Can too much innovation ever be too much of a good thing? Of course not, but the wave of snacking alternatives is forcing companies like Snyder’s-Lance, Charlotte, NC, to explore new alternatives for growth.

“Consumers are really expecting us to begin providing some reshaping to traditional products and offer some new, compelling reasons to buy,” noted Carl Lee, president and CEO, during a recent earnings call. “It can be around flavors. It can be around packaging. It can be around additional benefits.”

Cookie, cracker and baked snack manufacturers are ramping up new product development in rapid response to changing consumer consumption and eating patterns — specifically involving the flourishing on-the-go and the inter-meal snacking occasions. Keith Graham, marketing manager, Baker Perkins, Grand Rapids, MI, called the trend “food on the move.”

That’s especially true at the start of the day when time-stressed consumers are eating less cereal, bacon, eggs and even toast while relying on more healthful snacking alternatives as they race out the door and head to school or jobs. “These products are made as conventional cookies, formed in a rotary moulder or wirecut before baking, but often incorporating ingredients such as oats or whole grains to exploit the ‘healthy’ image of breakfast cereals,” Mr. Graham explained. “Soft, filled bars — particularly granola bars — have been around for some time, but their growth is accelerating as they also become associated with breakfast. Additionally, the percentage being baked rather than cold formed is rising because of the greater potential baking creates for product development in terms of variety, taste and appearance.”

In the cookie category, the increased use of natural and non-GMO ingredients, which are often more expensive, are making dividing accuracy a significant factor in equipment decision-making, according to Cesar Zelaya, bakery technology manager, Handtmann, Lake Forest, IL. “Thinner and smaller products are in demand from health-conscious consumers who are looking for products made with organic ingredients, ancient grains and premium inclusions,” he said. 

Enrobing snacks with flavor-enhancing glazes and eye-appealing sheens also provides a premium perception, observed Norm Searle, a member of the marketing team for Amherst, NY-based GOE-Amherst Stainless Fabrication. “Some of these [coatings] also carry herbs and spices for flavor enhancement,” he said. Liquid carriers, he added, can be used for applying assorted grains, seasonings, seeds, candies and decorates.”

Oil adds palatability and enhances the flavor of baked snacks. However, Mr. Searle said, too much oil actually can be too much of a good thing. Spraying systems need to apply coatings consistently to minimize waste and enhance product quality.

“With the cost of oil, glazes and other ingredients being what they are, accurate control, recovery and distribution [of coatings] will yield short-term payback of the equipment most often in the range of one to two years at most,” Mr. Searle said. “With the inclusion of flavors, accuracy of distribution is very important; otherwise, you develop ‘hot spots’ where the anticipated flavor is too strong or not at all.”

Another major movement involves the proliferation of limited-time offerings (LTOs) and seasonal flavors such as lime, mint and salsa during summer months and pumpkin, peppermint and cinnamon during the winter holidays.

Many of these LTOs also come in new shapes, multiple colors and various fillings that can be quite complex and challenging to produce. “These products can have up to three different colors or flavor doughs and can be ornate in appearance,” said Rick Parrish, director of sales and marketing, Franz Haas Machinery of America, Richmond, VA.

Defying definition

Non-conventional has become the new normal in the baked snack arena as bakers blur the lines and develop hybrid products, according to Mark Hotze, vice-president and general manager, Tromp Group Americas, Richmond, VA.

“You’ll start talking with a customer about cookies and by the time you end the conversation, you’re discussing the possibility of making fun cakes, which are just bite-sized cupcakes in fun shapes that may be made with or without a conventional cupcake formulation,” he said. “We’re seeing more interchangeable sweet-snacking occasions. Companies are looking for fun, different, single-serve snacks — like the cake lollipops that you used to eat for dessert — that can be consumed in a car or out of a lunchbox.”

Such innovation, he added, requires bakers to add versatility to their production lines by combining multiple makeup lines — die cutting, extrusion, wire cutting or even depositing systems — on a single cookie, cracker or baked snack line. Such flexibility may require a greater initial investment, but the ultimate payoff is speed to market as new and variable product trends emerge. “Bakers want the ability to not only produce two or three new products but also have the ability to make products — some of which have not even been developed — three to five years from now,” Mr. Hotze said.

In the makeup area, gluten-free, high-protein and low-fat baked foods can be the biggest challenges for bakers, according to Shawn Moye, vice-president of sales, Americas, Reading Bakery Systems, Robesonia, PA.

“The formulations for these products use a wide spectrum of ingredients,” Mr. Moye said. “Learning how to mix these ingredients in the proper amounts and when to mix them is critical. Having gauge rolls with variable speeds and chilled capability is also important.”

Perhaps one of the most challenging areas is in portioning gluten-free and other sticky doughs, according to John McIsaac, vice-president, strategic business development, Reiser, Canton, MA. Unlike conventional doughs, these non-gluten products have a consistency that makes them difficult to portion accurately.

