KANSAS CITY — Today’s hot products tend to push all the right buttons. Take Frisco, Texas-based Sola Snacks. Its latest savory flavor, Ginger Sola Bars, blends ginger, peanuts, sunflower seeds, flax seeds and sesame seeds with herbs and spices. And, of course, the bars are gluten-free, vegan and non-G.M.O.
Mikey’s, Scottsdale, Ariz., rolled out new paleo-certified double chocolate chip, lemon blueberry and chocolate chip muffin tops containing no gluten or G.M.O.s and free from soy, dairy or grains. And to top it off, each treat contains 6 grams of protein.
Even the big companies are getting into the act. Annie’s Homegrown, Berkeley, Calif., a subsidiary of General Mills, Minneapolis, introduced Organic Cheese Puffs, baked gluten-free snacks covered with cheese from cows raised without antibiotics or synthetic hormones. Available in Cheddar Cheesy and White Cheddar Bunny Tail varieties, the certified-organic puffs provide 8 grams of whole grains per serving and contain no G.M.O.s, artificial flavors, synthetic colors or synthetic preservatives.
What’s driving these new product initiatives? It’s not just that they contain vitamins or antioxidants — or any single healthy ingredient, for that matter. In fact, only 16% of consumers list “added nutrition” as the most important attribute when selecting a snack, according to Mintel’s most recent “Snacking, Motivations and Attitudes” report.
Moreover, in the May report, a paltry 13% listed “free-from claims” — such as gluten-free or even non-G.M.O.s — as propelling purchases. And, again, just 13% named “organic” as most important.
Rather, Mintel said 44% of those surveyed chose “my favorite brand,” 36% selected “on sale/special” and 35% said “lowest price” pushed their buttons.
So what’s going on here? Is it healthy or hype? Lynn Dornblaser, director of innovation and insight at Mintel, described it as “complicated,” especially when reviewing Mintel’s data that reflects all demographic groups.
“When you look at the general population, organic and non-G.M.O. snacks are not as important as they seem sometimes,” Ms. Dornblaser recently told attendees at SNAC International’s Executive Leadership Forum (ELF). “But again, that’s the general population. That’s from all income levels, all parts of the country. When you start to break it down, organic, G.M.O.-free, gluten-free and all of those values tend to be more popular and sought after in major metropolitan areas and with consumers of higher income groups. That doesn’t mean you’re looking at healthier and organic products for income of all levels.”
Maybe it takes a bit of marketing mathematics by combining multiple benefits to increase a new product’s chance of success.
“What we see are companies bundling a lot of those benefits together,” Ms. Dornblaser pointed out.
Tom Vierhile, innovation insights director for GlobalData, called the trend “virtue signaling.” That’s when pretzels are marketed as containing vegetables, organic ingredients and as much plant protein as a breast of free-range chicken. Or the snack may contain a healthy-sounding sorghum ingredient that provides a non-gluten crunchy texture or sprouted grains that seem more alive than ancient ones.
Then there’s the movement toward the broader trend of “healthy fats” — an oxymoron if there ever was one. Mr. Vierhile said medium-chain triglycerides (MTAs) are emerging on the cutting edge, especially for people following a ketogenic diet.
“MTAs are still on the fringe, but there could be something to them,” he observed. “I don’t expect Kellogg’s or General Mills to jump on the bandwagon anytime soon. Usually, in these markets, you first start to see some smoke, then a little bit more smoke; then you begin to see fire. That’s when people start jumping in on some of these emerging trends.”
During Natural Products Expo East, held in Baltimore in September, Mr. Vierhile noted an increased popularity in avocado, including Way Better Avocado Ranch whole grain tortilla chips and Farm Rich frozen avocado slices with an ancho chile pepper breading.
“Avocado has become one of the new ‘healthy fats’ that are suddenly better-for-you,” Mr. Vierhile said. “It’s where coconut was five years ago.”
Trends at both ends
For every trend, there’s a counter trend. Often they are two heads of the same coin — seemingly opposites that go hand-in-hand under the mega-trend of healthy living. Think paleo and vegan that co-exist today.
“There are some extremes in our diet that range from avoiding meat to totally embracing it,” Mr. Vierhile said.
Or just look at protein, which includes everything from peas and nuts to beef and whey. Nearly half of consumers eat a form of protein with every meal, according to a recent survey by marketing firm Nielsen. However, some companies are repackaging protein in snack form, Mr. Vierhile said. At Natural Products Expo East, Wilde Brands featured chicken chips — from free-range chicken breasts and thighs — in jalapeño, barbecue and sea salt flavors. According to the Boulder, Colo.-based company, these meat snacks, which become available nationally in February, bring protein into a more mainstream, munchable format.
Perhaps the biggest counter trend is more “added sugar.” That’s right. It’s “sugar revenge,” as Mr. Vierhile put it.
“I’m kind of bored to death with clean label, ancient grains have been done to death, and gluten-free has no news value whatsoever today,” he said. “Hostess Cotton Candy-flavored Twinkies flies in the face of current worries. This could be a trend as it seems the cereal-makers are going the same route — throwing caution to the wind.”
Just look at the continued popularity of donuts and, as Mr. Vierhile noted, the success that Hostess Brands has experienced over the past few years since it emerged from the depths of bankruptcy. The public company continues to reinvent itself beyond the snack aisle with deep-fried Twinkies and Molten Lava Ding Dongs in the freezer case and the 17-oz honkin’ big Twinkie as the Kansas City-based sweet goods producer channel-surfs into the in-store bakery arena. This year, the company also rolled out cinnamon sugar crunch Donettes, chocolate peanut butter Twinkies, peanut butter Ho Hos and white fudge Ding Dongs, to name a few.
As far as cereal, just look at Trix and how it’s gone back to its glory days of artificial neon colors — away from the drab natural ones. Maybe General Mills remembered the silly rabbit always said, “Trix are for kids.”
But then again, it could be yet another seismic shift — one that’s not friendly to the baking and snack industries — that’s fueling a lot of these movements.
“The bigger trend is that sugar has been the villain for a while — sort of like the clown in the recent horror movie It,” Mr. Vierhile said. “I think carbohydrates are emerging as the next villain. It’s not a good development for the bread industry, but if you look at overall food trends, a lot of them are headed away from carbohydrates.”