December 23, 2011

15 Min Read
Five-Star Snacking

By Donna Berry, Contributing Editor

In spite of a struggling economy, premium salty and sweet snacks, often combined with a sprinkling of healthfulness, rolled out in abundance this past year. And consumers ate them up, according to manufacturers and suppliers, who also predict 2012 will be even busier.

These five-star snack products typically cost more than their mainstream counterparts, as their positioning often implies being produced in limited batches, while their design suggests better tasting and maybe even better for you. For todays consumers who prefer to snack throughout the day instead of sitting down to MyPlate, such upscale products are especially attractive, as we have become a society of foodies who have increased expectations of the packaged products we purchase.

Sense appeal

When it comes to satisfying the senses, many snack food marketers are taking the artisan approach to create a point of distinction in a crowded marketplace.

According to -The Hartman Group, Inc., Bellevue, WA, the term "artisan," which at one point meant hand-crafted, is being used in virtually every product category in todays supermarkets, and unfortunately, as a result, its distinction is getting diluted. But still, the term, and the products that carry it, continue to appeal to foodies, as the story of artisan is actually one about culture, or how its made, and nature, or what its made of," says Laurie Demeritt, president and COO.

The authentic meaning and application of artisan alludes to a simpler time when people took pride in their craft. Its about special and unique," says Demeritt. Today, the draw for real artisan products is born out of a movement deriding overly processed, mass-produced foods linked to big corporations. Manufacturers attempting to ride the wave of this movement by stamping artisan on their products are hoping it will suggest that whats inside is higher quality even premium."

Demeritt emphasizes that artisan is not a label. Its a whole approach to food," she says. Marketers are attempting to use artisan to suggest value-oriented, premium in a down-market economy. Just as natural became organic and moved beyond to local, due to its link to nature, were seeing artisanal grow out of a tradition of premium and, prior to that, gourmet. Were predicting heirloom to be the next artisanal based on its culture-based quality distinction."

Artisanal ingredients

Snack food product designers who have been challenged by management to formulate an artisan product will want to make sure the snack food is made by hand, in small batches and/or relies on limited quantity or specialty ingredients. It is an authentic narrative about the ingredients used and the special process used to create the products," says Demeritt.

Kristen Girard, principal food scientist, Ocean Spray Ingredient Technology Group (ITG), Middleboro-Lakeville, MA, adds that artisan products represent a step away from the norm and challenge what is already on shelf. Unusual combinations of fruits and seasonings contribute to this perception, such as including cinnamon, sea salt or cracked black pepper in luxury trail mixes," she says. This positions the product as more unique and less of a me-too product."

For example, Steve Sklar, senior vice president of marketing, Inventure Foods, Phoenix, manufacturers of the Boulder Canyon brand of snacks, says, To separate from what I call the sour cream-and-onion crowd, you have to offer something truly unique." He calls the company's use of ingredients such as Parmesan cheese, rosemary, artichokes, spinach, and balsamic and red wine vinegars as "truly unique."

Artisan snack foods should be superior-tasting with on-trend flavors, says Jim Garsow, director of marketing, TH Foods Inc., Loves Park, IL. For example, plain cheese is no longer acceptable. What works are seasonings based on cheese blends, as well as specialty cheeses, such as white Cheddar and smoked Gouda," he says. He cautions that exotic flavors tend to limit the sales potential for a new snack; however, snack manufacturers that have been able to clearly translate on-trend flavors from casual-dining restaurants, especially authentic ethnic flavors from global cuisines, have been successful.

For example, Griffith Laboratories, Alsip, IL, offers a variety of culinary main-course ingredients that work with premium snack foods as well. Puebla Mole combines ancho, guajillo and pasilla chilies with toasted sesame, garlic, onion and cocoa, creating a topical snack seasoning that layers the flavors and spices found in the original south-of-the-border sauce. Mexican Roasted Salsa Verde provides the flavors of roasted green chilies, sharp and acidic tomatoes, onions, garlic and heat. 