“The characteristics of gluten-free dough that make it different from standard dough are the tendency to entrain air and the tendency to stick to everything it touches,” Mr. McIsaac said. “To automate the process, we needed to consider how to minimize and disperse air in the dough and how to get the divided portion directly into the pan it is going to be baked in.”

Reiser’s new “zero” double-screw system disperses entrained air. “There are no large holes in the bread, and there is a nice, even crumb,” Mr. McIsaac noted. “We have attachments to directly divide into pans, both for bread and rolls.”

Depending on the specific formulation and the flour substitutes being used, gluten-free textures can range from very dense, viscous dough to liquid batters, observed Mr. Zelaya of Handtmann. He said the company’s vane cell technology can adjust to handle a wide variety of viscosities and deliver consistent product weights from the beginning to the end of each batch. 

From bench to oven

Most equipment companies offer ­custom-designed equipment or will mix and match technology to develop multi-textured, flavor-infused snacks. In some cases, the baker and vendor work side-by-side to scale up a product or even create a new snack altogether in their pilot plants, test facilities or innovation centers. Some suppliers’ facilities may even do small runs to test market new products prior to a full-scale rollout.

“When it comes to forming products, we have the ability to sheet, extrude, co-extrude, mould and wirecut products,” Mr. Moye said. “Once the product is formed, it can be topped with a variety of dispensers and then baked and dried to the final moisture and color the customer is looking to achieve. The production line is small enough to easily run multiple production trials but large enough to produce market samples and ensure that when we scale up to full production lines, our issues are few.”

Baker Perkins’ technical center offers a range of production and laboratory-scale mixing, forming and baking equipment dedicated to the cookie industry.

Haas’ test facilities offer different baking moulds, cutting dies and depositing or extrusion nozzles to develop close to what the customer requires. “We use 3D printing to make a product sample that gives the customer the size and look of the new product,” Mr. Parrish said. “The actual depositing/extrusion nozzles are also 3D-printed.”

The company’s engineers then work with the customer on the final product’s desired characteristics. “This involves calculating the flow dynamics to ensure the orifice and flow chambers of the depositor are sized to achieve the proportionate final product,” Mr. Parrish explained. “This is complex, but using the 3D printing, fast results can be obtained within a short time period.”

Likewise, Baker Perkins’ 3D printer speeds production of sample dies for customer approval. Shapes and characters are designed using a 3D CAD machine and transferred directly to the printer.    

“The sample die is a single impression of a design for a cookie, enabling the customer to see exactly what will be engraved on the production die and to carry out baking tests if they wish,” Mr. Graham said. “The new process is extremely rapid — particularly when multiple prototypes have to be made before approval.”

Overall, innovation centers allow bakers and snack producers to validate a process before the equipment is installed. “It’s one thing to talk about it or show a PowerPoint,” Mr. Hotze said. “It’s another thing to have them send their formulas, and even their flour or other ingredients, and actually create the product.”

New product challenges

Innovation, however, can affect the overall efficiency of an operation. With the flurry of LTOs and more healthful or artisan-style specialty snacks, many manufacturers may start to encounter shorter production runs for standard products, according to Tim Clark, president and CEO, Radio Frequency Co. (RFC), Millis, MA.

Radio frequency (RF) heating and post-bake drying, Mr. Clark noted, can speed up changeovers and even add capacity. “Our radio frequency process increases the efficiency of the oven as well as provides overall energy savings,” he said.

The RF system, he added, can prevent over-coloring or altering quality and increase the shelf life of some baked snacks. In ready-to-eat foods — such as refrigerated cookie dough, where the product may be consumed raw — RFC offers pasteurization radio frequency technology for the ingredients to help eliminate as the risk of salmonella contamination.

Heat and Control, Hayward, CA, recently developed the CEO Color Enhancing Oven for baked goods and the broader snacking occasion, including sweet and savory pies or biscuit- and muffin-type products. “The ability to control the process parameters, such as enhanced air flow, temperature, moisture and dwell [time] allows the user to maximize the heat transfer and dial in the perfect baking conditions for each product type,” noted James Padilla, director of product development.

Mr. Parrish suggested that baked snack producers have always been a major driving force pushing the edge in production speeds, product flexibility and sanitary designs. “Meeting this demand requires the equipment manufacturer to develop wider lines to increase capacities and heating systems to reduce bake time,” he said. “Convection-style ovens fulfill both desires. Typically, convection oven temperature can be reduced 25 F°, and the bake time can be reduced up to 25% based on conventional or radiant heat ovens. Additionally, convection heat bakes more evenly as the fan distributes the hot air around the oven, preventing hot or cold spots. The latest cracker line advances are hybrid ovens, taking advantage of the convection system in the last zones and cookie lines with total convection baking.”

As the popularity of inter-meal consumption grows, bakers and snack producers must turn to a combination of technological solutions to keep up with consumers’ seemingly insatiable appetite for new products.