Once considered an edible solution for misshapen tortillas, the humble tortilla chip, created from corn masa, water, salt and lime, is certainly a familiar favorite for social gatherings, snacks and meal accompaniments. While indulgence never goes out of style, consumer demands are encouraging manufacturers to experiment with healthy ingredients. The results are tortilla chips featuring whole grains, added fiber and plant sterols — making tortilla chips a snack appreciated both for its taste and better-for-you attributes.

Mintel International Group, a Chicago, IL-based consumer, media and market research company, released an executive summary of “Healthy Snacking – US November 2006” predicting the total US sales of salty snacks would increase by 14% at current prices between 2005 and 2010. Mintel suggested obesity and health concerns, government health initiatives, product introductions and reformulations, and consumers eating healthier will continue to affect the salty snack market.

According to the report, “Americans, in general, have become more health conscious, making it more difficult for them to rationalize munching on chips that are high in fat and low in nutrients.” Sixty percent of salty-snack eaters expressed an interest in better-for-you alternatives.

Despite overwhelming media reports of global health concerns and calls for sweeping industry change, many mainstream consumers choose a more middle-of-theroad approach, enjoying their favorite foods in moderation or in reformulated versions made with better-for-you ingredients. For manufacturers, the prevailing challenge is remaining cognizant of the latest health initiatives and nutritive concerns.

ENHANCED TRANSPARENCY. As consumers clamor for healthy alternatives, there’s a correlating desire for transparency in nutrition labels and education about health-enhancing ingredients. Corazonas, Los Angeles, CA, lists the benefits of its plant sterol-enhanced tortilla chips on the bag’s packaging. Consumers can also visit the company’s Web site for news and resources on heart health. “The trend in snacks is that things are getting healthier,” said Joe Beauprez, vice-president, Corazonas.“With affirmations of natural, organic and no trans fat,more claims mean we must up the ante in terms of transparency because the public is getting more and more educated about what manufacturers put into food,” he said.

Using ingredients familiar to consumers such as whole oats and fibers, Corazonas worked with Brandeis University in Waltham, MA, to create the chips that reduce low-density lipoprotein (LDL), or “bad cholesterol,” up to 15% by eating two servings of chips a day for one month. A serving is 1 oz or 10 chips. The company’s endeavor to create a better-for-you snack was personal for Corazonas’ founder Ramona Cappello. Ms. Cappello experienced the pain of losing two family members to heart disease and resolved to create a snack that tastes good and also helps people. The name Corazonas is a derivative of the Spanish word for heart.

“When consumers purchase any salty snack, they are looking for an indulgent and tasty food,” Mr. Beauprez said. “There’s no biological need to snack. It’s something social and emotional that typically brings people together and sets the tone for a good time. That being said, our primary goal is to make snacks that taste great.”
Corazonas’ consumer audience is made up of people taking control of their health through better choices in diet and lifestyle. These individuals are adding exercise into their lifestyle and educating themselves about heart health and cholesterol. The company is also gaining favor with moms who find Corazonas are enjoyed by the entire family, eliminating the need to purchase separate snacks for each family member. The company recently introduced Margarita Lime, Baja Bean Dip and Cilantro Salsa Fresca savory varieties and Sweet Thurros Dolce, a cinnamon and sugar tortilla chip based on a Mexican pastry.

The Bachman Group, Reading, PA, looks to create fun and social occasions with its restaurant-style and Chipitos tortilla chips. The company prepares its masa by steeping kernel corn for several hours before grinding it between lava millstones. White corn is used for the restaurant-style chips, and a combination of white and yellow corn composes the Chipitos tortilla chips. Both varieties are fried in trans-fat-free oil. The restaurant-style chips are toasted before frying to bring out the natural sweetness of the corn. The Bachman Group recently introduced whole-grain Chipitos in Sweet Chili Lime, Cheddar & Onion, Thai BBQ and Salt & Pepper varieties. “The trend in tortillas is to appeal to consumer demand for sensational and unique flavor experiences,” said Laura Unger, marketing assistant, The Bachman Group. “Our varieties are inspired by bold and global flavors.”

