Snacking has become stranger than fiction — some of these developments are good while others might be politely described as a matter of taste. On retail shelves across the nation, a host of new alternative snacks are rewriting the snacking textbook by stealing a page from cutting-edge culinary, health and wellness trends. Looking for protein? How about Egg White Chips from IPS All Natural, Los Angeles? Need a bit of fiber and superfood? Check out Toasted Sesame and Seaweed Popcorn by 479, based in San Francisco.

Certainly, creative product developers are coming up with a wealth of wacky snacks, but a new age of products made with vegetables, fruit, brown rice, pasta and ancient grains are now almost considered mainstream because they are alternatives to conventional chips, crackers, pretzels, cheese snacks or popcorn.

Cracker and snack producers rely on extrusion, co-extrusion and a combination of sheeters or other forming systems. They’re using air or compressed popped processes to manufacture multi-textured products that compete in a number of categories.

Alternative snacks have been around for years. About a decade ago, Snak King introduced the Guacachip that layered guacamole into a sheeted tortilla chip. It became a precursor to the bevy of what Joe Papiri, vice-president of sales and marketing for the City of Industry, CA-based snack manufacturer, called “new age” products that continue to reinvent the snacking experience. However, the proliferation of these snacks and their broader acceptance are changing the face of the snack aisle. Specifically, the potpourri of popped products perpetuated by people’s propensity toward healthy eating is changing the perception of snacking.

Healthy snacking is no longer an oxymoron.

To compete in this arena, Snak King just introduced PopGrains Snack Squares under The Whole Earth brand. Touted as having “ingredients that you will appreciate and taste you will love,” the popped crisps contain only organic purple corn, sea salt and expeller-pressed vegetable oil. In addition to its clean label, Mr. Papiri noted the product is positioned as a more healthful chip with purple corn that’s loaded with anthocyanins.

“We’re looking at some really neat co-extruded products that play in both the natural and organic arenas,” Mr. Papiri said. “The crisps are just three ingredients and have a beautiful look to them.”

Potato chips and core snack categories still comprise the bulk of snack sales, but the “other” category — previously treated by market statisticians as merely a catch-all group of outlier items — defines change these days. Mainstay products don’t reflect where most of the innovation is occurring, noted Daryl Thomas, senior vice-president of sales and marketing for Herr Foods, Nottingham, PA. A sea of change is swelling. “The lines are blurring between what people are eating and when,” he observed. “That’s what we’re seeing in the current environment.”

Herr Foods sells Popped Chips with Sea Salt and Tangy BBQ Popped Chips that are lower in fat than other conventional snacks, but that’s only one small selling point for the line. “What popped snacks uniquely offer is a texture that is more substantial, and they give you the opportunity to incorporate a lot of different ingredient bases, from black beans and potatoes to kale,” Mr. Thomas added.

Not just new: Nouveau

Tom Howe, president of Baptista’s Bakery, Franklin, WI, referred to these products as “nouveau snacks” that not only offer different textures but also more whole grains and robust flavors.

Such items include hybrid products that cross over into multiple categories. The Kellogg Company, Battle Creek, MI, offers Special K Popcorn Chips, which come in Butter, Kettle Corn, Sea Salt and new White Cheddar flavors. Chex Chips from General Mills, Minneapolis, add a new twist — or shape — to a powerhouse brand. Chex Chips come in Caramelized Onion, Cheddar Jalapeño, Cinnamon and Sugar, and Wasabi flavors. Pretzel Crisps by Snack Factory, a brand owned by Snyder’s-Lance, is reportedly one of the fastest selling product lines for the Charlotte, NC-based snack producer.

Baptista’s specializes in producing nouveau snacks, including a line of patented fried, dippable snack chips that contain rice, beans and a host of other ingredients.

Mr. Howe noted that millennials — the 75 million Gen Y-ers between 18 and 35 — are driving sales. “They’re looking for more than just conventional snacks,” he explained. “They’re looking beyond conventional. They’re looking for protein, different shapes and different textures, and they use them with dips, salsa and even as part of a meal or as the meal itself.”

