The savory snacks market doesn’t stand still. Following the recent multigrain and vegetarian crisps movements, savory snacks is heading toward a new grain era with ancient grains such as quinoa, amaranth, millet and buckwheat gaining traction in both North America and Western Europe, which together account for 51% of global savory snack sales.  These “healthy” snacks borrow heavily from breakfast cereals, where the category has first moved from simple wheat grains to whole grains and multi-grains, subsequently expanding to include ancient grains.  What has triggered the move towards ancient grains? And do they have the potential to enter the mainstream?

Stealth reduction looms large

As we’ve commented previously, better-for-you snacks do not seem to resonate well with consumers who prefer taste and indulgence over artificial fat reduction. However, stealth reduction, or the reformulation of products through the incorporation of healthier ingredients that naturally have lower salt or fat content, seems to fare well. Forty-four percent of respondents to Euromonitor International’s survey on food purchasing decisions agreed that they look for natural ingredients in food labelling, as opposed to just 20% for limited or no salt.


One way of achieving stealth reduction is through the use of alternative grains. Mostancient grains are naturally gluten-free and lend themselves well to the growing gluten-free diets. Others, like chia seeds, are rich sources of protein, fiber and antioxidants, while quinoa contains potent bioactive substances like quercetin and kaempferol, with anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer and anti-depressant effects, and at the same time boasts a low glycemic index, which helps with weight loss. In addition, ancient grains also influence texture differently. For example, whole millet and sorghum flours both impart crunchiness, compared to whole quinoa flour, which lends a softer, smoother bite.

Reformulation moves mainstream

In March 2015, Snyder's-Lance, the world’s largest pretzel manufacturer with a 29% share in 2014, ventured into ancient grain snacks through the introduction of Snyder's-Lance's Cape Cod Ancient Grain, which the company positioned as a gluten-free snack, thereby being the first producer to bring ancient grains to the mainstream snack aisle. Earlier in 2015, PepsiCo also reformulated its Cheetos brand to contain more whole grain, less fat and salt so that it could fit new “smart snack” nutritional guidelines rolled out by the US Department of Agriculture in 2014. While the newly reformulated Cheetos do not contain ancient grains, it is a trend towards a similar direction, a move away from simple indulgence products towards more sophisticated and healthier ingredients that can be leveraged to include new, bolder flavors and textures.

Constraints on production and marketing

While exotic heritage grains, like South American quinoa, amaranth and chia, are finding an enthusiastic reception among the millennials, who are the primary consumers of these snacks, there are a number of factors that are holding back their global conquest. For example, quinoa grain is usually harvested by hand because the extreme variability of the maturity period of most quinoa cultivars complicates mechanization. Harvest needs to be precisely timed to avoid high seed losses from shattering, and different panicles on the same plant mature at different times.

In addition, the majority of the new launches in ancient grain snacks come from small, niche players with limited marketing capabilities and whose sales are typically limited to specialized stores or the internet.  While these are growing channels, they still command less than 2% of retail sales, as opposed to supermarkets, hypermarkets and chained convenience stores, which together command some 56% of the global savory snacks market.  These modern outlets are almost exclusively dominated my mainstream multinationals, with PepsiCo, Purchase, New York, US, alone having a share of 48% of in crisps/chips.

Global blockbuster or marketing gimmick?

Savory snacks is no longer just about potatoes and corn, though potato products are still the most popular ingredients in savory snacks. Multi-grains, super grains and now ancient grains are becoming ubiquitous, at least in the dominant regions of North America and Western Europe.  In particular, the application of ancient grains in chips and pretzels is gaining traction. While production, harvesting and marketing barriers could limit the wide scale adoption of ancient grains in the short term, the health and wellness trend, consumers’ growing curiosity about new potential superfoods and government and retailer efforts to curb consumption of junk food could work in their favor in the longer term. However, given that chips with ancient grains contain a significant amount of corn flour and starch,  these “super grain” snacks could also a be pure marketing gimmick, appealing to the modern health-conscious consumers who don’t have the time to read the lengthy ingredient list hidden somewhere at the back of the package.

For further insight please contact Pinar Hosafci, food analyst at Euromonitor International,