite growth in certain health claims, the percentage of snacks with at least one health-related positioning is down after reaching a high in 2018.

What’s next?

Innova Market Insights believes new product development in the snack category will continue at a brisk and exciting pace. We expect the better-for-you snack segment to improve nutritional profiles as processors further reduce sugar and cut highly processed grains. We also see opportunities to expand high-protein snack options and combine better-for-you attributes with exciting textures and flavors that maintain an indulgent appeal. That said, manufacturers need to remember that consumers want affordable pleasures.

Watch for snacks to incorporate additional functional benefits for digestive health, immune health and energy (especially in morning snacks). As in other food and beverage categories, we expect snacks to experiment with even more new textures and flavors to attract consumer interest. Meanwhile, a large portion of indulgent snacking is driven by familiar or nostalgic flavors, and this can be leveraged in product development. Lastly, snack makers also may enhance already familiar snack offerings with more “passive” health benefits (e.g., added vitamins, fiber or other ingredients for energy).

Snacking trends that we identified last year also are worth watching in 2023. Healthy snacking is being reshaped by consumers moving toward conscious indulgence of snacks that are flavorful and natural. Protein continues to be a priority for overall health and to achieve fitness goals. Consumers also are expecting greater levels of sustainability involving packaging, ingredients, and manufacturing processes. Overall, despite a shift toward healthier snack choices, consumers still turn to snacks as indulgent treats that bring happiness.

This article originally ran in Prepared Foods' January 2023 issue as "The Pause That Refreshes."