Supporting Mr. Howe’s assertion is a new study by The NPD Group, Port Washington, NY, that suggests the US population is changing with baby boomers aging, Gen Z (ages 0 to 23) and millennials (ages 24 to 37) entering new life stages, and Hispanics making up a growing share of the younger generations. These shifts will have a major impact on the country’s eating behaviors over the next five years. The influence of baby boomers and ­older on eating patterns will fade as their households and populations shrink, and the impact of Gen Z and millennials, which made up over half of the US population in 2013, will significantly increase, according to NPD.

New points of distribution are also boosting sales. Mr. Howe said a “tsunami” of nouveau and hybrid snacks is not only engulfing the salted snack and cracker aisles in the center of the store but also flooding endcaps throughout the perimeter. The same wave now washes over natural food sections, bakery-deli departments and even non-supermarket retailers. “We like to see our products in the deli or merchandised in the produce department or alongside beverages,” he said.

Yes, the healthy eating trend has been around for decades, but Mr. Howe asserted that consumption is expanding exponentially. He compared it to an earthquake that’s shaking up the industry. “Maybe it’s gone from a 5.5 to a 6.0. That may not seem like much, but it’s huge when consumption gets to that level,” he said.

Despite his comparisons to natural destruction, Mr. Howe stressed that the nouveau snack movement is anything but a disaster for the salted snack industry. Rather, it’s an opportunity that manufacturers and marketers need to seize in order to grow their base. They need to get out and surf that huge wave of change.

Much larger snack world

Sally Lyons Wyatt, executive and general manager, client insights, for IRI, a Chicago-based market research firm, noted that in 2010, 7% of consumers described themselves as early morning snackers, but today this host has grown to 14% — a definite increase. Other snack-time shifts are ­occurring. While snack sales in every day part are on the rise, evening snacking skyrocketed from 44% in 2010 to 62% now, and late evening from 24% to 46%. Ms. Wyatt reported these findings during her State of the Industry presentation at SNAXPO, an annual trade show sponsored by the Snack Food Association.

According to IRI data, the Top Five morning snacks are yogurt, preferred by 32% of consumers; bakery snacks by 28%; snack bars by 21%; dairy/yogurt-based beverages by 18%; and fruit-based smoothies by 17%. On the other hand, the Top Five evening snacks are salty snacks, 56%; ice cream, 49%; chocolate candy, 48%; cookies, 46%; and snack nuts, 41%.

Mr. Papiri noted Ms. Wyatt’s presentation provides a much different perspective on how consumers are snacking. “Her presentation forces you to look at the broader macro-snack eating occasion and how much competition is coming from other foods such as yogurt and cheese,” he said. “The good news is that people are eating fewer regular meals and smaller mini meals, and these are providing salted snack manufacturers with a lot more eating occasions during the day, even with breakfast and our [snack] products.”

Many snacks now cater to the burgeoning nation of foodies. That trend prompted Snak King to rethink how it positions The Whole Earth brand. “When we first started working with The Whole Earth, we looked at ingredients as the driving force — the all-natural and organic positioning of the brand. However, it turned into more of a culinary brand right now,” he explained.

“We updated the logo to reflect the new positioning to market it as more of a specialty food,” Mr. Papiri said. “We are marketing the flavor of the product to appeal to a foodie and not just looking at the ingredients. The Whole Earth brand is now about the flavors of the world. We’re trying to push different flavor boundaries and give a slightly different focus to the brand’s positioning.”

The culinary influence is reflected in how Inventure Foods, Phoenix, developed unconventional snacks that mimic menu concepts under the T.G.I. Friday’s brand. Most recently, it rolled out Baked Extreme Heat Fry and Jalapeño Poppers Snack Sticks, which deliver a zesty cheddar taste. Steve Sklar, Inventure’s senior vice-­president of marketing, noted T.G.I. Friday’s customers are looking for hearty products that taste great and fill them up. “On the flavor side, hot and spicy continues to grow,” he said. “We have focused additional resources to develop, market and sell these types of products.”

