The alternative snacks category provides a playground for creative new products as it morphs into a place for healthy snacks to reside.

Alternative snacks form a category defined by the fact that it is undefinable. Long has this segment of the snacks industry simply been a dumping ground for items that do ncot neatly fit into more conventional categories such as potato chips, tortilla chips or pretzels. In the past few years, however, this previously vague category has found its identity in the better-for-you (BYF) trend. It’s become a testing ground for some of the most innovative new products in the entire baking and snack industries.

While millennials have been driving the BFY trend, competition for space on the shelf has gotten heated, resulting in more creative new products as companies continue to out-innovate one another. As competition intensifies, major players are breaking the mould left and right in an effort to get into new categories and find more sales growth. Cheez-It took its venerable cracker concept into high-tech extruded snacks. Pepperidge Farm has spread its Goldfish brand throughout the supermarket, venturing way beyond the cracker aisle. These companies and others are pushing the envelope.

Pepperidge Farm has spread its Goldfish brand throughout the supermarket, venturing way beyond the cracker aisle.

“It’s the only way you’re going to make your way to the shelf,” said Jim Breen, CEO, Way Better Snacks, Minneapolis. “You have no reason for being if you’re not differentiated in some significant way, and you can’t always differentiate yourself on taste and price.”

If that differentiation is significant enough, as it has continued to be in the past few years, the snack lands itself in the alternative snacks category. And these quirky snacks with their new textures, shapes and tastes are doing well among consumers.

“The salty snack category is more of an impulse category where consumers are always looking for new and delicious things to try,” said Brett Hartmann, category manager, snacks, Hain Celestial, Lake Success, NY. “And the use-up rate is very short.”

A new twist on a classic snack or an eye-catching ingredient can be just the thing that makes a consumer move a bag from the shelf to the shopping cart. This makes the snack category one that thrives on creativity, and in the current climate, standing out is a cutthroat game.

Ingredients for nutrition

It could be said that the alternative snack category is quickly redefining itself as the healthy snacks category. “I would call them BFY snacks because anymore it’s clearly a move toward BFY than alternative,” Mr. Breen said.

As consumers continue to eat fewer structured meals and more snacks, they also want more substantial snacks that deliver the nutrition they are missing by skipping meals. Snacks that deliver vegetables, protein, ancient grains and other “healthy buzz” ingredients and nutrients set themselves apart from others on the shelf. Some of these ingredients are a bit different than the traditional potato chip, which lands them in the alternative snack category.

“If you look at the total snacks category, growth is in the single digits, yet natural snacks are growing at more than 20%,” Mr. Hartmann said. “That includes tortilla chips and potato chips, but it also encompasses alternative snacks like veggie straws and chips. These are very different from potato chips because we bring in whole vegetables and slice them, fry them and season them. So this would fall into the alternative snack category as well.”

Their alternative nature lends these snacks to use of healthier trendy ingredients. It gives them room to play with new flavor profiles and nutrition that these ingredients provide.

“The profiles of potato chips are not as flexible as some of the snack foods, such as tortilla or extruded snacks where you can include whole grains or vegetables or other healthier attributes,” said Fritz Kohmann, CFO, Shearer’s Foods LLC, Massillon, OH. “Alternative, or the fringe category, is easier to get into. So, we can try new things, develop niche products and go into external products.”

The ingredients grabbing consumer attention these days continue to be vegetables, ancient and whole grains, and beans — anything that screams simpler, cleaner and higher positive nutrients like protein and fiber.

In vegetable snacks, producers keep things fresh by using more exotic vegetables. While tomato and spinach have long been stand-by materials for these chip and straw products, snack companies are branching out. “The Terra brand was founded on what at the time were exotic vegetables, which have become more mainstream,” Mr. Hartmann said. “Our Sweets & Beets product has seen a major resurgence over the past six to 12 months. As you look at restaurants, beets are popping up on the menu, and that has created growth within our Sweets & Beets SKU, one that has been around for a long time.”

Even snack brands that can be seen as a bit more indulgent, such as the TGI Friday’s brand produced by Inventure Foods, Phoenix, are balancing BFY ingredients with their fun flare. “We just introduced sweet potato skins under our Friday’s brand,” said Stephen Sklar, senior vice-president, general manager, snack division, Inventure Foods. “You can get 40 to 50% of your daily vitamin A from sweet potatoes. In a more indulgent full-flavored product, you can have benefits with more interesting ingredients to drive more value other than just being an indulgent snack. Sweet potatoes incorporate all that.”

Way Better Snacks is taking the idea of BFY ingredients to the next level with sprouting.

In the spirit of innovation, Way Better Snacks is taking the idea of BFY ingredients to the next level with sprouting. “What we’re doing that really differentiates us from other products that use similar ingredients is, we’re germinating and sprouting them,” Mr. Breen said.

