Flavor Innovation Paves Way for Growth in Salty Snacks Category

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Flavor Innovation Paves Way for Growth in Salty Snacks Category


CHICAGO — While a health halo has traditionally benefited popcorn, Americans are now embracing flavor innovation, ranging from indulgent to savory, driven by the increasingly popular ready-to-eat (RTE) popcorn segment, according to new research from Mintel.

Total U.S. retail sales of popcorn grew 32 percent over the past five years to an estimated $2.5 billion in 2017, with RTE popcorn leading the wave of flavor innovation and growing 118 percent between 2012-2017 to $1.1 billion.

Today's consumers are interested in both familiar and unexpected flavor innovation in the popcorn category. Traditional varieties such as cheese-flavored popcorn (in which 49 percent of popcorn consumers expressed interest) and indulgent flavors such as chocolate/caramel covered (32 percent) are popular. 

Consumers also want options that have mixed flavors, such as salty, indulgent and cheesy together (39 percent); have additions mixed in, such as candy (20 percent); and are seasonally flavored, such as pumpkin spice (12 percent).

Additionally, while Americans are interested in indulgent flavors and mix-ins for their popcorn, 45 percent of popcorn consumers are interested in buying all-natural varieties.

"Popcorn sales have been on the rise in recent years and now the category is shifting from traditional flavors toward more dynamic flavors and combinations, driven by the ready-to-eat segment which has seen sales more than double since 2012," said John Owen, senior food and drink analyst at Mintel.

"RTE popcorn brands are finding success not only through an expanding array of creative new flavors, but also by tapping into growing interest in healthy, natural and portable snacks and eating occasions. The popcorn segment, and RTE popcorn in particular, is likely to continue benefiting from a generally healthy image as well as its suitability as a medium for a wide range of flavors and toppings," Owen added.

"As such, there is an opportunity for brands in other salty snack segments to innovate with unexpected flavors to engage consumers, especially among younger generations who, our research shows, are looking for variety in the salty snack aisle," he said.

Meat snacks are also cornering the salty snacks market. As the largest segment of the category, meat snacks take up 30 percent of market share and are also the fastest growing, with sales rising 45 percent over the past five years to reach $3.6 billion in 2017.

Interest in premium products such as meat snacks made from prime cuts (58 percent) is high among meat snack consumers of all ages, those aged 18-34 are most likely to be interested in portable options such as meat snack bars, at 45 percent vs. 38 percent overall.

"While the inherent benefits of protein and portability favor all meat snack brands, we're seeing some of the smaller brands drawing a point of distinction by offering niche flavors and formats. Our research shows that young salty snack purchasers place extra value on the portability of meat snacks, as well as its versatility to be eaten beyond snacking occasions. There is an opportunity for brands to position meat snacks for breakfast, where protein and portability have become essential attributes," Owen noted.

Although the popularity of snacking is obvious, salty snack consumers are more likely to say they are eating fewer salty snacks today compared to last year than they are to say they're eating more (19 percent vs. 16 percent). Although salty snacks are viewed as an acceptable indulgence, with 42 percent agreeing that taste is more important than health, many consumers are looking for more healthful varieties, as 48 percent wish there were more healthy snack options.

Factors that have boosted the salty snacks category include eating while on the go (41 percent) and snacking as an energy boost (22 percent). Over the past year, overall category sales increased 5 percent to an estimated $11.9 billion in 2017. In the past five years, sales grew 31 percent, making salty snacks one of the best performing major packaged food categories in recent years, according to Mintel.

"The diverse salty snacks category benefits from the increasing prevalence of snacking and the blurring line between traditional meal times and snacking occasions. However, salty snack purchasers report eating less salty snacks, suggesting they aren't as willing to admit to their changing behavior, likely due to lingering negative perceptions of the category. Our research shows that because salty snacks are still primarily seen as an indulgence, there are opportunities for brands to shift their messaging and new product development to better position salty snacks as a healthy snacking option, such as popcorn, or more nutrient-dense, such as meat snacks, to continue the category's growth," Owen said.