Snacks Serve Consumers as the ‘Fourth Meal’

According to a recent study from The Ohio State University, snacks punch above their weight in the food industry. Researchers found that Americans ingest between 400 and 500 calories a day from snacks, which constitutes more calories than typically come from breakfast.

The top snacking drivers are to “prevent feeling hungry” followed by “rewarding oneself” according to Innova Market Insights’ 2023 Snacking & Healthy Snacking survey.

All this adds up to significant innovation, though 2023 posted a modest 1.3% increase in launch activity over 2022. Confectionery launches were flat, up 0.3% for the year, per Innova Market Insights.

Snack Attack!

Fruit-based snacks, snack mixes, meat snacks, wheat snacks, and rice-based snacks all posted double-digit or better gains in 2023.

Ocean Spray Snack Medley took dried cranberries and paired them with other fruits for a fruit-based snack mix. RIND REMIX debuted a sustainable trail mix, combining roasted nuts, upcycled pineapples, coconut crisps, and more. Barnana PBC, Santa Monica, Calif., used last summer’s Fancy Food Show to introduce the company’s first “Upcycled Certified” product, Organic Plantain Scoops (made with the peel) in two flavors: Himalayan Pink Salt and Rowdy Ranch.

Popcorn launches were down, but indulgent offerings grabbed headlines. Prior to its acquisition by Smucker’s, Hostess Brands partnered with Evergreen Licensing to develop two sweet Hostess popcorns: in Twinkies and Ding Dongs flavors. Smartfood Doritos Nacho Cheese Flavored Popcorn (PepsiCo) took inspiration in a savory direction. Straddling the fence in both directions was newcomer D’Amelio Foods, Los Angeles, with Be Happy Snacks Popcorn. Its four-item line includes Cotton Candy, Maple Bacon, Parmesan Garlic, and Nice Spice (includes paprika and unnamed spices). Another LA-based business, Popcornopolis, expanded its Nearly Naked line with two savory flavors: White Cheddar and Jalapeño Lime.

Partnerships brought a few more interesting products. One was Ruby x BjornQorn Pink Hibiscus Holiday Popcorn, developed by Ruby Wellness Inc., New York, N.Y., and BQ Farms Inc., Kerhonkson, N.Y., The reddish-pink popcorn features only sunflower oil, nutritional yeast, salt, and hibiscus powder. Better-for-you snack specialist LesserEvil, Danbury, Conn., partnered with RIND Snacks on a limited-edition Piña Colada tropical themed popcorn made with organic coconut oil, LesserEvil’s signature Himalayan pink salt, and hints of real pineapple and coconut fruit powders from RIND.

Potato-based chip launches were down but “better for you” launches were notable. Campbell Soup extended its Kettle Brand line with two varieties of Air-Fried Chips (Sea Salt & Vinegar, Jalapeno and Himalayan Salt). As the first-to-market air-fried snack, Kettle Brand developed patent-pending technology to kettle-cook and air-finish potato chips. The result is a light and crispy texture with 30% less fat than the original versions, the company says.

Made with real vegetables, Lay’s Simply Veggie Poppables (Ranch, Sea Salt flavors) are light-textured and airy. Spinach, tomato, and beet powder bolster the “real vegetables” claim. The snack blends potato with chickpeas. This blended ingredient approach worked for Kellenova’s Pringles Harvest Blends, an “elevated twist” on the classic Pringles crisps with “blended with sweet potato” and “blended with multigrain” variants.

Continuing the “light and airy” theme, Volupta LLC, Santa Monica, Calif., debuted last March with its namesake line of Air Nuts. Officials say the snacks feature nuts blended with rice flour and seasoning. Three lines include peanut, almond and pistachio and three seasoning blends (applied to all three nuts) Onion & Cheese, Himalayan Pink Salt, and Chili. All are gluten free, vegan friendly and use an aeration process without palm oil or any added sugars.

There were other interesting twists on texture. Kellanova extended its Cheez-It brand with Cheez-It Extra Crunchy in two varieties: a Bold Cheddar and a Cheez-It Snap’d Extra Crunchy Sharp White Cheddar. Last December saw Campbell Soup, Camden, N.J., introduce Goldfish Crisps. They’re made with potato, feature three chip-inspired flavors and are larger than traditional Goldfish crackers.

Spicy flavors continue to trend. Frito-Lay is adding new Doritos Dinamita Sticks in flavors like Tangy Fiery Lime and Hot Honey Mustard in early 2024. Among new entries from Conagra Brands Inc. was a co-branded DAVID Jumbo Sunflower Seeds featuring Frank’s RedHot flavoring.

