Crunch Time

By Renee M. Covino

Whether they're sweet, salty, or a little bit of both, snacks are getting a lot of positive industry attention, led by better-for-you health news.

It’s two hours ‘til quitting time, and an administrative assistant is slumping at her desk. She’s tired and she’s hungry for “something good.” Just then, an advertising announcement on her boss’s radio catches her attention: “It’s 2:58 p.m. Right now, you’re about to cheat on your diet with a big hunk of something chocolate.” She then perks up as a low-calorie option is suggested, the new Special K snack bar from Kellogg’s.
At another office building across town, an executive leaves work early and tries to hail a cab, doughnut in hand. He is interrupted by an amber-lighted van, reading “Snackcident Prevention Team” on the side; a man with a megaphone jokes with him that he was just caught having a “snackcident.” He is then handed a complimentary bag of Lesser Evil all-natural, low-in-fat, no-trans-fatty-acids Kettle Corn to enjoy with less guilt, in place of his doughnut.
“Let’s not kid ourselves, people will always have the desire to eat ‘regular,’ more fattening snack foods, but the double-digit growth is coming out of these (natural, organic and healthier) sections,” says Michael Sands, founder of Lesser Evil Brand Snack Company, makers of Kettle Corn and new Krinkle Sticks, baked and seasoned potato snacks.
Rethinking snacks
Snack companies from all walks — mega manufacturers in business for years, as well as those that are much smaller, some created just for the purpose of providing healthier options — are wisely contributing to the interest in healthier snacks demonstrated throughout the industry. The idea is to directly address the reality that an estimated 60 percent of Americans are tipping the scales as overweight, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Snacks need not fall under the attack of the problem; in fact, many are thwarting it just in time.
“The snack food industry is once again reinventing itself to conform to the nationwide campaign to fight obesity,” says Ann Benzel, president of Benzel’s Bretzel Bakery, Inc. “Years ago, snack foods, by nature, were not viewed as health foods. Today, to keep shoppers in the snack food aisle, everyone is improving their products,” she continues. In fact, Benzel’s iDeserv Energy Pretzel was given a “nutritional makeover,” according to Benzel — to increase protein and reduce sodium — and deliver 100 calories per serving.
The Billion-Dollar Snack Club:
Food/Drug/Mass
The following snacks had over $1 billion in sales in 2006 in the
food/drug and mass channels combined (excluding Wal-Mart),
according to ACNielsen.
  $ Sales (in billions) % Change vs. Year Ago
Cookies3.90.3%
Crackers3.13.8%
Potato Chips2.81.3%
Nuts2.22.7%
Tortilla Chips1.93.1%
Dried Fruit 1.1 0.3%
Source: ACNielsen, U.S. food/drug/mass (excluding Wal-Mart) for the 52 weeks ending 12/30/06
Aside from self-initiated snack company changes, there is also a massive effort underway in many schools to change the eating habits of our youth. “Because of many grass-roots efforts across the country to remove so-called ‘junk’ foods from elementary and middle schools, and even high schools, the snack companies are going to have to come up with products that have the nutritional numbers to gain access to the school market,” explains Tom Vierhile, director of Productscan Online/Datamonitor. He believes that one snack, in particular, “is going to be closely watched in 2007,”— Frito-Lay’s Flat Earth line of chips.
Good news about nuts
Nuts, as a snack category, have also been given a great boost. It seems that nutritional studies on the benefits of nuts in a diet have been so encouraging that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) now allows a claim on nut packaging that states: “Scientific evidence suggests, but does not prove, that eating 1.5 ounces per day of most nuts, as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol, may reduce the risk of heart disease.”
Convenient Snacking
They don’t call them “convenience” stores for nothing. Snacks — the ultimate in convenient foods — are a big hit in the channel, and 2006 saw its share of dollar sales increases in the category, including six double-digit increases and one very impressive tripledigit increase — rice cakes, according to ACNielsen.
  $ Sales (in millions) % Change vs. Year Ago
Potato Chips9105.8%
Meat Snacks7557.8%
Tortilla Chips5195.0%
Nuts49210.5%
Cookies4366.0%
Puffed Cheese3092.3%
Health Bars and Sticks1771.8%
Pretzels15110.2%
Corn Chips14510.5%
Crackers Sandwich and Snack Packs1403.6%
Crackers12211.0%
Pork Rinds10620.1%
Trail Mixes7427.5%
Popped Corn64.51.2%
Caramel Corn21-5.5%
Un-popped Popcorn17-4.6%
Potato Sticks3.57.9%
Rice Cakes.35194.1%
Source: ACNielsen, U.S. convenience stores for the 52 weeks ending Dec. 30, 2006

The Million-Dollar Snack
Club: Food/Drug/Mass
The following snacks tallied up sales well into the millions of dollars
for 2006 in the food/drug and mass channels combined (excluding
Wal-Mart), according to ACNielsen.
  $ Sales (in millions) % Change vs. Year Ago
Un-popped Popcorn643 -3.1%
Pretzels642 1.3%
Puffed Cheese583 -1.0%
Crackers — Sandwich and Snack Packs405 2.2%
Health Bars and Sticks405 -2.5%
Corn Chips338 2.2%
Meat Snacks320 0.3%
Dips — Shelf Stable296 2.6%
Variety Packs237 3.1%
Rice Cakes194 24.0%
Trail Mixes176 30.2%
Popped Corn140 8.9%
Pork Rinds96 -4.6%
Caramel Corn75 -2.9%
Potato Sticks22 -13.9%
Source: ACNielsen, U.S. food/drug/mass (excluding Wal-Mart) for the 52 weeks ending Dec. 30, 2006
The FDA and the American Heart Association are also giving snack additives such as omega-3 fatty acids found in fish and some nuts and oils the healthy thumbs up. Two years ago, omega-3 showed up in 120 new food products, according to Mintel, but in 2006, it appeared in about 250, the product research company estimates. Omega-3 has been classified as the next hot ingredient to appear in snacks, along with calcium, and some vitamins, according to several snack manufacturers.
Retailers, too, are in on the better-for-you snack action. 7-Eleven just announced it is expanding its offerings of “better-for-you” foods at its 7,100 stores.
Upscale grocery retailers such as Shaw’s are grouping “healthier” snack foods together and setting up their own quality and nutrition labeling in-store, assigning so many “stars” or “points” to a snack based on its nutrition value.