DELIVERY METHOD. Typically thought of as a savory snack, tortilla chips have found more utilitarian usage as a delivery tool for dips and salsas, crumbled as salad toppers and as a base for ingredient-loaded nachos. In an effort to enjoy the dip as much as the chip, Herr Foods, Nottingham, PA, created Dippers, a spoon-shaped tortilla chip available in Bite Sized, Monterey Jack & Green Chili and Multigrain varieties. Multigrain Dippers contain a blend of 10 grains and sesame, poppy and caraway seeds. After achieving success in the whole-grain pretzel market, Herr’s looked to expand its product line while remaining in tune with whole-grain and multigrain trends. The company’s most recent introduction is Habanero Salsa tortilla chips. As a part of Herr’s Natural line, the company also produces an all-natural blue corn tortilla chip made with organic blue corn.

Although blue corn may not be considered the next superfood, research in the Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture from Luis Bello-Pérez, Ph.D., Centro de Desarrollo de Productos Bioticos del IPN in Morelos, Mexico, stated blue corn tortillas contain 20% more protein than their white corn counterparts. The blue tortillas are also lower in resistant or indigestible starch and register lower on the glycemic index. The blue color in the corn comes from anthocyanins in the corn, similar to a compound found in berries and red wine.

The tortilla chip is no stranger outside the conventional chip aisle, and the chip’s short ingredient label is being enhanced with grains and other natural ingredients. Last year, Snyder’s of Hanover, Hanover, PA, introduced Jalapeño Red, Lightly Salted, Flaxseed Gold and Savory Blue tortilla chips into its Multigrain lineup. The whole-grain chips contain 8 to 20 g of whole grains per serving and 25 to 33% less fat than traditional tortilla chips.
“Tortilla chip snacking has been around since the 1940s, and topically seasoned tortilla chips are a low-cost flavor adventure,” said Daryl Thomas, Herr’s vice-president of sales and marketing. “With the addition of salsa, cheese or other condiments, tortilla chips have become a complex snack and, for some consumers, a quick and convenient mini-meal.”

The popularity of tortilla chips can be clearly seen in the number of new product line extensions and growing number of tortilla chip SKUs. Shearer’s Foods in Brewster, OH, recently added another tortilla line to its operation. The company makes its chips by first soaking then cooking the yellow, white and blue corn before grinding on-site for better control over quality and consistency, according to Paul Smith, Shearer’s director of marketing.

Two years ago, the company began producing organic yellow and blue corn tortilla chips with sesame seeds. Both varieties meet US Department of Agriculture organic standards and are certified by Oregon Tilth, a third-party organic agency. Sold in the natural food section of the grocery store, the organic blue corn chips are cooked in organic sunflower oil.“Blue corn is seen by consumers as a unique product, although there is only a nominal nutritional difference between blue corn versus white or yellow corn,” Mr. Smith said.“Natural products can be a destination purchase for some consumers, but we sometimes find the same consumers purchasing both our natural and conventional products.”

Covering both whole-grain and multigrain trends, Shearer’s introduced a multigrain tortilla chip made with ground oats, wheat and corn. The company’s whole-grain Black Bean & Salsa-flavored tortilla chip contains 3 g of fiber per serving. Currently, the company is experiencing stronger sales from its whole-grain tortilla chips than with its multigrain variety. “I believe that the whole-grain chip is more relevant nutritionally than the multigrain chips, which provide great flavor but less nutrition when compared with whole grains,” Mr. Smith said.

Shearer’s prides itself on taste differentiation and the importance of maintaining freshness in oil and raw ingredients. “We are nonwavering when it comes to quality of oil and ingredients. Oil management is the most important thing you can do when cooking snacks,” Mr. Smith continued. “It’s an investment in quality.”

The company fries its product in trans-fat-free corn oil. In a nod to sustainability and environmental awareness, used cooking oil from Shearer’s is reclaimed by a third party. One recipient of the used oil is the Physics Bus, a mobile physics classroom, which runs on biodiesel.

