Snack foods are evolving from simply getting consumers to the next meal to replacing meals that people eat on the go. Although consumers still dig into conventional snacks when watching television, the most popular activity for both regular and healthy snacking, they are more likely to reach for a healthier snack when replacing a meal altogether, according to Mintel, Chicago. In its July 2012 study, “Healthy Snacking,” Mintel reported that taste is still the No. 1 concern of consumers when choosing a snack, but 65% of survey respondents said they were interested in healthy snacks, and 49% were interested in snacks that target health issues.

Brooks Brown, national sales manager, Wyandot, Inc., Marion, OH, predicted that healthy snacks will only make more inroads in the conventional snack aisle. “Better-for-you snacks have been around for some time, and we expect additional growth as consumers become more educated, and their desire for healthier options drive industry innovation,” he said.

Beyond fresh fruits and vegetables, however, what constitutes as a healthy snack is still very much up for debate and is different for every consumer.

“Everyone defines healthy snacking differently and very personally,” said Kristin Walsh, director, influencer and consumer engagement, Frito-Lay North America, Plano, TX. “For some it’s less calories, for some it’s less fat, and for some it’s really focusing on positive nutrition.”

To determine what health ­issues to focus on, snack companies can turn to research into attitudes that drive consumers as well as the public health findings that support the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA).

“I think consumers are looking for a healthier alternative, and to a lot of consumers nowadays, that also means all-natural,” said Cara Figgins, vice-president, Partners Crackers, Kent, WA. “Consumers are looking for a simple ingredient listing, ingredients they know and ingredients they have ­recently learned about but know to be healthier and all-natural.”

While the call for natural products comes from consumer demand, factors pushing sodium reduction and whole grains can be found in DGA’s recommendations. With Americans consuming too much sodium and nutritionists pushing whole grains, snack manufacturers are looking for ways to incorporate these trends in their products and still maintain delicious taste.

Passing the salt

Because DGA strongly suggests the average American consume less than 2,300 mg of sodium a day, snack producers such as Frito-Lay North America have made sodium reduction a part of their agenda when it comes to making snacks healthier. “We know that Americans are consuming more sodium than they need to be, so in 2011 we did reduce sodium in our flavored potato chips by an average of about 25%,” said Danielle Dalheim, registered dietitian, Frito-Lay.

To shrink sodium in Frito-Lay’s flavored potato chips, the company approached flavor development differently. Instead of relying on salt to deliver great taste, Frito-Lay turned to the culinary arts and food science to find alternative ways to add flavor. “We look for opportunities to focus on flavor and deliver taste through culinology and work with our chefs here at Frito-Lay so we can get that great flavor without as much salt,” Ms. Dalheim said.

In the company’s flavor kitchen, research chefs work with food scientists to develop flavors based on real food cues instead of starting with salt, enabling Frito-Lay to cut back on sodium. With spices in the base chip of Tostitos Artisan Recipe Tortilla Chips, the company was able to deliver spicy flavors with only 90 to 120 mg of sodium per serving.

Relying on natural spices for flavor in an effort to reduce sodium can gain credibility with consumers looking for “all natural,” but it does take a lot of work in product development.

In its pursuit of healthy snacks, Inventure Foods, Inc., Phoenix, found that natural seasonings can provide consumer-approved flavor but requires working with suppliers to find full flavors without artificial components and added sugar. “We have 12 or 15 different products in our portfolio that fit that criteria, and all have great flavor,” said Steven Sklar, senior vice-president, Inventure Foods. “It doesn’t happen overnight, but that’s where putting the time into developing a product with full flavor and nutritional benefits pays off in the end.”

Riding the whole grain wave

In discussions about health and food, it is inevitable that whole grains will come up. A wave of consumer fervor for whole grain bread has been growing and swamping white bread. A consumer survey by Mintel in September 2012 found that 62% of people preferred whole grain taste to refined wheat. At the 2012 Whole Grains on Every Plate conference, the Whole Grains Council reported that 7,600 products in 36 countries now carry the Whole Grain Stamp, up from 5,000 products in 2011. With dieticians recommending whole grains in the daily diet and consumer tastes changing to favor whole grains, adding them to healthy snacks seems like a win-win.

Frito-Lay developed its Smart Foods Select line as a way to incorporate whole grains. These pop chips and ready-to-eat popcorn products have 10 to 12 g of whole grains per serving. The company also expanded its healthy halo brand Sunchips with a 6 Grain Medley flavor this year. While a normal serving of Sunchips carries 18 g of whole grain per serving, the 6 Grain Medley delivers 21 g of whole grain per serving.

Ancient grains can provide a creative way to develop a whole grain snack that appeals not only to aspirations of healthy eating but also to consumers’ desire for ingredients they decide are clean or natural. Ancient grains include cereals such as amaranth, barley, quinoa, millet, sorghum, teff, buckwheat, chia, faro, Kamut, montina, spelt and triticale. These grains figured in long-ago diets, but had mostly disappeared from modern eating patterns — until now. “Ancient grains have been around for several years now, but it seems to be moving to more mainstream consumer awareness,” Ms. Figgins said.  “They appeal to consumers for both the perceived healthier ingredients as well for the back-to-the-roots idea of where the ancient grains started.”

Existing products can benefit from health trends with little to no reformulation. Products naturally or already made with whole grains simply can declare so on the package. “Popcorn — it’s always been whole grain, but you might as well say it,” Mr. Brown said (see “Put a label on it” on Page 62).

Eat those vegetables

Exploring options beyond potato chips and crackers, snack producers can find new product inspiration in a variety of different bases that set off consumers’ health radar. Vegetable powders made from sweet potatoes, carrots, kale or beans can create chip and puff bases for snacks with unique flavors, added nutritional benefits and a marketing message that screams better-for-you.

“Vegetable powders provide significant nutritional benefits beyond mainstream snack offerings,” said Dan McGrady, vice-president of technical services, Wyandot.

Mr. Brown added that using vegetable powders, the company has designed snacks that contain “a full serving of vegetables.”

New bases also allow snack producers to get creative in their product development and tap into other food segments that might be booming with shoppers. For example, Inventure Foods looks outside the snack aisle to find inspiration for new products and hopefully cash in on other growing trends. The company’s hummus-based chip meets that need for a unique snack with better-for-you appeal.

“In grocery stores, we saw the hummus category growing very rapidly, so we’ve adapted that concept and made a chip using a chickpea flour. That’s how we came up with a hummus-based product,” Mr. Sklar said.

By looking at other categories and pursuing unconventional bases, Inventure Foods creates unique products that don’t necessarily compete with established ones. “Our rice and bean product is made with ­adzuki bean, a bean that originated out of Asia. It’s a unique product that people may not know, but it has a little cache to it,” he said.

Creating snack products that truly radiate better-for-you attributes and not just a healthy perception can be fraught with difficulties. The developer has to get the taste just right or balance the cost, but with consumers becoming more mindful of their food, going the extra mile may be worth it in the long run. “Consumers are getting more intelligent, so it’s going to get harder and harder to fool them,” Mr. McGrady said. “It’s best, in my mind, to deliver true better-for-you attributes than do a healthy halo approach.”