Snacking is a way of life for Americans, with more than 90 percent of consumers reaching for a snack at least once a day. Top of mind for consumers are portable snacks and nutrition bars made with simple, clean-label ingredients that deliver functionality.
“Ultimately, consumers do want it all when it comes to their snacks—they demand affordable options that provide healthy or ‘better for me’ choices, but still taste good," said John Lochinski, consumer insights manager, Kerry. “In fact, 51 percent of consumers agree that taste is more important than health."
However, there is a growing movement to provide consumers with a 360-degree sensory experience—one that maximizes taste and texture variety such as soft and crunchy in the same bar and the use of whole seeds such as flax, millet and sorghum in the product, said Mark Stavro, senior director, marketing, Bunge North America. “Protein, particularly from vegetable sources, such as soy, pea, lentil and beans, also is taking center stage in snacks and bars," he said. “And demand for ancient grains is trending because consumers perceive them to be more complete nutritionally and more flavorful, and they deliver unique (perhaps even better) texture compared to wheat, rice and corn."
Taste, convenience, variety, price, and energy and performance remain important purchase criteria, according to results of a recent study conducted by ADM that analyzed the habits of U.S. consumers regarding snacks. And when it comes to snacks, a growing number of consumers are concerned about the purposefulness of ingredients in the products, especially regarding protein, sugar and sodium levels.
“In our recent snack-focused study, snackers agreed plant-based proteins add important health and wellness components to their snacking experience, so there’s a real opportunity for food formulators to leverage plant-based protein in snack foods," said Mark Rainey, vice president, global food marketing, ADM. “Through our research, we’ve found that women are frustrated, confused or worried about making the best snack and protein choices for themselves and their families to ensure proper nutrition and wellness."
What’s more, many snackers—male and female—reported they continue to be confused by the different messages around protein quality and quantity. “This finding provides product developers with an opportunity to educate consumers on why their product is better for them," he said.
It’s All About Clean
Price, taste and convenience are no longer the only purchase drivers for today’s snack-buying consumer. Increasingly, they’re striving to make healthier food choices, and as is true across the broader food industry, there’s also a big push for “label friendly" ingredient lists.
“Today’s consumers want to recognize the ingredients in their snacks and know where they came from," said Pam Stauffer, global marketing programs manager, Cargill, noting some products in the company’s label-friendly portfolio include ViaTech® stevia sweeteners, Oliggo-Fiber® chicory root fiber and a broad array of label-friendly starches, lecithins, hydrocolloids, plant proteins, natural flavors and custom functional systems.
Fiber and Protein Take Center Stage
Protein and fiber are the two most popular ingredients consumers demand, and the trend crosses Millennials, Gen Xers and Boomers, especially when it comes to satiety and weight loss, said Gil Bakal, managing director, A&B Ingredients.
“High-protein snack bars are presently riding the wave of marketing messaging from manufacturers competing for market share within the snack industry. As a result, protein and fiber formulations will remain front and center for the foreseeable future," he said, noting there has been rapid growth in the plant-based proteins sector because they provide an excellent source of energy and can have a profound influence on the formulation of weight-conscious foods.
“Pea protein is a non-genetically modified (non-GMO) and hypoallergenic protein source that contains 88 to 90 percent protein," he said. “It is highly digestible (more than 98 percent), gluten free, and exhibits low incidents of allergens. Pea protein is ideal for health-conscious foods and diets based on low glycemic index (GI) and/or high protein intake."
Sarah Scholl, food scientist, bakery team lead, Tate & Lyle, said Millennials are driving the demand for snacks with macronutrients such as added fiber and protein that can serve as a supplementary source of energy and a meal replacement option. With the rise in popularity of plant-based proteins, unique ingredients such as oat protein are likely to appeal to this age group.