With its Boulder Canyon brand, Inventure offers snacks that incorporate the latest in natural food attributes. “Our core consumers for Boulder Canyon are people who tend to be outdoorsy, more active folks who are looking for a great-tasting product that is better for you than a traditional snack,” Mr. Sklar said. “Where applicable, our products are certified gluten-free, kosher, non-GMO and Non-GMO Project Verified.”

The culinary influence also can be seen in several new avant-garde snacks that push the boundaries and redefine the “other” category. Many of them incorporate flavors found in ethnic foods — and not just Mexican.

The Better Chip, Los Angeles, launched beet chips that can be eaten with herbed goat cheese, hummus and Greek yogurt dip. Boulder, CO-based Snikiddy’s Eat Your Vegetable varieties now include Curry and Korean Barbecue Crisps made with a combination of broccoli, carrots, kale, navy beans, shiitake mushrooms, spinach, sweet potatoes and tomatoes. TH Foods rolled out Crunchmaster Popped Edamame Chips in Sea Salt and Wasabi Soy, designed to remind consumers of fresh sushi, according to the Loves Park, IL, company.

Bold is also beautiful. In fact, if there is a snack flavor du jour, it might be buffalo wing with blue cheese, followed closely by bacon. Recently, the Lance brand, part of Snyder’s-Lance, launched BOLD sandwich crackers to attract younger consumers who want bold flavors and up to 3 g protein per serving. Lance sandwich crackers come in Buffalo Wing Blue Cheese, Pizza and Bacon Cheddar flavors.

Look for sriracha, a spicy sauce of red chili and garlic common to Vietnamese and Thai cuisine, to also increase in popularity. “It’s the next salsa or ketchup that you’re going to see in America,” noted Anindita (Ann) Mukherjee, senior vice-president and chief marketing officer for PepsiCo’s Frito-Lay division, Plano, TX, during her presentation at SNAXPO 2014 earlier this year.

Go way better-for-you

Way Better Snacks, Minneapolis, demonstrates how more healthful snacks don’t have to taste bland or “healthy.” “Way Better Snacks continues to innovate with our bold, distinctive packaging, incredible taste, diverse flavor assortments, sprouted ingredients and product certifications like Non-GMO Project Verified to mark our high standard of quality that sets us apart from our competition,” said James Breen, CEO and founder.

 “We sample to tens of thousands of consumers through events and other gatherings, and they rave about our flavor assortments, including our recently launched tortilla chip varieties Simply Sprouted Sriracha and Simply Tangy Mustard & Onion,” he said. “Simply Spicy Sriracha combines one of the hottest flavors with the benefits of sprouted kale seeds, while Simply Tangy Mustard & Onion not only delivers with bold, tangy-mustard deliciousness; it also includes actual sprouted mustard seeds.”

While many snack producers talk about blurring lines, many companies mix and match snacks into a single product or a single bag. A few years ago, Kellogg’s Keebler brand launched its Town House FlipSides Pretzel Crackers.

More recently, RW Garcia, San Jose, CA, came out with Tortatos, made from white corn and red potatoes. They offer the crunch of a tortilla chip and the finish of a potato chip. These “whatever” chips have 25% less fat than conventional potato chips since corn does not take up as much oil as potatoes during frying. Also, the company reported that it uses red potatoes because they contain less starch than other potatoes such as russets, the usual chipping potato.

Frito-Lay recently came out with new Cheetos Flamin’ Hot / Doritos Dinamita Chile Limon Mix, which also demonstrates how the nation’s largest food and snack manufacturer leverages its powerhouse portfolios and creates new products by simply making world-class brands collide in one package. Last year, Frito-Lay launched Cheezy Salsa Mix-Ups and Xtra Cheezy Mix-Ups. Ms. Mukherjee called the product one of the most successful innovations for Cheetos in almost a decade.

“It’s all about understanding this family fun experience where things like shapes, colors, textures and flavors all come together to create that fun family-bonding experience,” she said.

So, what’s the future for the snack industry? Mr. Howe thinks he has the answer. “When it comes to change, expect more of the same,” he said.                        

Editor’s note: For more information on snack trends and exclusive IRI scanning data detailing specific snack categories, check out the State of the Industry report in the May issue of Snack World magazine. Contact the Snack Food Association at for more details.