Cookies and crackers grow up

by Ryan Atkinson
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Digging into any food trend without running straight into phrases like “healthier,”  “better-for-you” or “clean” is nearly impossible. By now, it’s clear consumers are looking to make what they perceive to be smarter food choices in every section of the grocery store. 

The cookie and cracker aisle is no different. As in years past, 2015 has seen shoppers reaching for products with fewer ingredients and more health benefits. They’re now sometimes going for products that are simply smaller than they used to be. (Click for a slideshow of grown-up cookies and crackers)

But we are still talking about one of this nation’s favorite snack and indulgence categories, after all. Not everything associated with cookies is trending toward Crossfitters and marathoners. Most consumers are somewhere in between; they want to keep an eye on their health, but they still want that cookie.

Into the mainstream

The snack market has dealt with the growing number of health-conscious shoppers for a few years now, so what’s new? David Van Laar, president of the Biscuit & Cracker Manufacturers’ Association, said the trend has simply shifted more toward the core products and companies that have been around for decades.

“It’s expanding into the mainstream products now,” he said. “The last few years, we’ve heard about new products, new concepts, new ideas. Those were executed by several companies, including a lot of start-ups. Now the major-branded companies are moving their mainstream products into that health category by changing ingredients and changing processes.”

Look no further than Pepperidge Farm, Norwalk, CT, for a prime example. The company announced in late July it would eliminate high fructose corn syrup from many of its products by the end of fiscal 2017 and launch its popular Goldfish crackers, now with organic wheat, in fiscal 2016.

The Kellogg Company, Battle Creek, MI, has added to its seemingly smarter offerings as well. The company will debut Nutri-Grain Breakfast Biscuits made with whole grains and no artificial flavors, preservatives or high fructose corn syrup. In addition, Kellogg offers its line of Keebler Simply Made cookies. Now in three flavors — Chocolate Chip, Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip, and Butter — the line boasts an ingredient list of items Kellogg says can be found in the typical consumer’s pantry.

“Cookies are present in some 68% of households … crackers are found in a larger 77% of households,” said Beth Bloom, food and drink analyst for Mintel, Chicago. “And while they find the most use as snacks, they see more varied consumption occasions. Even though both cookies and crackers benefit from snack positioning, the majority of buyers consider health-related attributes in their purchase decision.”

That’s why so many of the category’s biggest players are offering more healthful options.

“Before, it was a lot of niche products that were out there by new players. People were kind of experimenting,” Mr. Van Laar said. “That’s typically what happens with new products and new trends. A few people go out there and test the water, the consumer buys it, it picks up and others join in.”

The biggest reason  larger companies may just now be jumping into the trend with both feet comes down to a simple fact — it’s difficult and costly to change formulations and ingredients.

When a trend begins to take shape, smaller niche companies and start-ups go to work drastically changing a lesser-known product or coming up with an entirely new product. The first taste most consumers have of a certain company’s offering is after the product has been formulated with healthier eating in mind.

An established brand, on the other hand, already has a known presence. Snackers know what a certain cookie tastes like and expects that experience every time they open a package. If a major manufacturer wants to reposition a popular cookie or cracker as a healthier option, it has to do so while not affecting the attributes of the product.

“People don’t realize how difficult and costly that is,” Mr. Van Laar said. “If you change oils or take oil out, for example, it completely changes the process. In my manufacturing days, we started doing products with high fiber. They were extremely difficult to extrude because of the way they soaked up the water. It required a lot of equipment modifications.”

It’s that long and difficult process, Mr. Van Laar said, that will likely keep many of the new health-focused products coming from relatively smaller companies.

His prediction seems to be backed up by data from Mintel, which reported sales in the standard segments dwarf all others across both the cookie and cracker categories.

“Look at sugar-free, for instance. There are only two players in that category with any significance,” Mr. Van Laar added. “Others tried to get into it, but the business just was not there. The consumers couldn’t support it.”

Thin is in

While the better-for-you trend has resulted in reformulations and new ingredients, its latest effect is the downsizing of some products. In particular, consumers seem to be going after thinner cookies.

“This seems to be the year of the thin cookie,” said Brooke Smith, president of Salem Baking Co., Winston-Salem, NC. “As a brand that has been making thin cookies for more than 85 years, we know quite a bit about the allure of this style of cookie.”

Salem Baking claims its Moravian cookies are known to many as the “world’s thinnest cookie.” With Moravian style dating back centuries, the cookie itself isn’t exactly new. Its popularity, however, has seen a spike recently.

“They’re resonating with consumers now more than ever,” Ms. Smith said. “In spite of their thin style, they are packed with flavor, and that’s surprising for such a small cookie. We now make more than 30 flavors, including many dipped and enrobed in artisan chocolate, so we’re uniquely positioned to meet the thin cookie demand.”