“While macronutrients are trending upward now, we are beginning to see an opportunity for bars that deliver micronutrient enrichment claims, such as ‘an excellent source of calcium,’" Scholl said. “For example, pairing calcium, vitamin D and our PROMITOR® soluble fiber, which helps boost calcium absorption in a bar formulation, appeals to populations concerned with maintaining bone health, such as Baby Boomers." Ricardo Rodriguez, marketing manager, confectionery & bakery, Ingredion Inc., said bars with a fiber claim are the second most active food and drink sub-category in the United States, which creates an opportunity for suppliers that offer a portfolio of fibers for a wide variety of applications and functionalities.
Rodriguez noted UTRAFLORA® prebiotic fiber is a soluble fiber that offers scientifically proven means to support digestive, immune and bone health claims, including enhanced calcium absorption, while HI-MAIZE® resistant starch is a dietary fiber that helps deliver balanced energy, effective weight management, healthy blood sugar and improved metabolism.
Pulse-based ingredients, such as peas, lentils, faba beans and chickpeas, are available as flours or proteins, and add the nutritional benefits of protein that address consumer need for protein-rich, clean-label products, Rodriguez added.
Mike Bush, president, Ganeden, said growth in the bar and snacks categories is being driven by the addition of functional ingredients for health benefits—specifically the inclusion of ingredients like protein and probiotic strains such as GanedenBC30 that supports digestive, immune health and protein utilization. He pointed to a consumer survey that found of the respondents who did not typically purchase snacks, healthy consumers would be 41 percent more likely to purchase a new snack if it had a health benefit. Those consumers also would be 45 percent more likely to purchase a nutrition bar if it had a digestive health claim, and 50 percent of respondents were willing to pay 10 percent or more for snacks or bars containing probiotics.
“When considering probiotics, parents and Millennials were the most interested—at least 48 percent were significantly more willing to pay for the added benefits of probiotics in a snack, and 63 percent for the added benefits of probiotics in a nutrition bar," Bush said. “Overall, 86 percent of parents with at least one child are more likely to purchase a product for their children if it was fortified with a probiotic."
Jamie Smith, food scientist, Wixon, is seeing an evolution in how protein is delivered as consumers are demanding less processed foods. “To meet these requirements, we are seeing protein appear in more natural forms, such as nuts, seeds, grains and especially plant-derived protein such as pea and rice," she said. “While there continues to be a large market for high-protein-based meal replacement bars for those looking for a post-workout snack or a meal on the go, we are now seeing more moderate protein levels appearing in snack bars. These types of bars are targeting a more mainstream audience looking to hold themselves over until their next meal or to satisfy a craving."
However, boosting protein content in bars can cause some undesirable outcomes, such as making a bar too firm or hard, causing a gritty texture or producing a bad aftertaste, noted Kate Sager, marketing manager–America, Ingredia. “We have come up with protein blends to counteract these off-putting characteristics. In addition to making better bars, manufacturers are also in the process of educating consumers on different types of protein (plant versus animal and whey versus casein). As manufacturers, we have a responsibility to ensure the consumer understands what he or she is putting into his or her body to make sure the protein selection is specific to specific needs."
Go Nuts for Nutrition
Alternative proteins, including plant-based dairy and meal alternatives, continue to grow, which provides opportunity for nut ingredients, whether in the form of nut butters, nut milk, or chopped or whole natural nuts.
Jeff Smith, director of marketing, Blue Diamond Almonds Global Ingredients Division, said snack and bar manufacturers are challenged to offer options that meet consumers’ desire for “indulgence," while at the same time fulfilling a need for a healthier snack. “Almonds are a solution on both fronts because they enhance a product’s value and premium position, while at the same time, providing added nutrition," he said.
In fact, new research by USDA found different almond forms, including whole unroasted almonds, whole roasted almonds and chopped roasted almonds, have fewer calories than previously thought, noted Molly Spence, director, North America, Almond Board of California.
“Over the past two decades, we’ve funded peer-reviewed, published research on almonds and the connections it shows between almonds and heart health, blood sugar management, weight management and more. So, all around, this is great news for almonds, as the nutrition profile fits into so many different categories and consumer needs," she said.
