Salty snacks deliver on indulgence, nostalgia and provide a little fun. Pretzels meet these needs and more for consumers. They have long been perceived as healthier because they are baked not fried. This popular low-fat claim, along with growing interest in clean labels, a mix of better-for-you (BFY) ingredients, new flavors, limited-time offers (LTOs) and the insatiable appeal of a salty crunch creates opportunity.

Pretzels have performed well, posting 5.3% growth in dollar sales for the overall category, according to IRI retail sales data for the 52-week period ending Sept. 5. Brand awareness is a significant driver for salty snacks. In fact, 32% of consumers consider brands when shopping in a crowded snack aisle, according to Innova Market Insights Category Survey in 2020.

“As the category leader, Campbell Snacks continues to fuel growth of Snyder’s of Hanover with new innovation, new pack sizes and continued media investment in the Make Some Noise campaign,” said Rachel Sasser, director of marketing, pretzels, nuts & popcorn, Campbell Snacks, Camden, NJ. “While we have been successful, we continue to understand shifting consumer needs and the different ways to meet those needs.”

Campbell Snacks’ Snyder’s of Hanover brands lead the pack with more than $526 million in sales, according to IRI. However,  Hanover, Pa.-based Utz Brand’s pretzels are outpacing the category, with the company seeing a 15.3% and 20.3% increase in sales in the past 12 and 4 weeks, respectively, and the entire category seeing 10.1% and 13.5% growth for those same time periods.

“Utz continues to build momentum using its strong position in pretzels and by leveraging the recent launch of Utz Peanut Butter Pretzel Bites, as well as our new Utz Twisterz Seasoned Mini Pretzels, available in Tangy Mustard and Zesty Cheddar,” said Bill Blubaugh, senior vice president of marketing & communications, Utz Brands.

Differentiation is and will continue to be a key factor in remaining competitive. Brands must evaluate product portfolios to deliver value, according to Mintel’s “Trending Flavors and Ingredients in Snacks March 2021” report.

“Having two pretzel brands proves how important it is for us to consider differentiation on our brands,” Ms. Sasser noted. “Snack Factory Pretzel Crisps continues to offer consumers a new twist on snacking with a versatile product that can be dipped, topped or eaten right out of the bag.”

Mintel suggests focusing on innovation with premium ingredients or new flavors to create affordable snack options that tap into the connection snacking has with seasonality and daypart. Achieving certain health claims by playing with nutritional values will appeal to specific health goals creating market space.

“Unique Snacks has always offered differentiating products based on simple and high-quality ingredients that allow us to remain relevant and growing in the crowded space,” said Justin Spannuth, vice president and chief operating officer, Unique Snacks, Reading, Pa.

Clean label has evolved from simply eliminating artificial ingredients from products, according to Innova’s 2020 Lifestyle & Attitude Survey. Today’s consumers are looking for minimally processed, real and recognizable ingredients, dairy and meat alternatives, and low or no sugar and salt. They’re also more conscious about transparent supply chains and sustainability.

“Five in 10 consumers globally say they are interested in learning more about where their food comes from and how it is made,” said Lu Ann Williams, global insights director, Innova Market Insights. “Storytelling has never been more important, and brands that are successful at this will connect with their consumers in a meaningful way.”

Boulder, Colo.-based Quinn is known for its gluten-free pretzels and commitment to ingredient transparency. The company believes that the emphasis consumers now place on knowing where their food comes from is significant for the pretzel category.

“At Quinn, we use simple ingredients, kicking artificial flavorings, preservatives and other un-pronounceables to the curb in exchange for organic and non-GMO ingredients whenever available,” said Kristy Lewis, founder and chief executive officer, Quinn. “We have also set multiple industry-firsts, releasing the first pretzels made with whole grain, naturally gluten-free sorghum and the first line of filled gluten-free pretzel nuggets.”

Whole and sprouted grains have gained in consumer appeal with 46% of consumers looking for whole grains and 44% choosing sprouted grains for their digestibility and nutritional characteristics, according to the 2021 Whole Grains Consumer Insights Survey. Pretzels can deliver on whole grain nutrition, and Unique Snacks has leveraged consumer interest in sprouted grains.

“Our Organic Certified Sprouted Grain Splits and Shells have been around for some time, but they were initially overshadowed by the gluten-free trend,” Mr. Spannuth said. “Sprouted grains are getting another look. We use 100% Organic Whole Wheat Sprouted Grain, as well as Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil, making it the cleanest, simplest and most easily digestible pretzel on the market.”

Campbell Snack’s pretzel brands have responded to flavor and BFY ingredient trends by exploring new flavors on unique bases while optimizing current flavors to meet consumer preferences, such as with its Snyder’s of Hanover Pieces line. Snack Factory Pretzel Crisps launched a Non-GMO Project verified Cheddar Cheese flavor as well as an Everything-flavored gluten-free option.

Today’s consumers want to continue to treat themselves, but they seek products that help balance health needs with the fun side of snacking, according to the Mintel report. Ingredient innovation can play a role in elevating nutrition while still providing a positive snack experience.

“Unique has always offered a high-quality version of pretzels, and they have always been made with simple and clean ingredients,” Mr. Spannuth noted “For customers seeking a little extra indulgence, we offer chocolate-covered pretzels on a seasonal basis. We also have a variety of pretzel dips, including an award-winning honey mustard.”

While Mintel found that 77% of consumers are interested in trying alternative ingredients, it does not have to mean sacrificing great taste for the sake of nutrition. A measured approach to innovation is best.

“Producers can leverage the perception of pretzels as a low-fat, clean label, healthier snack that still delivers a salty crunch. Innovating with real, BFY ingredients and interesting flavor and recipe combinations can help brands stay competitive and meet demand for snacks that promote health while tasting good,” Ms. Williams said.

This article is an excerpt from the November 2021 issue of Baking & Snack. To read the entire feature on Pretzels, click here.