Despite the growing health trend in packaged foods and consumers’ concerns about salt, manufacturers haven’t given up on the salty snacks category. In fact, the category — in both products and sales — is only poised to grow.
Consumers and public health advocacy groups like the Center for Science in the Public Interest have maligned salt. But as concerned as consumers may be, their purchase decisions haven’t reflected that apprehension.
U.S. sales for salty snacks grew 3.5% to $22 billion in 2015, according to a new Packaged Facts report, "Salty Snacks in the U.S., 4th Edition." However, that growth rate was a drop from 4.4% in 2014 and a CAGR of 3.7% between 2010 and 2015. Still, growth is set to continue and even increase toward 2014’s rate, with a CAGR of 4.0% from 2015 to 2020.
Manufacturers have several options in terms of capitalizing on the growth of salty snacks while avoiding consumers’ objections to foods that are high in sodium. The key is to change the conversation by shifting focus away from the salt itself and toward other features of the product. These might be healthy ingredients, bold and exotic flavors, innovative product shapes, and adherence to market trends like gluten-free and non-GMO.
Embrace industry-wide trends
One of the first strategies manufacturers use when trying to bypass salt is to embrace and emphasize more general trends that have swept through the industry, according to Norman Deschamps, lead author of the snacks report and owner of a consulting firm that works in conjunction with Packaged Facts.
Gluten-free, for example, is a major industry trend, and snack makers like Snyder’s-Lance have focused efforts on expanding gluten-free offerings. Gluten-free accounted for 42% of snack product launches in the U.S. in the year leading up to April 2015, according to Innova.
Chips made from ingredients other than potatoes and corn are also becoming more popular. Startups have been particularly innovative in this category, such as Dang Foods, maker of coconut and onion chips. This recently became food and beverage incubator Sonoma Brands’ first investment. Included in this are on-trend ingredients like chia, ancient grains, and avocado, which lend a better-for-you status to a product, according to the Packaged Facts report.
Salt reduction is still another strategy, and companies like PepsiCo/Frito-Lay (No. 1 in salty snacks) and Snyder’s-Lance (No. 3, behind PepsiCo and private label brands) have made a concerted effort to reduce sodium in their salty snack products.
"By the very definition of (a salty snack’s) name, there’s going to be salt in it," said Deschamps. "(Manufacturers) have spent much greater efforts to boast of other ingredients that essentially give the impression that they nullify any potential bad things that might happen with the salt. And/or (manufacturers) focus on the different flavors to change the focus of what people are interested in for the snacks themselves."
Pump up the flavor
A significant challenge for manufacturers when it comes to reducing salt is maintaining the flavor of the product. Salt is a relatively low-cost ingredient commonly used to both enhance and mask flavors in snacks.
"Many consumers are not willing to trade off taste for lower sodium," Jane Anders, vice president of research and development at ConAgra, told NBC News in 2011, not long after First Lady Michelle Obama put pressure on manufacturers to reduce salt in the food supply.
Manufacturers came up with another idea — whether or not they reduce sodium, they would increase the impact of other flavors through both product development and marketing. Deschamps said manufacturers have infused salty snacks with a wide range of bold and unique flavors in recent years.
These flavors have focused on heat, like sriracha or habanero; savory, like cinnamon; herbs, like rosemary or thyme; or flavors consumers have seen only in other food categories, such as Korean Barbecue Lay’s chips, which PepsiCo introduced earlier this year, or last year’s flavors: New York Reuben, Greektown Gyro, and Southern Biscuits and Gravy.
"Now, if you’re suddenly focusing on (flavors), it’s not nearly as important to focus on the health aspects, even for people who are health-conscious," said Deschamps. "… It doesn’t matter how healthy it is or not … because where else can they get that flavor as a snack?"
Find the right shape
Puffs, thins, and 3D shapes are just a few textural designs salty snack manufacturers have experimented with to enhance consumers’ eating experience. Last year, PepsiCo debuted Doritos Jacked 3D, a three-dimensional version of the flagship Doritos brand’s triangular chips.
These textural changes enable manufacturers to catch consumers’ eye and appeal to their desire for a wider variety of snacks without having to necessarily change flavor ingredients or reduce sodium.
"As you’re eating them, they tend to hit your mouth differently, and it tends to give it a different taste," said Deschamps.
Change the conversation
Call-outs on salty snack packaging may include "low sodium," "reduced sodium," or a similar variation. But even more frequently, consumers are finding marketing claims about the snack’s flavors or the other health-related aspects of the product, Deschamps said.
This enables salty snack producers and marketers to shift the conversation away from concerns about salt or sodium content.
"There’s a limit as to what you can do to improve the actual health value of the product if you’re still going to make it a salty snack," said Deschamps. "While you’re taking a vegetable that has potentially more nutritional value than potatoes, you’re still baking them or frying them or whatever and adding the fat and salt and so on."
Salty snacks have maintained steady sales growth in spite of consumer backlash against sodium in the food supply. But the noise made about salt content may be the least of manufacturers’ worries as snack categories multiply (Think: meat snacks and Greek yogurt) and certain segments rise faster than others, such as RTE popcorn. The challenge will be maintaining control over the conversation about salty snacks, especially among health-conscious consumers.
Whether focusing on health benefits, flavor, or texture, salty snack manufacturers still emphasize that consumers can enjoy these snacks as an indulgence. Indulging is an eating occasion even health-conscious consumers have not given up on.
"Satisfying that indulgence remains important, whether or not people want to talk about it," Deschamps said.