In the ever-more-crowded snack aisle, crackers are king — just not your typical crackers. As consumers continue to glom onto the health and wellness trend, they demand whole grains, heightened nutrition and natural ingredients. Increasingly, cracker manufacturers respond to these demands by offering alternatives to chips, cookies and, of course, other crackers.

“Eighty percent of women are weight managers who might typically avoid snacks, or they indulge and feel guilty afterwards,” said Lynne Vandeveer, senior director of brand marketing, Kellogg snacks, The Kellogg Company, Battle Creek, MI, citing a study conducted earlier this year by McNeil Nutritionals and Shape magazine. “This audience is seeking full enjoyment from a cracker without feeling guilty.”

Crackers are clearly the place to be in savory snacks. According to data from SymphonyIRI, Chicago, IL, in May’s State of the Industry Report in Snack World, the official magazine of the Snack Food Association, crackers enjoyed a 5.2% bump in dollar sales to $4.3 billion. In comparison, potato chips climbed 2% to $3.7 billion, tortilla chips 3.8% to $2.4 billion and pretzels only 0.6% to $700 million.

That boost within the cracker category has continued throughout the year, with dollar sales reaching almost $4.4 billion over the past 52 weeks ending July 8, although annual growth slowed slightly to 4.9%. Clear drivers of this increase include crackers with fillings and the nebulous “all other crackers” segment. Although graham cracker sales increased 2.6% in the past 52 weeks, unit sales for this segment were down 2.6%. All other segments declined in both dollar and unit sales.

“Health and wellness is a component to cracker buying as more and more people grow in their awareness of certain health needs — lower sodium, lower sugar, no hydrogenated oils,” said Cara Figgins, vice-president, Partners, Kent, WA. “We have a demographic of buyers who are growing up with this trend and look for it in products. Also, more and more baby boomers are looking for healthier products as they age. I think there is a growing attitude of making small, more healthy decisions where you can and still find good taste.”

Chopping the chips

One such decision is ditching potato and tortilla chips in favor of baked varieties. While sales figures show baked versions of popular chip brands are sliding, crackers are swooping in to pick up the slack.

“Crackers are traditionally the oven-baked alternative to fried potato chips and other fried snacks,” said Jim Garsow, director of marketing, TH Foods, Inc., Loves Park, IL. “Overall, the category has looked to mimic some of the same flavors that you find in fried snacks, but delivering them in a healthier baked format on a cracker base instead. You can get all the same flavors you like in the fried snacks, but in a snack cracker instead.”

As is the case in traditional chips, flavors in crackers are trending to the bold end of the spectrum. In conjunction with its 75th anniversary this year, Pepperidge Farm, Norwalk, CT, introduced Jingos! snack crackers, which it described as having bold flavor and snappy crunch. Available in Lime and Sweet Chili, Parmesan Garlic, and Fiesta Cheddar, a 23-piece serving contains 130 to 140 Cal, 4 g fat with 0 g saturated fat, 1 g fiber and 2 to 3 g protein.

With its Triscuit Thin Crisps, Kraft Foods, Northfield, IL, jumps on the bold flavors wagon, too. Its new Chile Pepper variety is packaged in a snack-friendly container with a wide mouth for easy sharing, just as consumers might do with potato chip bags.

Earlier this year, Kellogg added Sour Cream and Onion, and Cheddar varieties to its lineup of Special K Cracker Chips, which already included Sea Salt and Southwest Ranch flavors. This month, the company adds a corn-based alternative with Special K Popcorn Chips in Butter or Sweet and Salty options.

“Consumers want sensible snack options that still maintain savory taste and satisfying texture,” Ms. Vandeveer said. “With Special K Cracker Chips and new Special K Popcorn Chips, we’re providing the weight management audience with a great-tasting product that satisfies cravings.”

Crumbling the cookie

Sweet flavors are starting to make deeper inroads into the cracker category. According to SymphonyIRI’s data from the May snack industry report, cookies enjoyed growth of 3.9% during the previous year to $4.3 billion in sales, boosted mostly by unapologetically indulgent brands. But the inherently healthier-positioned cracker format grants consumers the flavors they love without the associated guilt of the calorie and sugar counts.