Seeds and grains naturally contain compounds that protect them and lock down the nutrients. How-ever, these compounds also protect the nutrients from being fully absorbed by the human digestive system. By germinating seeds and grains, the inhibitors are eliminated or greatly reduced, increasing the nutrient’s absorption.

“It’s a complex story of sprouting and enzyme activation, but in the simplest form, consumers get it that a sprouted black bean has more nutrition than a non-sprouted black bean. If you’re going to have quinoa in your product, you might as well make sure that your consumer is going to benefit from it completely,” he said.

Way Better Snacks takes advantage of current hot ingredients such as flax, chia and quinoa, but the company has also moved to lesser-known ingredients that still pack a nutritious punch — think daikon radish, broccoli seeds and kale seeds.

“There is certainly a move by consumers to seek more and more grains, seeds and beans, and you also have nutrient-dense seeds like chia, kale, broccoli and flax that more and more people realize have benefits for them,” Mr. Breen observed. “It’s easy to see why they’re included in these snacks because they do offer something that a traditional grain would not.”

Innovating through tech

Technology can also prompt a new idea or make it easier to incorporate healthier but tougher ingredients. “You can have new technologies that just don’t fit [conventional snacks],” said Joe Papiri, vice-president of marketing and sales, Snak King, City of Industry, CA. “A lot of innovations may be new things that just aren’t categorized yet.”

Extrusion, in particular, can offer new textures and shapes that snack producers can experiment with along with new base ingredients. Snak King is playing with such technology to create a vegetable puff with a different texture to make a vegetable-serving claim. “The technology allows us to use a healthier base like pea and then bake the product rather than fry it,” Mr. Papiri said. “It has a lower fat level so you have a product that is totally satisfying but with some great nutritional aspects.”

As competition in the snack aisle gets ever-more fierce, companies stake out new territory beyond their established domains in the hopes of finding new sales dollars in different categories.

Snak King also developed the equipment to make rolled sheeted products a few years ago, according to Mr. Papiri. This allowed the company to pair the new snack format, a rolled tortilla chip, with a unique blend of seven grains and seeds to create something not quite a tortilla chip — its Crunch Stix Multigrain Dippers under it’s the Whole Earth brand.

“Up to this point we had been making traditional Mexican-style taquito chips,” he said. “We discovered that the product makes a great dip chip by accident. The idea was conceived to create a chip that was different in flavor from a straight corn-based tortilla chip, something that could be served with dips and spreads like hummus or spinach artichoke dip.”

Sheeted products also offer more possibilities than conventional potato chips. “You can sheet a lot of things into tortilla chips or other sheeted products,” Mr. Kohmann explained. Inclusions and ingredients such as whole grains, rice, flaxseed, vegetables, sprouted grains — all can be incorporated into existing products to raise the nutrition profile.

“With the more highly engineered tortilla chips, you can achieve different health attributes by sheeting such ingredients into products instead of a potato slice where you don’t have that type of flexibility on boutique and BFY,” Mr. Kohmann said. “That area has really accelerated, and they’re good products. You can include many ingredients into sheeted products and achieve a lot of health attributes that are attractive to customers and still have a great-tasting product.”

Flavor for freshness

Once a new product line has been established, keeping consumer interest is a matter of continuing to innovate within the line, and the most straightforward way to do this is through new flavors. Today’s flavor trends are all about surprising the consumer — ­savory snacks going sweet and sweet snacks turning to savory. Spicy has journeyed from just spicy to specific kinds of spicy; what were once just chili-flavored snacks are now ­jalapeno-, chipotle- and habanero-flavored snacks.

As the world shrinks and consumers in the US are exposed to more ethnic and gourmet ingredients, their palates have matured. This phenomenon can be seen in the quick rise in popularity sriracha has seen. “The whole spicier ethnic Asian flavor profile is getting more and more woven into all snacks, and that is driving some additional interest in the category,” Mr. Sklar said.

As more exotic ingredients such as beets go mainstream, alternative snacks can get a boost in sales from consumer buzz.

Shearer’s Snacks took this ethnic flavor trend to heart to spice up its Riceworks brand. On top of its more conventional flavors, Riceworks also features rice chips in Wasabi, Soy & Ginger. Salsa Fresca and Sweet Chili flavors.

In its Terra line, Hain Celestial jumped on the trendy flavor coconut with its new Terra Tropical chips, which contain coconut, plantain, sweet potato, taro and batata.

These alternative snacks made with unique ingredients, new textures and exciting flavors are definitely making waves, but will it be enough to change the current in the snack industry? “Products like that create some interest in the category, but the question is will they have staying power?” Mr. Sklar asked. “You have to give them a lot of credit, and time will tell if those will blossom or shrink.”