Snacking Comes Clean

November 20, 2015

Snack makers respond to consumer demands with more healthful items, 'cleaner' labels

Today’s consumers are not only gravitating toward better-for-you snack options, but they are also rethinking what it means to eat a healthful snack.

Clean and Healthy Snacking

Snacks that are minimally processed, with fewer additives — so-called “clean label” products — often fall within the modern definition of “healthy,” for example, even if their overall nutritional content is similar to their more heavily processed counterparts. Of course, great taste remains a “given” in the snack category. Snacks that fail to reward the palate won’t sell, no matter how nutritious. When it comes to choosing a snack, taste remains the most important criteria.

“There are several reasons why consumers are seeking healthful snacks today,” says Laurie Demeritt, chief executive of research firm The Hartman Group in Bellevue, Wash. “First and foremost would be the belief that quality foods and beverages are the basis of a healthy lifestyle. Thus, snacks that are fresh and less processed, or viewed as ‘real’ and made up of as few ingredients as possible would be a basic building block of health and wellness lifestyles.”

A recent report from IBISWorld projected that as consumers demand healthier versions of existing snacks, manufacturers will respond with products that meet their needs. The report noted that the U.S. snacking industry has grown 4.3 percent annually from 2010 through 2015, and is poised to continue to expand, buoyed by the improving economy.

Snack foods also ride the ebb and flow of consumer interest in other food attributes around health and nutrition. Gluten-free foods surged to the forefront of the collective consciousness in recent years, as have foods made with whole grains.

Demeritt of The Hartman Group says manufacturers appear to be adapting to changing consumer demands, including introducing new ethnic offerings that consumers often perceive as being more healthful because of their relatively “clean” ingredient profiles.

“Manufacturers, especially emerging food and beverage brands, are playing to consumers’ changing tastes, enabling them to try new flavors and ingredients that are a break from the past,” she says. “So, as examples, in salted snacks we see puffed ancient grains with ethnic spices and flavorings, and in beverages we see global flavors or botanicals used in unexpected formulations.”

Many snack-food companies — which include the makers of packaged crackers, cookies and candies — have been reformulating products to include the healthy attributes consumers are seeking, and making sure their labels clearly state their better-for-you claims.

“We see a lot of manufacturers putting a ‘gluten-free’ label on a product, even if it’s obvious that the product contains no gluten,” says Darren Seifer, food and beverage industry analyst at The NPD Group, Chicago.

Modern consumers also have more relaxed rules about when, where and what to eat, compared with previous generations, which means snacking can happen anywhere, anytime. Snacks can replace meal, or accompany a small meal, for example.

“Food decisions are driven by availability, wants and whims, aspirations and ethics,” says Demeritt of The Hartman Group, adding that, “In general, we’re more conscious of health outcomes when choosing what to eat.”

Despite the free-form habits of the modern snacker, however, operators can leverage some of the patterns that consumers exhibit around healthful snacking.

A recent report from The NPD Group found that consumers are much more likely to opt for better-for-you snacks early in the day, with interest building up until about noon, then falling sharply.

People prefer snacking on sweets in the evening hours, when interest in indulgent treats peaks at about 8 p.m., according to NPD’s “Snacking in America” report.

“By the end of the day, people are not really as motivated around health,” says Seifer.

The report also found that consumers tend to select savory items when choosing a snack to replace a regular lunch or dinner meal.

Seifer says snack-food marketers should focus on the optimal times of day to promote specific types of snacks based on whether they are healthy or indulgent.

Convenience has also a challenge when it comes to healthy snacking, but marketers are stepping up to the task with creative new products.

“Emerging brands are pushing the envelope when it comes to how snacks with a health halo can be eaten when on the go,” says Demeritt. “For example, beets are now available in small, single-serve packages, as are hard-boiled eggs and dried fruits and vegetables. Chia seeds are now available suspended in juice.

“Such products cater to changing consumer eating behaviors, such as snacking regularly throughout the day and eating alone. If it doesn’t taste good, consumers aren’t going to touch it,” says Seifer. “You can be a superfood, but if it is really tough to swallow, forget it.

“If the taste is not there, it is not viewed as quite as indulgent. You have to think of taste as the entry fee for this industry.”