The thinner cookies allow snackers the indulgence they’re looking for while making it easier to avoid overeating —  a form of portion control, if you will.

“Thin cookies let you enjoy a few more cookies for fewer calories,” Ms. Smith said. “When the quality of a product is higher and the taste is more decadent and satisfying, consumers tend to eat less to feel satisfied. For example, our Meyer Lemon Moravian Cookie Thins have about 130 Cal in a nine-cookie serving.”

That trend has been most visible, perhaps, with one of the most iconic cookies on the market. Over the summer, Mondelez International, Deerfield, IL, introduced Oreo Thins, a thinner, crispier version of the classic Oreo.

The cookie’s new silhouette resulted in more appealing numbers on the label. A serving size of four Oreo Thins contains 140 Cal, compared to the 160 Cal in a serving size of three classic-sized Oreo cookies.

According to data from IRI, a Chicago-based market research firm, Mondelez leads all other cookie producers, with sales topping the $3 billion mark. 

Grown-up tastes

While the slightly healthier label undoubtedly played a role in the development of the Oreo Thins, another trend in consumer cookie and cracker preference was just as big a player. When Mondelez announced the new cookies, it spoke at length about providing a more adult-minded snack.

“We know that some of our fans have grown up and that their tastes have grown up too,” said Patty Gonzalez, senior brand manager for Oreo. “The crisp and delicate texture of Oreo Thins was specially designed for fans who love the taste of Oreo but might want a more ­sophisticated cookie.”

According to Mintel research, more than half of consumers who eat cookies do so as a dessert, snack or anytime indulgence. And consumers are becoming more likely to indulge in sweet foods with more exotic or uncommon tastes.

“Consumer palates continue to expand and get more daring each year,” Ms. Smith said. “The combination of contrasting flavors such as sweet, spicy and salty has become much more mainstream,”

For Cheryl’s, a cookie, desserts and gifting company based in Westerville, OH, that means creating products with rich, nuanced flavors

“It’s about creating complex flavors,” said Sheila Howell, vice-president of marketing for Cheryl’s. “And flavor combinations that you wouldn’t necessarily see.”

Elisabeth Allwein, product development director for Cheryl’s, mentioned an unfrosted, salted caramel line from about six years ago.  Two years ago, the same type of cookie was redeveloped using frosting, and it found a home among Cheryl’s line of cookies.

“We take flavors out that everyone loves and think about how we can turn them into a delicious cookie by layering the flavors,” Ms. Allwein said. “That’s important. It should be nuanced and rich and sweet and salty. The more you can layer flavors and make them complex, the better the eating experience.”

Ms. Allwein stressed the ­importance of developing these flavors for each season as an important piece of a company’s business plan. When a new, complex flavor combination is released for a limited time, it can drive consumer demand higher than normal, which can lead to full-time production.

Salem Baking refines tastes and seasonal trends with its Hatch Chile Pepper line, which is based on the Hatch Chile Pepper, harvested in the later summer and early fall. The cookies and crackers layer spicy and sweet Southwestern-inspired flavors, a combination that is most evident in the Hatch Pepper Chocolate Chip thin and crispy cookies.

And Salem Baking doesn’t necessarily target the older generations with what could be considered a more grown-up taste. Ms. Smith said the trend works on different levels.

“Consumers have responded very positively to the combination of sweet and spicy in the cookies,” she said.

“We’re also seeing the influence of the younger generations here. They are much more exposed to exotic flavors and foods and are more willing to try new things. They have lived their lives with technology at their fingertips. Because of that, they  seem to take peer recommendations to heart and research what they eat in a whole new way.”

Finding the balance

With the trends pointing in two distinct, and familiar, directions — health and indulgence — the same thoughts that have been shared around nearly all areas of the baking and snack industries are making their way through the cookie and cracker world.

“Consumers want a treat that fits into their lifestyle and overall wellness goals,” Ms. Smith said. “Indulging in moderation with higher quality products is becoming the key mindset for today’s consumer. The cookie category is still a decadent one, so introducing products that deliver on decadence while still meeting the goals of simple and natural is key.”

Put another way, consumers want to have their health food and eat their cookie, too. And as Mr. Van Laar pointed out, no matter how much shoppers say they’re looking for the healthiest option, there will always be a place for cookies.

“In my 35 years of doing this, I’ve always seen the consumers say one thing and then they buy another,” he said. “If you ask someone if he or she wants to eat healthier, the answer is yes. And then they go to the grocery store and buy indulgent. We cannot get away from indulgent. Cookies are a fun food. They’re a comfort food, and people will always look to them for those qualities.”

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