Taste and innovation are keys to attracting and retaining the interest of US snackers, who crave comfort and excitement. 

“It seems like we’re constantly in unsettling times these days, and food, snacks in particular, are quite important to our ability to get through the day,” said Melissa Abbott, vice president of retainer services for The Hartman Group. “We’re definitely seeing a very strong presence of flavors that lean toward comfort and nostalgia for our past. But most certainly with some kind of an upgrade, a shift toward fresher, less processed in some ways or some kind of indication that it’s a little more nuanced than perhaps when we were growing up. That trend is very strong.”

Farmstand Ranch Kettle Brand chips, for instance, offer ranch flavoring that people know and love, but the Farmstand part of the name elevates the iconic flavor.

“We’re starting to see an uptick in terms of that ranch having a cleaner flavor, a cleaner profile,” Ms. Abbott observed. “And by that, I mean there’s just a little bit less of that saltiness that we’ve become accustomed to, particularly here in America with those salty snacks.”

Paqui chips, which are part of the Amplify Snack Brands, Austin, Texas, are known for extremely spicy flavors. When developing a new flavor, the company likes to start with something familiar.

“We start with tried-and-true flavor combinations that consumers love and then make them unique to Paqui,” said Brandon Kieffer, senior associate brand manager, Amplify. “For example, sweet heat is a popular flavor combination that goes beyond snacks and is seen in many mainstream food categories. Our challenge is recreating that flavor combination using all real ingredients — especially real peppers to bring the heat. This allows us to test different sources of sweetness — like pineapple — that brings a tropical fruitiness and combine it with peppers that are approachable to most consumers — like jalapeños.”

Of course, hot and spicy can be found in nearly every kind of snack these days. 

“The hotter the better,” said Sally Lyons Wyatt, IRI executive vice president and practice leader, adding that she’s seeing not only interesting mashups like sweet and spicy but also brands name-checking specific types of peppers, such as Paqui’s Haunted Ghost Pepper and its limited-edition Carolina Reaper Madness, which was part of the brand’s One Chip Challenge. 

“This is one individually wrapped chip made with the Carolina reaper pepper, which is often regarded as the hottest in the world,” Mr. Kieffer said. “The One Chip Challenge has a lot of viral appeal during the limited-time window, especially when celebrities such as Shaq and Lizzo participate in the challenge on their social media channels.”

He said that Paqui’s heat levels are determined by the peppers in its snacks, and that the company doesn’t add any ingredients to create artificial spice.

“Our most popular flavor is Haunted Ghost Pepper featuring the ghost pepper, which is most likely the spiciest chip you will find on a store shelf,” Mr. Kieffer said. “And consumers still ask us to make them hotter. We are constantly experimenting with new peppers — like the scorpion pepper — to create a new flavor combination that pushes the limits on heat but provides an incredible flavor.”

Opopop, Denver, makes flavor-wrapped popcorn kernels for the microwave and dabbles in spicy flavors as well, although the company is seeking a more balanced approach.

“We are always trying to deliver bold flavor, not overpowering,” said Sarah McDowell, president of the company. “Harmony is very important to us. We want a well-rounded flavor so you’re not getting hit with spikes of heat.”

Opopop offered a limited-edition Wasabi flavor but features some other out-of-the ordinary flavors, such as Salted Umami, in addition to more conventional flavors like Lightly Salted and Salty Caramel.

“We always want to be pushing the limits of what you can see from popcorn,” Ms. McDowell said. “We also have a flavor called Maui Heat. It’s a balance of spice plus pineapple. There’s a sweet spice to that one.”

Ms. Abbott said she’s also seeing global influences on snack trends, including a take on cacio e pepe, which is a simple pasta dish that includes Parmesan and pepper.

“We saw it several years ago when we were in consumers’ homes and were starting to see their own cacio e pepe popcorn,” she said. “Then you start to see it show up in social media feeds, on TikTok. So now it’s starting to show up as a chip flavor. That one is fascinating, to see a classic dish from Italy showing up in the snack category as a flavor.”

This article is an excerpt from the June 2022 issue of Baking & Snack. To read the entire feature on Snacks, click here.