The National Confectioners Association’s 2016 Sweets & Snacks Expo took place in Chicago from 24 to 26 May. The annual gathering hosted attendees from around the world, who saw the latest in snacking-focused packaged food offerings.This year included the presence of over 700 companies, a 20% increase from 2015.
Snacks offer a bright spot in the stagnant US packaged food industry. The growth of this year’s show reflects the ramped-up competition and need to stand out in this growth area. Across the board, the product showcase focused on elevating the snacking experience to adapt to the more demanding and open-minded consumer taste preferences. As both flavours and product formats continue to evolve, they push the limits of innovation, while making the products harder to define.
Beginning on the flavour front, many new products blend unique ingredients to create original tastes. This year’s expo offered an abundance of contrasts combining sweet with salty or spicy elements. Notably, chocolate covered savoury products like pretzels and trail mixes seemed to be everywhere. This rides chocolate confectionery’s recent strong results. In terms of adding heat, Ghirardelli launched a dark chocolate spicy caramel, while Little Bird showed off its brilliantly executed Fire Bites and Fire Bark dark chocolate and sea salt covered candied jalapeños. Savoury snacks continued to build on complex ethnic flavours. Saffron Road’s Crunchy Chickpeas evoke global cuisines in their Bombay Spice, Chipotle and Korean BBQ flavours. Offerings of tortilla chips piggybacking the taco food truck craze were stepped up. Late July’s Jalapeño Lime and Nacho Chipotle varieties use colourful, multilingual packaging. Paqui’s Haunted Ghost Pepper and Grilled Habanero flavours had attendees intrigued, laughing and sweating.
As for product development, companies are creating new snacking experiences through novel formats like “bites” and “thins”. Although these hybrid products are typically smaller, they pack robust taste with a focus on texture and snackability with the convenience of the on-the-go portability and resealabilty of stand-up, flexible plastic pouches. Russell Stover’s Bark, Bites and Minis lines feature chocolate covered varieties of coconut, pistachio, pomegranate and pretzels. New chocolate covered “crisps” were launched by heavyweights Nestlé (Butterfinger Crisp) and Mars (Snickers Crisper), introducing a crunchy element with a lighter texture similar to that of a wafer. Health and wellness-conscious consumers will enjoy nutritiously naughty products like Ghirardelli’s premium milk chocolate covered toasted coconut and sea salt oat clusters or barkTHINS’ dark chocolate blueberry with quinoa crunch. HannahMax Baking’s new Crunchy Cookie Chips distorts product category lines with the claim that it “tastes like a cookie, eats like a chip”.
RTE popcorn puffs out
Expanded varieties were prevalent this year to help the category maintain momentum. Beyond traditional yellow corn, Open Road Snacks’ Sinfully Thin brand touted the improved flavour and health benefits in its blue and red corn products. Lesser Evil’s Buddha Bowl organic RTE popcorn stands out by adding premium ingredients like extra virgin organic coconut oil, extra virgin avocado oil and Himalayan pink salt. Flavour innovation also mimics that of other categories with sweet and heat. Skinny Pop highlighted its jalapeño and chocolate dusted versions. Pop! Gourmet showed off a wide flavour portfolio of gourmet varieties, including blue cheese, jalapeño, Sriracha and white truffle. It also offers a more nutritiously robust option with kale chips in collaboration with Rhythm Superfoods. On the more indulgent side, Cookie Pop Popcorn had people excited over cookies and cream and chocolate chip flavours.
Meat snacks sizzle
On the back of a strong category performance and consumers’ push for more protein in their diets, a proliferation of meat snacks was on display. Jack’s Links is the undisputed leader of the category, best known for tough, salty products typically bought through gas stations by men. Its impressive display looked to change this perception and broaden its consumer base. Representatives in chef’s coats offered samples that promote higher quality, more natural and minimally processed products. Words like “flame grilled”, “steakhouse”, “small batch” and “handcrafted” were highlighted. The early 2016 launch of the Lorissa's Kitchen brand focuses on quality, responsible ingredients and international flavours. Despite their recent efforts, changing consumers’ perceptions of the Jack’s Link brand will be hard. Smaller players with craft credibility keep rolling out their minimally processed offerings with innovative flavours and improved texture, targeting the more health-conscious consumer and the underserved female segment.
Building on the success of snack bars, convenience was on display with the launch of new meat snack bars. Country Archer’s The True Bar with 20g of protein just launched in May 2016. This product makes a point of promoting the purity of the protein coming completely and only from meat. Similarly, Hershey’s offered samples of the soon-to-be-launched high protein Krave Bar meat snack bar with quinoa to give it an extra protein boost along with whole grains.
To date, meat snacks seem to have avoided the impact of some of the bad press associated with the World Health Organization’s October 2015 announcement linking processed meat consumption with increased cancer risk. New meat snack products’ focus on fewer and more natural ingredients help their case here. However, these less processed options are also often the ones with higher sugar content. Some varieties even have more sugar than protein. With the goal of expanding the consumer base to the more health conscious, high sugar content may result in more of a fizzle than sizzle as consumers look elsewhere for their protein.
Minimal done well
Health and wellness product offerings keep checking off more boxes. Some products seem to run out of real estate on the label to fit them all. Organic, gluten free, non-GMO, paleo, vegan and whole grain were popular. Gluten-free products such as Mary’s Gone Crackers did a nice job rebranding its Super Seeds brand line, while Snack Factory Pretzel Crisps is getting in the mix, too. The incorporation of whole fruit, seeds and nuts was on display to satisfy consumer demand for natural ingredients. Coconut was prominent and pistachios really stood out with promising developments like Nestlé’s chocolate covered pistachio bar Damak as well as Kashi’s baklava pistachio bar. SuperSeedz Gourmet Pumpkin Seeds drew eyes with their variety of flavours and colourful packaging. Vegetables increasingly show promise as a healthy savoury snack packing nutrients and fibre. Wonderfully Raw’s Brussel Bytes dehydrated Brussels sprouts and Snip Chips parsnip and coconut based snack mix make eating your vegetables fun. Hardbite took home an Innovative New Product Award for its 18 Carrot Gold lightly salted carrot chips that really stood out for its tender, yet crispy fresh texture. Simplicity of ingredients and clean label are also on the rise. Bare Snacks’ Simply baked fruit snacks brand line prominently flaunts the single ingredient list of the fruit itself.