Sugar reduction is one of the most critical industrywide trends, and it’s very pertinent to bars and snacks. “In the November elections, we saw several municipalities pass soda taxes that were largely focused on reducing consumption of refined sugar, and FDA also is increasing labeling requirements," said John Kimber, chief operating officer, Carolina Innovative Food Ingredients. “Sweet potato juices and clean-label sweeteners each provide a solution for those seeking to reduce or displace sugar in foods and beverages, contributing a natural sweetness as well as significant nutrients."
Sager said natural sweeteners, such as agave nectar and raw honey, have seen robust growth in the bars and snacks sectors as more manufacturers are actively formulating and reformulating products to reduce the amount of sugar and added sugars before the updated Nutrition Facts label takes effect in 2018.
“As more health research points to sugar as the culprit for our ever-growing global obesity epidemic, consumers continue to understand that sugar needs to be limited," she said. “Manufacturers are hearing the demand loud and clear from consumers that the ingredients that are being put into their food are important, and they want to know they come from a wholesome source."
And since protein has been clinically proven to promote satiety, it can be used to make low-calorie snacks that satisfy consumers’ appetite while keeping calories in check, noted Peter Schouw Andersen, head of science & sales development, Arla Foods Ingredients.
“A good example is in the kids’ category, where research shows snacks now account for about one-quarter of the calories American children consume," he said. “In tandem with this, there is growing concern over obesity rates among children, which means the role of snacking in their diets is now under greater scrutiny than ever before. As a result, demand is increasing for kids’ snacks that taste great and offer good nutrition, which is not always an easy balance to achieve."
To address this, Arla Foods Ingredients developed a 35 g “dairy bar" that offers as much calcium per serving as one glass of milk, is 20 percent protein and low in calories. While sugar reduction is a primary focus, it’s important to note replacing sugar is rarely a 1:1 exchange because functional attributes, such as bulk and mouthfeel, need to be replaced once sugar is removed. “This makes fibers a key solution for formulators because they help replace functional attributes, such as bulk and mouthfeel, and enable manufacturers to include an ‘added fiber’ claim on products," Scholl said.
A Fruitful Ending
Various fruits—including whole, pieces, purees and concentrates—not only provide a functional boost in bars and snacks, but also provide a clean-label appeal to both consumers and manufacturers.
Jeff Manning, chief marketing officer, Cherry Marketing Institute, said healthier-for-you snack and protein bars that include fruits on their ingredient lists are cropping up in grocery stores nationwide. He said the health benefits associated with Montmorency tart cherries have been well studied and include improved sleep efficiently and duration, cardiovascular benefits, and help with muscle inflammation and exercise recovery.
“Consumers, especially those under 50, are becoming more adventurous in their culinary experiences," he said. “Bitter and sour offerings, including Montmorency tart cherries, vinegars, beers and cocktails, are becoming more common in food and beverage applications across the board with new innovations cropping up each year. Trend experts say tart flavors are on the rise due to consumers’ changing palate that prefers a less-sweet taste. There’s been a dramatic shift in consumer flavor preferences to more stimulating flavors; two-thirds really enjoy tangy, 31 percent sour and 11 percent bitter—all nearly double from three years ago."
Wayne Lutomski, vice president, international global ingredients, Welch's Foods Inc., said ingredients such as FruitWorx real fruit inclusions, made from Concord grapes, have opened new opportunities for manufacturers looking to create products that meet the needs of today’s consumers.
“Consumers are looking to add protein, fiber and other nutrients to their diets from the food and beverage choices they make. What’s more, consumers are reading labels and actively avoiding certain additions, such as added sugars and artificial ingredients," he noted. “With only natural fruit sugars and the same type of beneficial plant nutrients found in Concord grape juice, FruitWorx is a delicious and nutritious addition to bars and other on-the-go snacks."
A Functional Revolution
Whether nutrition bars or snack foods, consumers are looking for convenient, tasty and functional products that include simple and recognizable ingredients. Top on the list of wants are healthy ingredients such as fiber, protein, fruits and nuts, as well as added benefits such as lower sodium and reduced sugar.