Meat snack launches were up by nearly 27% in 2023, though sales results for plant-based meat snacks were mixed at best. This didn’t stop meat alternative maker Meati Foods from debuting Eat meati Jerky “made from MushroomRoot.” Interestingly, the direct-to-consumer product was not labeled as “plant-based,” which is something of a departure from the norm.

More traditional meat snacks focused on flavor innovation. This January saw Frito-Lay partner with Link Snacks Inc. to co-brand Frito-Lay’s Fritos and Doritos Flamin’ Hot brands with various Jack Links meat snacks. Also shaking things up in 2024, Country Archer Provisions, which introduced Ancestral Beef Blend Meat Sticks. Two varieties (Original, Spicy) are each “crafted with grass-fed beef and wholesome organ meats” for a higher quality snack. The “organ meats” are beef liver and beef heart.

Pretzels bear watching in 2024. Frito-Lay extended its Cheetos brand into pretzels with Cheddar and Flamin’ Hot pretzels late in 2023. Noting that flavored pretzels have driven 58% of pretzel sales growth, Frito-Lay believes there are more growth opportunities. Others certainly feel the same way. Campbell Soup bolstered its Snyder’s of Hanover line with Nashville Hot Pretzel Pieces and Quinn Snacks expanded its line with “Pizzeria” Filled Pretzel Nuggets. For its part, pladis North America, Inc. went the sweet route with new coated varieties of Flipz pretzels: State Fair Churros and State Fair Strawberry Shortcake.

Chocolate & Candies

Turning to confectionery, chocolate bars were a bright spot in 2023 along with chocolate pieces.

Ocean Spray and Hershey created married health with indulgence with new Dark Chocolate Dipped Cherry Infused Cranberry Bites. Blue Diamond Thin Dipped Almonds had similar ideas. Officials said the two new offerings—Double Dark Chocolate and Dark Chocolate Sea Salt Caramel—not only feature vitamin E but also half the sugar of average chocolate-covered almonds.

For chocolate bars, Hershey’s Reese’s brand led the way with Reese’s Potato Chips Big Cup, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups stuffed with crunchy potato chips; and Reese’s Caramel Big Cup. The latter signals a new push into chocolate-caramel blends. Hershey notes that after peanut butter, caramel is the second most consumer requested flavor pairing.

Hershey’s popular KitKat brand dabbled in bakery flavors with Chocolate Frosted Donut and Churro flavors. Elsewhere, Mars Inc., looked to ice cream for a new Snickers Butterscotch Scoop bar.

Channeling the zero-sugar trend in carbonated soft drinks, confectionery makers were bullish on “zero sugar.” Examples include Hershey’s Zero Sugar Chocolate Candy with Almonds and PIM Brands’ new Welch’s Island Fruits Zero Sugar Fruity Bites. And speaking of carbonated soft drink inspiration, Ferrero created a limited-edition Tic Tac Sprite lemon lime flavored mints.

The plant-based trend had high profile help in 2023. Reese’s Plant Based Oat Chocolate Confection & Peanut Butter Cups used oat milk to replace milk in milk chocolate. Hershey’s Plant Based Almond and Sea Salt Oat Chocolate Bar does the same.

Sour flavors expanded into chewing gum last year. Late 2022 saw Perfetti Van Melle introduce Mentos Sour Gum in Sour Apple and Strawberry flavors. Last October, Perfetti acquired Mondelez’s US chewing gum brands including Trident and Bubblicious, so additional sour extensions could be coming. Liquid OTC, LLC, Walled Lake, Mich., has taken gum in a new direction with its Zolli Gum PopZ. The product reportedly is the world’s first “zero-sugar gum pop” with an outer candy coating and chewing gum inside.

Cotton candy is a popular splurge at sporting events and more. Packaged candy makers like Just Born Inc. see upside for cotton candy with launches like Peeps Pink Cotton Candy with Mini Marshmallows and Mike and Ike Strawberry Cotton Candy. Speaking of sporting events, Ferrara Candy Company featured actor and artist Addison Rae in a Super Bowl ad for new NERDS Gummy Clusters, which feature a combination of crunchy and gummy in every bite.

Mars Wrigley had fun with flavor in 2023. It created a social media stir by partnering with McCormick & Co. and French’s Mustard to celebrate “National Mustard Day” with a limited-edition Skittles Mustard flavored confection. Later in the year, Skittles also went small with Skittles Littles Bite Size Candies in assorted flavors. The “minis” trend popped up in several other food categories in 2023.

Tom Vierhile is Vice President, Strategic Insights, North America for the Netherlands-based Innova Market Insights and 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.

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