Partners recently launched a line of Mia Dolci cookie crisps in Toasted Hazelnut, Cinnamon Crisp, Chocolate Vanilla Swirl and Lightly Lemon varieties. Made with all-natural ingredients, the cookie crisps contain 120 to 150 Cal, 4 to 7 g fat and 5 to 7 g sugar per 28-g serving, depending on the flavor.

“A typical cookie is going to have somewhere between 14 and 25 g of sugar,” Ms. Figgins said. “Mia Dolci is just a lower-sugar and lower-fat choice. I wouldn’t say it’s healthy, but it’s a healthier alternative to eating national brand cookies.”

This year, the company introduced a Get Movin’ line of portion-controlled snacks in sweet and savory varieties. The cookie crisp flavors include Chocolate Vanilla Swirl, Lightly Lemon and Cinnamon Crisp, and the crackers come in 4 Cheese, Roasted Garlic and Rosemary, Honey Wheat, and Olive Oil and Sea Salt.

TH Foods’ newest addition also straddles the line between cookie and cracker. With 130 Cal and 5 g sugar per 30-g serving, Grammy Crisps are a gluten-free alternative to graham crackers. “It’s a line for kids or for the kid in you,” Mr. Garsow said. “The Grammy Crisp is like a wheat-free alternative to graham crackers that are traditionally high in sugar and very low in nutrient content and low on whole grains.”

Crushing other crackers

The other half of TH Foods’ latest line is Cheezy Crisps, which contain 120 Cal and 3 g fat per 30-g serving. “This is a gluten-free alternative to traditional processed wheat crackers,” Mr. Garsow said. “Both products are 100% whole grain and certified-gluten-free. They’re much lower in fat and a little bit healthier for people interested in a better alternative to traditional snacks.”

“Healthier” is a refrain repeated often in the cracker category, and whole grains pop up in several new brands as well as established brands looking for a refresh. Kraft Foods recently reintroduced Wheat Thins with 100% whole grains. The Original, Reduced Fat, Hint of Salt and BIG varieties are baked and contain no high-fructose corn syrup.

In 2010, Snyder’s-Lance, Inc., Charlotte, NC, switched from whole wheat sandwich crackers to whole grain sandwich crackers, which delivered up to 8 g whole grains per serving at the time.

“Health and wellness has always been an area of focus for us,” said Tom Ingram, senior brand director, Lance sandwich crackers, Snyder’s-Lance. “The Lance brand is a leader in the sandwich cracker category when it comes to making consumer-desired nutritional changes such as being among the first snack food manufacturers to remove trans fat in 2004 and high-fructose corn syrup in 2009.”

Snyder’s-Lance’s newest products contain even more whole grains than previous offerings from the company. Granola Lance Cracker Creations offer 14 g whole grains per 37-g serving, and 5 Grain Peanut Butter Lance Cracker Creations contain 5 g whole grains per 28-g serving.

“Crackers, like many other foods, are held to a higher standard and, in addition to taste, must provide real nutrition,” said Marjorie Merrifield, marketing director, Mary’s Gone Crackers, Gridley, CA. “Consumers are also looking for nourishing ingredients, which Mary’s Gone Crackers provides in all its snacks.” The company’s gluten-free crackers contain organic ingredients such as brown rice, quinoa, flaxseeds and sesame seeds.

Sodium reduction is another key direction in the move to healthier crackers. “Snyder’s-Lance remains mindful of consumer-desired nutritional trends when making decisions about our sandwich crackers, and most recently, we committed to the National Sodium Reduction Initiative,” Mr. Ingram said. “As part of this, we have already reduced the average sodium content of our Lance sandwich crackers.”

Whatever health imperatives arise, consumers will continue to dictate innovation in crackers. After all, a product without a buyer is hardly worth making in the first place.

“Rather than fixating on low fat or really high fiber, people are tending to look at things that are just healthier overall and that still taste good,” Ms. Figgins said. “The really interesting thing is the new demographic buying group that’s coming into age. They are a generation of people who have been watching the Food Network and hearing about more gourmet food but are still fairly health-conscious.”

These 18- to 30-year-olds, known as millennials or Generation Y, will be the ones to watch as they start to gain more buying power and demand even more healthful and flavorful alternatives to the old standbys.

“The bottom line is that snacks are supposed to be fun — they’re not supposed to be boring,” Ms. Vandeveer said. “Consumers want a cracker they can get excited about, and they’re looking for flavor and variety.”