Walk down the snack aisle of any major retailer and it quickly will become clear the snack business is changing. Many of the product forms are the same — potato chips, pretzels, nut varieties and crackers — but the flavor profiles are evolving rapidly. New trend research also indicates the types of snack products consumers have become accustomed to may be changing as well.

Newer snack flavors run the gamut of sweet, spicy or a blend of both to comfort food flavors. Kettle Foods, Salem, Ore., for example, launched jalapeño flavor chips to coincide with this year’s Cinco de Mayo holiday. The Inventure Group, Phoenix, which sells Burger King, TGI Friday’s and Poore Brothers snacks, added sweet chile and red pepper flavors to its line of products. Even nut manufacturers like Blue Diamond of California have added interesting pairings such as wasabi and soy sauce, jalapeño and lime and chile to its offerings.

"We’ve known for a long time that our fans wanted a jalapeño flavor, but we had to get it just right," said Carolyn Richards, chief flavor architect for Kettle Foods.

While many consumers face tough times economically, snack foods are still important, although increasing numbers are searching for the best value. That was a key conclusion of the 2009 State of the Snack Industry report presented March 31 at SNAXPO by Sally Lyons Wyatt, senior vice-president of Information Resources, Inc. (I.R.I.), Chicago.

After snack purchases declined during most of 2007 and into the first quarter of 2008, Ms. Wyatt said they increased by 1.1% in the fourth quarter of 2008 over the same period in 2007. Still, she said, 79% of consumers said they want the best value when they purchase their snack products.

"Everybody is trying to make each dollar count and is making sure that what they buy provides value for their families," she said. "There is no question that the economy has had a significant impact on what consumers value and how they shop."

She said I.R.I. surveys show that 26.5% of consumers said they are snacking less frequently and that 47.5% reported they are cutting back on what they spend on snacking. Fifty-four per cent said they are buying what’s on sale instead of their favorite brands. In addition, 46% of shoppers said they have increased private label purchases. Private label volume increased 8% and dollar sales were up 6%, according to I.R.I. data.

The I.R.I. numbers show that salty snacks and cracker volume declined only 1% over the past year, and that snack nut volume remained even.

While Ms. Wyatt said consumer interest in healthier-for-you snack products continues to grow, she cautioned manufacturers not to ignore their indulgent brands.

"Snacking frequency is rebounding with indulgent regaining traction," she said. "Forty-seven per cent of shoppers say they want to eat what tastes good rather than what’s healthy, and two-thirds of snack purchases still are in indulgent snacks."

Ms. Wyatt’s data tracks with what researchers at the NPD Group, Port Washington, N.Y., have found. Consumer attitudes about snacking have changed, with consumers telling the NPD Group they are snacking more. As a result, snack manufacturers have responded by developing products with more sophisticated flavor profiles that feature a variety of trends ranging from savory, ethnic, sweet and spicy.

Defining what tastes good to consumers is a topic of debate, and snack manufacturers have cast a wide net in an effort to differentiate their flavor profiles and gain market share.

During 2008, new product introductions focused on better-for-you lines of products and bold flavors. Reduced-sodium, lower fat and baked versions of salty snacks were introduced. Herr Foods, Nottingham, Pa., for example, launched Herr’s Baked Potato Crisps in March in traditional savory flavors such as barbeque, sour cream and onion and cheddar and sour cream.

Frito-Lay, Plano, Texas, a division of PepsiCo, Inc., also added new flavors to its Baked! Lay’s line such as Southwestern Ranch.

Other flavor profiles were inspired by ethnic influences, including Hispanic, Asian, Mediterranean and Caribbean. Spicy flavors in a variety of heat levels were rolled out or combined with sweet flavors. The Inventure Group’s sweet chile and red pepper flavor is one example.

Comfort food flavors also have been popular in new snack products. Burger King, another Inventure Group snack brand, has introduced French Toast flavored snacks. TGI Friday’s, another Inventure Group brand, has introduced cheese pizza chips that have an cheese pizza flavor, according to the company.

Based in San Francisco, the Center for Culinary Development is a food and beverage product development company. The company identifies food trends by looking at the food industry from a culinary and consumer-behavior perspective. In late April, the C.C.D., in conjunction with the market research firm Packaged Facts, introduced a "Culinary Trend Mapping Report" looking at snack foods.

"Snacks are less and less the hunger-soothing bridge between formal meals," said Kimberly Egan, chief executive officer of the C.C.D. "They have become valuable gastronomical events in their own right, especially as consumers demand more from their snacks."

Consumers using snacking as a meal-replacement strategy increasingly are demanding varied flavors from their snacks as well as fortification of protein, fiber and vitamins that yield performance benefits, according to the C.C.D.’s Trend Mapping Report.

Trends identified in the report include better-for-you snacks, such as "alternative chips" made from beets, sweet potatoes and cassava that offer indulgence fused with a perception of healthfulness. Crispy vegetable snacks made from green beans, soybeans and chickpeas that are minimally processed but offer nutrition along with crunch and salty, spicy flavors. A little off the beaten path, the C.C.D. report said consumers in the Generation Y demographic have discovered the umami flavor of seaweed snacks.

New premium snacks, like Gastro Popcorn with flavors like madras curry, black truffle or pimenton de la vera, replicate snacks found in trendy bars and restaurants. The emergence of "swanky pork rinds" also illustrates the "real meat" trend in a high-quality form. More mainstream, the C.C.D. trend map identified nuts with exotic flavors of global cuisines in canisters as another emerging trend.

"Remember when nuts were available in two options, plain or honey roasted?" said the report. "Those days are gone, as consumers who’ve developed more adventurous tastes for global flavor expect even familiar snacks to offer new excitement. Products line up according to demographic cohorts. For Generation Y and Generation X ‘snackers,’ products emphasize bold flavors — think wasabi, soy sauce, lime and chiles — and performance benefits such as increased energy and stamina. Nuts with mellower, herb-dominant flavors target baby boomers, and performance benefits promise sustained energy, the kind needed for, say, hours of hiking."

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