Cheese snacks are driven by consumers who seek indulgence as well as real cheese flavors. The category posted an increase of almost $18 million in sales for the first three months of 2020 ending March 15, at the start of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, as compared with 2019. Cheese snacks saw tremendous growth with sales topping $2 billion for the 52 weeks ending June 14, 2020, according to IRI’s quarterly retail sales report for the US snacking market.

While indulgence was a huge driver during the pandemic, trends for healthier snacks are resuming. Cheese snack brands offering baked products with clean labels and real vs. processed cheese flavorings with great taste also did well with consumers, according to IRI’s sales data. For example, the Cheetos Simply brand from PepsiCo’s Frito-Lay, Plano, Texas, increased dollar sales by 20.9%.

Nottingham, Pa.-based Herr Foods’ cheese snacks posted 9.1% growth, according to IRI. Herr Foods Good Natured Selects White Cheddar Puffs are baked, not fried, and made with real cheese.

“We certainly saw growth in indulgent snacks, such as potato chips and cheese curls during the pandemic,” said Jim Herr, senior vice president of marketing and R&D, Herr Foods.

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“While we expect demand for these items to remain strong, it is likely that BFY will increase, as well as demand for new and exciting products,” Mr. Herr said.

Taste drives choice the most, according to Packaged Facts’ “US Food Market Outlook 2020,” updated in June. Continued flavor experimentation with bolder, spicier, unique and unexpected combinations, as well as ethnic flavors, will appeal to consumers who seek products that offer enhanced taste experiences. 

Real cheese snacks like crisps and bars are growing. They satisfy multiple consumer preferences with appealing attributes. Brands, like Sonoma Creamery, Sonoma, Calif., and ParmCrisps resonated with consumers as evidenced by tremendous growth in dollar sales, increasing 40.0% and a whopping 93.4% respectively. 

ParmCrisps, Montclair, NJ, feature flavors such as Jalapeño, Sesame, Pizza and Four Cheese. The company offers a number of multi-pack options that provide variety for the whole family. 

“Extruded corn snack segments and specifically puffed products have also remained popular through use of heavy seasoning application,” said Matt Colford, director of marketing and strategic selling, North America, Old Dutch Foods, Roseville, Minn.

Old Dutch cheese snacks increased dollar sales by a solid 14.1%, according to the IRI data. 

Old Dutch Puffcorn features a light popcorn flavor without the hard kernels or hulls. Varieties include Original, Caramel and Cheesy Puffcorn, which has a 100% real cheese flavor. The line also includes puffed Sour Cream and Onion Rings.

Rotating flavors or limited-time editions tied to seasons, holidays and special events creates fun snacking experiences that can be enjoyed at home. These types of snacks are anticipated by consumers and keep them engaged and excited for something new and different.

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Utz Quality Foods, Hanover, Pa., features seasonal cheese snack offerings like Utz Cotton Tails White Cheddar Cheese Balls and Utz Halloween Mini Cheese Ball Treats at Easter and Halloween respectively.

Manufacturers have been adapting packaging to on-the-go consumption, according to a Packaged Facts. Some packaging innovations include easy-to-open and close designs and better ways to measure and serve products from larger pack sizes. This fall, Utz is launching new packaging with its Utz Pourables Cheddar Cheese Mini Balls.

Experimenting with bold spicy flavors on traditional cheese snack favorites will resonate with consumers looking for something new and different to enjoy while snacking more at home.

This article originally appeared in SNAC International's 2020 Official State of the Industry