The company also offers regional barbecue-flavored seasonings for use on all types of snacks. South Carolina BBQ combines bright yellow mustard, cider vinegar, black pepper, tomato and brown sugar for a sweet and sour balance of tastes. Down on the Bayou, the Louisiana BBQ Shrimp seasoning has more of a butter sauce flavor profile than a classic tomato-based barbecue. It also has notes of Worcestershire, garlic, black pepper, green onion, char and lemon flavors.  

Going nuts

On-trend flavors are not limited to grain-based snacks. Snackable fruits and nuts can benefit from them.

Weve developed a line of flavored, roasted almonds for snack food manufacturers," says Jennifer Eastman, R & D food scientist, Blue Diamond Almonds, Sacramento, CA.  Using flavored nuts in snack and trail mixes allows manufacturers the flexibility to offer consumers more variety, while being confident that the nuts are consistent in quality and flavor.

Smaller manufacturers who hand-make batches of trail mix appreciate having one less step in their processthe seasoning of the nuts. We do it for them," adds Eastman. The new flavors are fire-roasted tomato salsa, hickory smoked and Kansas City barbecue,  which join honey roasted and roasted salted.

Peanuts also have gone artisan. This summer, Hampton Farms, Severn, NC, gave in-shell peanuts a flavorful twist when the company married dry-roasted peanuts with smoky flavor. Consumers are looking for new flavors in all their snacks, and the Hickory SmokeHouse flavor pairs wonderfully with the iconic taste of peanuts," says Tom Nolan, vice president of sales and marketing.

Rickys Lucky Nuts LLC, Durango, CO, uses an old-fashioned, dry-roasting batch process to create its premium-positioned flavored peanuts. Our distinguishing characteristic is that the nuts fall somewhere between a heavy caramelized coating and a mere spice dusting. If you look at our peanuts, you can still see the sugar crystals, as well as the salt and the spices, which contributes to its artisanal qualities," says Carolyn Lamb, owner.

Where we really differentiate our peanuts is with flavors. For example, we offer a Bombay Curry Coconut, which is very exotic. Theres also a Cocoa & Vanilla Bean variety, which uses real Madagascar vanilla beans and an organic vanilla powder processed in France. Our cocoa is organic and Fair Trade. Our Spicy Chile Chipotle, though, is our bestseller."

Beyond taste

In addition to flavors and seasonings, other ingredient choices that help create a point of differentiation include the base, salt and/or oil.

We are a big proponent of sea salt, as it provides a great salty flavor profile at a lower usage level than table salt," says Sklar. This is likely due to the additional flavor-enhancing minerals found in sea salt.  Our kettle chip business is obviously built on potatoes, but we use chickpea flour, whole-grain cornmeal, rice flour, adzuki beans and other types of unique bases for our blended snacks," he says.

Brook Carson, technical product manager, ADM, Decatur, IL, says, With the wide range of whole grains available in so many different forms, inclusion is now possible in categories where whole grains havent been incorporated in the past."

She explains  the taste difference normally associated with whole grains is due to the additional tannins found in the bran of the grain. Whiter whole-grain varieties typically contain fewer tannins, which results in a less bitter taste," says Carson. For example, our white whole-grain sorghum flour, which has a light color and neutral flavor, makes it easier to incorporate whole grains into unforgiving snack foods.

The bitter taste of some whole grains can also be overcome with added sweetness or with a masking agent in the product," Carson adds. And, when adding whole grains to snack products such as crackers, the dough can become more difficult to process. To help, we offer a wheat protein isolate that improves dough rheology, mix times and finished-product quality, while increasing the protein content of the product."

Jane Friedrich, principal scientist, snacks category, Cargill, Inc., Minneapolis, says, We offer whole-grain products that can directly replace existing grains, or blend with them, while helping deliver 100% whole-grain nutrition. They are available in a spectrum of flavors, from neutral to toasted corn, and an array of granulations to complement all types of premium snack foods."

Many snack food formulators are trying to work with vegetables as their base carbohydrate. Not only does this appeal to consumers who want to increase their vegetable intake, many vegetables also add unique color, flavor and texture to snacks.

