All the responsibility for making healthier snacks might seem to fall on formulators to use ingredients that impart a healthier profile. But while ingredients play a large part in the making of healthier snacks, a conventional production process can cancel out better-for-you formulations. As the demand for healthy versions of standby snacks begins to gain some ground, equipment manufacturers have found ways to reduce the fat and acrylamide in fried foods. Snack manufacturers are beginning to take hot-air expansion seriously as an alternative to frying.

However, as demand for healthier foods sweeps other sectors of the food industry, healthy snacks have had difficulty gaining traction. Snack companies interested in pursuing healthier alternatives often want equipment that can work with existing lines, not replace them. 

Reducing oil and acrylamide

For consumers, fried potato chips are hard to beat. According to SymphonyIRI Group, a market research firm based in Chicago, IL, potato chips make up 38% of salty snack dollar sales. This means in terms of dollars, they are the most popular salty snack in the US. Despite the perception that consumers want healthier snacks, they seem reluctant to give up the texture and flavor frying lends to thinly sliced potatoes. SymphonyIRI reported that many natural potato chip brands saw incredible increases, while sales of several top baked brands decreased in the 52-week period ending March 18. Because consumers seem intent on eating fried potato chips but still want a healthier version of the product, equipment manufacturers are finding ways to make frying less of a health issue.

Frying presents two main challenges for a health-conscious consumer: the product’s oil content and the possibility of acrylamide formation. Heat and Control, Inc., Hayward, CA, has developed solutions to both of these challenges.

To reduce the oil content, Heat and Control’s Automatic Heated Centrifuge uses heated air and centrifugal force to remove excess surface oil from products after frying. The heated air keeps the surface oil in liquid form so as the centrifuge spins, the oil releases from the snacks, said Don Giles, director of sales for snack processing systems. The process reduces the oil content of batch-fried potato chips by about 40% compared with regular potato chips.

Another health concern with frying is the development of acrylamide, a naturally occurring chemical in food that has been linked to cancer in some animals. Acrylamide forms when foods containing asparagine and glucose are heated above 248°F during cooking. Frying at lower temperatures helps to prevent acrylamide formation. Heat and Control has developed a new vacuum fryer to prevent this formation as well as permit the frying of high-sugar products such as sweet potatoes, apples and pineapples without excessive browning.

“Our vacuum fryer operates at 5 to 10% of the normal atmospheric pressure we live in,” Mr. Giles said. “This allows water to boil at a much lower temperature, allowing processors to fry using a lower oil temperature.”

Frying alternatives

Even though it is possible to fry foods with less oil content and acrylamide in the finished product, most health-conscious consumers desire snacks that are not fried.

“I see healthy snacks as a market segment that has yet to fulfill its potential,” said Keith Graham, marketing manager at Baker Perkins Ltd., headquartered in Peterborough, UK, with US offices in Grand Rapids, MI. “Consumers don’t want to compromise on the enjoyment of eating something they see as a treat, so our challenge is to come up with snack products where the taste and texture are as appealing as the health proposition.”

The most common way to produce healthier snacks is to substitute frying with a different heating method. Frying drives out moisture, but so does baking and extrusion. For pellet-based snacks, frying causes moisture inside the pellet to expand before it escapes, leaving behind a light, crispy snack. Hot-air expansion is also effective. Like frying, these methods remove moisture from the pellet or dough but don’t add oil.

“The rapid heat transfer required for pellet expansion is traditionally achieved by soaking the pellets in a hot oil bath in fryers,” said Paul McKeithan, regional director of food and feed, Buhler Aeroglide, Cary, NC. “Expanding the pellets with hot air eliminates the oil absorption that occurs while in that hot oil bath.”

At last year’s interpack, Baker Perkins introduced its hot-air expansion technology for creating expanded pellet and baked snacks. The hot air develops a desired texture that competes favorably with that created by frying. 

Extruded snacks can be expanded during the extrusion process, or the expansion can happen later by frying or exposing the extruded pellet to hot air. Twin-screw extruders can handle whole-grain flours, rice flours and vegetable powders to make snacks with healthier profiles.

“Obviously, we can’t do potato chips, but we’re making things with whole grains or vegetable flours, which are intrinsically healthy,” Mr. Graham said about Baker Perkins’ extruders. To make extruded snacks more sophisticated, the company is working on co-extruded snacks that can be filled or made into interesting pillow or tube shapes. The company’s extruders can also make a denser pellet for expansion in the oven, which produces a different flavor profile than typical hot-air-expanded or fried snacks.

Baking is an obvious alternative when producing healthy snacks. The process removes moisture without adding oil or fat and gives the product a toasted flavor. Reading Bakery Systems, Robesonia, PA, sees growth in the baked snack category because of this.

“It’s a growing category because consumers recognize the calorie savings with some baked products,” said David Kuipers, Reading Bakery Systems’ vice-president of sales and marketing. The company’s new multi-crisp baked snack system can produce baked snacks made with potato, wheat or corn flour ingredients. According to the company, this system can make multiple products.

Hot-air expansion works better for some snacks than others. Terry Gieseke, director of sales and marketing, J.R. Short Milling Co., Kankakee, IL, said the pellet’s shape and formula determine whether a snack would do better fried or air-popped. However, the company, which produces pellets, can adjust shapes or formulas to make pellets more compatible with hot-air expansion. “Some shapes such as a very narrow tube a couple inches long that’s all whole grain would fry much better than it would air-pop, but if you wanted a long narrow tube to air-pop, we could formulate it so that it would,” she said. “It’s the combination of shape and formula that makes it limiting.”

Flexible lines

Although the healthy snacks market is growing, it hasn’t come close to surpassing conventional snacks. Snack producers need adaptable equipment that can run alongside more conventional equipment. Mr. Kuipers said that even though consumers are looking for healthy snacks, producers want flexibility from the equipment they purchase.

Wyandot, Inc., Marion, OH, found success in producing healthier snacks using twin-screw extruders. Dan McGrady, the company’s vice-president of technical service, said that the company wanted to produce snacks made with whole-grain flours, rice flours and vegetable powders, but those products don’t run easily on a single-screw extruder.

“We like to have multiple capabilities,” Mr. McGrady said. “What can the equipment do in different platforms? The twin-screw extruder will make a variety of direct-expanded snacks, but we also have the capability of producing a chip off that line.”

Baker Perkins works with customers to install extruders, dryers and coating systems to run parallel with the fryer so production can bounce between fried and extruded snacks. The company developed its Snack Master line with flexibility in mind.

“It enables people to make lots of different products on the same line,” Mr. Graham said. “If they see an opportunity for a healthy snack or co-extruded snack, they can adapt their line very quickly to start making that snack without losing the capability they already have.”

That seems to be the theme of health in the snack industry — adapt to the opportunity without throwing away convention. With flexible equipment and several alternatives for expanding pellets, creative snack manufacturers can have it both ways.