Snack makers have lots to deliver — products must taste good and be better-for-you. Learn what motivates consumers as they look for craveable, convenient snacks.

March 29, 2024

6 Min Read
March 2024 Cargill article

The jury may still be out as to whether it’s healthier to eat more frequent, small meals or snacks throughout the day versus the traditional, three square meals; but there’s no disputing that the number of U.S. consumers who snack frequently is rising. This spells big opportunities for companies in the snacking space. The tricky part is that consumers want it all from snacks — great taste, indulgence and label-friendly ingredients — leaving product developers with a long list of priorities to consider.

The first challenge is understanding the world of consumer snacking. Data consistently show that U.S. consumers’ eating patterns are fragmented, prompting new eating occasions all day long. In the United States, 72% of consumers now snack at least once daily in addition to their main meals, with 11% saying they snack at least three times daily. 1

 

“Younger generations are driving some of the shift from meals to snacking occasions,” said Jana Mauck, category marketing manager, snacks and cereals, Cargill. “They are looking for products that are convenient and portable, but taste remains the top priority.”

Why people snack is more nuanced. Consumers clearly want more from the snacks they eat, while their priorities are evolving and highly individual. According to the 2023 International Food Information Council (IFIC) Food and Health Survey, hunger and thirst remain the top reasons people snack; but nearly a third say they are looking for a treat, and one in five say they crave something either sweet or salty.

 

Today, anything can be a snack — so much so that "snackification" is a mega-trend at the heart of product development, according to New Nutrition Business’ 2024 report, “Ten Key Trends in Food, Nutrition and Health.” Snacks are low risk, and consumers like trying them, the report noted, but companies must now work harder to bring real points of difference to the market.

Trends: Indulgence versus health

“There’s a collision of two worlds happening in the snack space,” noted Mauck. “On the one hand, consumers want great-tasting, indulgent products to satisfy their snack cravings. On the other hand, they also want to feel good about the snacks they and their families consume — and not just from a health and nutrition perspective. Increasingly, consumers are taking sustainability into account, too.”

Dialing into better-for-you trends, protein remains a big draw, Mauck added. “For many consumers, protein claims are a shortcut to ‘better-for-you’ snacks. Other cues include high fiber, as well as products touting reductions in sodium and sugar. We’re even starting to see interest in low fat tick up.”

Zooming in on snacking’s indulgent side, taste, flavor, texture and visual appeal all converge to create a product’s overall sensory experience, Mauck noted. “Consumers view snacks as treats and want to be delighted with their snacking experience. While we often say taste is king, brands need to win all the senses to earn repeat purchase.”

There is currently quite a bit of crossover between indulgence and better-for-you, Mauck noted, so for product developers, this often means a delicate balancing act as they strive to live up to all these expectations. “From a priority standpoint, taste remains the key,” she added, “but flavor and texture aren’t far behind. All three elements work together to deliver the overall sensory experience. Even in products aiming for health-conscious consumers, snacks still need to deliver a pleasing eating experience.”

Expanding options

Delivering on all these attributes can be challenging. So, whether a formulator is looking to reduce sodium or sugar, enhance the protein content or explore some other nutritional avenue — it’s important to rely on suppliers that have strong technical expertise in ingredients, ingredient interactions and snack applications, as well as marketing expertise to help customers understand consumer trends in health, indulgence and convenience.

Cargill, for example, has a broad portfolio of ingredients that support a holistic approach to formulation. Their team of snacking experts understands how to leverage ingredients to help customers find solutions to unique and specific challenges.

For brands eyeing sugar reduction, Cargill offers a full range of stevia sweeteners. The newest member of the lineup, EverSweet® stevia sweetener + ClearFlo™ natural flavor, offers multiple advantages, from a more sugar-like flavor profile with less lingering sweetness, to flavor-modifying properties.

In snacks like high-protein bars and reduced-sodium biscuits, the system may help with flavor masking. While it may not be the solution for every application, the team has had success using EverSweet + ClearFlo in reduced-sugar nutrition bars, where it provided sweetness and helped mask some of the grassy and beany notes that often accompany plant proteins. In a better-for-you biscuit, the system helped mask metallic notes associated with a common sodium-reduction solution, while also enabling sugar reduction.

High-protein snacks are another big trend. Cargill’s partner PURIS® pea protein can help brands boost protein content in snacks. Nutritionally, PURIS pea proteins typically offer 80% protein, making them a good choice for fortification. And to make formulation easier, the PURIS portfolio includes pea proteins developed for specific applications, including pea protein crisps, which can also add sensory appeal to applications like snack bars.

Healthier, label-friendly fats are also gaining consumer interest. Cargill’s Clear Valley® high oleic sunflower oil was developed through traditional plant breeding methods. “High oleic sunflower oil is considered the gold standard for fried snack applications thanks to its neutral taste, clear color, excellent stability and ability to extend shelf life,” Mauck added. “It brings nutritional advantages, too. High oleic sunflower oil is lower in saturated fats than other fat/oil options, enabling brands to create snacks with healthier fat profiles.”

 

And then there’s sodium content — long a fundamental ingredient in traditional snack foods. In today’s snacking segment, there are some better-for-you options, such as potassium chloride and salts that have unique physical properties such as Alberger® salt, a uniquely shaped sodium chloride (salt) crystal.

“While these solutions have been part of our ingredient portfolio for a number of years, we continue to deepen our understanding of how to get the most from them, alone and in combination,” explained Janice Johnson, Ph.D., food technical advisor for Cargill. “Much of our recent work has focused on leveraging the particle size and shape of salt and potassium salt particles, which we have learned can have a big impact on sodium reduction without compromising taste.”

Cargill’s potassium salt, Potassium Pro® Ultrafine, for example, features an extremely fine particle size, which results in quick dissolution. Cargill research suggests it delivers the salty taste consumers expect, with less bitter and metallic notes typically associated with larger potassium salt particle sizes. In topical applications, like seasoning coatings on snack products, the team found Alberger Flour salt works great in delivering flavor without sacrificing taste.  

“We have also observed that using our two sodium-reduction solutions together often enables us to achieve deeper reductions in sodium content,” Johnson added. “For example, the combination of Alberger Flour salt and Potassium Pro Ultrafine offers superior taste (more salt, less bitter/metallic) in a fine seasoning blend for topical applications and in salsas and dips, as compared to using either solution alone.”

“To succeed in today’s demanding marketplace, most formulation work requires a holistic approach to solve all the new challenges,” reiterated Mauck. “From the various diets to the eating experiences people expect, it truly ‘takes a village’ of ingredients and expertise to land on a winning formula.”

1. International Food Information Council. 2023 Food and Health Survey.

2. The Hartman Group. "Snacking on Opportunity." Compass Eating and Drinking Database. Feb. 5, 2024. https://www.hartman-group.com/infographics/1297921973/snacking-on-opportunity

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