By formulating snacks with ingredients that naturally have unique colors, flavors and nutritional advantages, specialty snack manufacturers are able to clearly differentiate their products from mainstream," says Garsow.

For example, the Boulder brand now offers Vegetable Crisps. Each 1-oz. serving contains three-fourths of a serving of 12 vegetables, including carrots, celery, cabbage, tomatoes, green and red bell peppers, broccoli and kale. And Snikiddy LLC, Boulder, CO, offer Eat Your Vegetables gluten-free chips, which are made with a blend of sweet potatoes, carrots and navy beans. Each 1-oz. serving, which is about 13 chips, delivers a full serving of vegetables.

J.R. Short, Kankakee, IL, has made advancements in extrusion technology to allow inclusion of ingredients such as sweet potato and other vegetables in shaped snack foods.

One of the interesting things we have discovered  while working with sweet potato in extruded snack pellets is the variety of textures we can develop depending on shape, proprietary extrusion methods and the expansion process used," says Mike Shafiabady, director of research and development. These unique textures help contribute to an artisanal positioning.

Legumes, along with vegetables, have become choice carbohydrates for many snack foods, in particular gluten-free products. For example, lentils are now available in flour form and can function as a base carbohydrate in grain-based snacks. Whole-grain lentil flours are low in fat, high in fiber and contain high levels of calcium, magnesium, iron and folate. They are also about 25% protein and can be used to significantly increase the protein content of snack foods, such as puffs.

Canadian-based Saskatchewan Pulse Growers developed gluten-free lentil puffs using a blend of 70% whole-grain red or green lentil flour and 30% corn meal. A 30-gram serving contains 6 grams of protein, which is three times the amount of protein found in 100% corn meal puffs. Their light, crunchy texture, mild flavor and neutral color complement most topical seasonings.

We offer cooked, ground-bean products to give manufacturers the opportunity to add the nutritional benefits of beans to almost any snack food application," says Cheryl Borders, technical service, edible beans, ADM. Beans are a low-fat, nutrient-dense food that can help manufacturers meet consumer demand for great-tasting, better-for-you snacks. Beans are naturally full of protein, fiber and many essential nutrients. The bean products have a mild flavor that is easily masked by traditional snack flavorings or seasonings."

Oils with a healthy halo also contribute to a product's real and perceived quality. "Everything we produce is cooked in sunflower, safflower or olive oil," Sklar adds. "These premium oils make an impact on flavor, cooking time and oil absorption, among other things." Further, he says, using these oils reduces fat content by 30% or more compared to when more mainstream oils, such as corn or soybean, are used. 

Weaver Popcorn Company, Noblesville, IN, now offers microwave popcorn made with olive oil, providing the health benefits and premium positioning that olive oil provides.

Since popcorn is all we make, we are continually working to add new flavors to our line and make microwave popcorn healthier," says Mike Weaver, president and CEO. Movie Theater Butter is a perennial favorite flavor, but we think popcorn lovers will be especially excited about new Parmesan with Italian Herbs & Garlic. That flavor gives a gourmet twist to microwave popcorn."

Another approach to adding value through fat selection is to choose an ingredient that allows for an omega-3 fatty acid claim. We offer a unique canola-flax oil blend that provides snack food manufacturers with a method to add a source of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) omega-3 to shelf-stable products without affecting product taste, mouthfeel or shelflife," says Friedrich. Food manufacturers can make a good source of ALA omega-3 nutrient content claim with as few as 0.53 grams of fat per serving and an excellent source when a serving contains 1.07 grams of fat or more."

The price of including extras

Premium, high-quality ingredients that add flavor, texture, eye appeal and even nutrition are often an important component of artisan snacks.

Dark chocolate, nutritional nuts and seeds, and dried fruits contribute to the consumers impression of the product and can attract a higher price point," says Girard.

Most consumers recognize that dried fruits and most nuts are more expensive than other ingredients and have unique nutritional benefits," Garsow says. "Including them in snack formulations can help increase the premium image of a product."

Not all inclusions are created equal. When it comes to fruit pieces, including the whole fruit piece makes a difference," says Girard. In a trail mix product, a juicy, large piece is important so that the consumer feels they receive value for money."