PERUVIAN POWERHOUSE. Just as used oil is recycled into fuel, what’s old is new again in the savory snack market. Excitement surrounding whole grains has reawakened interest in ancient grains. Salba Smart, Denver, CO, is just one company putting the power of ancient grains to work. The company uses Salba, a patent-pending Peruvian grain, to create its organic white, yellow and blue corn tortilla chips. The grain is a form of chia, or Salvia hispanica L, grown in central Mexico during pre-Columbian times. Modern agronomists sorted the white salvia seeds from the black seeds to produce a nutritionally superior white variety.

Salba, grown in the Ica region of Peru, is rich in omega-3, protein and fiber. Salba is a whole food that will breakdown in the body naturally and is an option for vegetarians who avoid fish oil products or for consumers who dislike the taste of flax, according to Mark Maggio, senior vice-president, Salba Smart. Each 12-chip serving contains 400 mg of omega-3s. Recommended daily amounts for omega-3 range from 1,100 to 1,200 mg.
The company prominently places its omega-3 claim on the front of the packaging. “There’s a belief that all omega-3s are fishy, and we’re conditioned to think of omega-3 as primarily coming from fish,” Mr. Maggio said. “This protein- and fiber-rich product is a great way to get nutrients into picky eaters.”

The back of the bag features information about Salba, and the company’s Web site offers consumers information and current Salba research including Salba’s benefit in regulating blood pressure and other heart disease risk factors for diabetics.

The product is also gluten-free; however, the company does not emphasize this attribute in the same manner as omega-3s because there is some consumer hesitation that a gluten-free product will not be as tasty as a conventional product.

BACK TO BASICS. Salty-snack lovers are not stereotyped as picky eaters, but most people have a favorite tortilla chip flavor, texture or shape. El Jinete, Carol Stream, IL, manufactures gourmet tortilla chips made from whole tortillas. After soaking and stone-grinding the corn, the masa tortillas are triple baked and cut into quarters before batch frying in 100% corn oil. Designed to retain the true flavor and texture of traditional Mexican tortilla chips, the handmade chips are cooked in small batches and seasoned by hand. The texture of the additiveand preservative-free El Jinete chips is less coarse than many conventionally produced tortilla chips, according to Juliette Zweig, El Jinete’s tortilla queen. Ms. Zweig described the taste as similar to what can be found in Mexican restaurants.

Because batch sizes remain small, El Jinete can customize batches for customers. Current flavors include All Natural, Lightly Salted, Lemon-flavored, Zesty Lime and Hot ‘n’ Spicy varieties. “I believe that the tortilla market but ultimately people are creatures of habit and while they might try the less-traditional flavors once, they typically will go back to the basics,” Ms. Zweig said.

El Jinete will soon reintroduce its product in a biodegradable bag. “We have to go green because we want to do our part,” she concluded.

Like El Jinete, going green is on many manufacturers’ to-do lists. But awareness of how consumers interpret the buzzwords of natural, organic, green and free trade, along with their accompanying labels, can determine the success of the endeavor. Some consumers report a lack of understanding regarding what product distinctions mean, and information gathering is one way consumers create a level of trust with manufacturers.

A study conducted by BBMG, a New York, NY-based branding and integrated marketing company, found that educated consumers seek companies with socially conscious values similar to their own. “Trust is perhaps the most important issue between these consumers and marketers; there has to be an alignment between what a company is promising and what it’s doing,” said Mitch Baranowski, BBMG founding partner. “For companies that are engaging this green consumer, it’s less about gaining traction but about building relationships with these consumers.”

VARIABLE EXTREMES. That being said, consumer tastes, desires and needs continually evolve, and there is an increasing need for manufacturers to understand the motivation behind food purchases. These changes invite manufacturers to educate consumers about the ingredients in their products, create innovative marketing approaches and perhaps even maintain an ecological or sustainable profile.

The aforementioned challenges coupled with ever-changing product profiles make it increasingly difficult to categorize the snacking consumer into a static demographic. Manufacturers leading the market with natural, whole- and multigrain products have experienced significant growth in the public’s acceptance of snacks made with alternative grains and new flavor technologies . This growth further opens the door of a snack arena where innovative manufacturers and openminded consumers have multiple opportunities to create mutually beneficial relationships with indulgent snacks and extra nutrition.