 Perceived value is what it comes down to in the premium snack food category. The process and the ingredients must convince the consumer that the product is an affordable luxury and worth digging a little deeper into their pockets.

Donna Berry, president of Chicago-based Dairy & Food Communications, Inc., a network of professionals in business-to-business technical and trade communications, has been writing about product development and marketing for 13 years. Prior to that, she worked for Kraft Foods in the natural-cheese division. She has a B.S. in Food Science from the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. She can be reached at [email protected].

Snacking habits

A recent survey, "Rethink Your Snack," conducted by Kelton Research, New York, for Snack Factory, Princeton, NJ, manufacturers of Pretzel Crisps, reveals that 40% of Americans prefer to reach for snack foods throughout the day instead of eating the traditional three square meals. Whats more, many admit to indulging in snack foods for lunch (78%) and even dinner (55%).

While snacking may be a habit of both men and women of all ages, younger generations tend to skip the full-course meal and go right to the snack aisle when they are hungry. In fact, close to half (46%) of 18- to 49-year-olds make snacking a major part of their day as compared to only 31% of their 50-year-old and older counterparts. Despite the generational gap, more and more people of all ages are relying on snacks to get them through the day. Whether they're sweet, salty or savory, snack foods have become a staple in the American diet.

The survey further shows that the majority of Americans (59%) prefer to keep their snacking interesting and they like to sample a variety of treats. However, in the debate between snacks that taste good and snacks that are healthy, Americas taste buds are guiding their decisions. More than two thirds of the nation (63%) would rather eat a snack that appeals to their senses than their waistlines.

Will premium snacks have bite?

When brands bake the definition of premium," the main ingredient is usually exclusivity with a hint of snobbery, but that recipe is changing. Premium snack products are a recognized growth opportunity, but unless manufacturers understand the evolution of premium" they risk investing too much in short-lived line extensions rather than long-term growth opportunities. For brands to create sustainable growth and differentiation in this category, they need to understand what will make premium" really premium in the future. The recipe for premium is changing to match the attributes society values most. Exclusivity is being replaced by inclusion, or connecting with others over unique interests. Consumers want to be the first to find a wonderful, accessible product they can introduce to their friends.  Not only do they enjoy the hunt of finding something new, but once their friends enjoy the product, the consumer is seen as a thought leader within their social network. By enabling your consumers to create inclusion experiences, you can excite their social network to search for other products in your brand.

Its an easy trap to look for consensus when developing new products, but relying on consensus too much creates uninspiring me-too" products. Identifying divergent trends can point to new spaces where your brand can succeed.

The Slow Food Movement is a growing trend that promotes home cooking with unique and simple ingredients that bring people together. This fights against the  convenience"  trend of increasingly busy consumer life. Triscuit® is capitalizing on this divergence with flavors such as Hint of Sea Salt" or Rosemary and Olive Oil" that are incorporated into recipes and paired with wines. It keeps cooking time down while still bringing people together over food with unique, simple and authentic ingredients.

A strong trend for many consumers is affordable luxuries, a small way to indulge without breaking the bank. Milano® cookies by Pepperidge Farm have successfully played within this space for years. Margaret Rudkin, founder of Pepperidge Farm, discovered the Milano on a trip to Europe and knew there was nothing like it in the United States. She bought the rights to produce and sell the Milano under the Pepperidge Farm name and created an affordable luxury Americans have been buying since the 1950s.  Harnessing trends, not fads, ensures your brands next move will be rooted in a solid opportunity rather than a fleeting idea.

Consumers are changing the way they define premium products, and soon this new definition will begin to crest in its lifecycle. It will no longer be based on exclusivity and the ability to raise ones nose. Rather, it will be based on sniffing out new products with simple and unique ingredients that consumers can create inclusive experiences from. Since this represents a societal shift, it will be a long-lasting trend and a vital one to help your brand create long-term growth opportunities.

Jake Himmelspach, Associate Consultant, and Aaron Welling, Director, NewEdge, Richland, WA.

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