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RTE popcorn brands tap into natural options, innovative flavors

healthy popcorn
Ready-to-eat (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, according to new data from Mintel.

U.S. retail sales of popcorn increased 32 percent in the past five years to reach an estimated $2.5 billion in 2017, with RTE popcorn leading the flavor innovation wave, growing an impressive 118 percent between 2012 and 2017 to reach $1.1 billion. In fact, 45 percent of popcorn consumers are seeking out all-natural varieties.

“The popcorn segment, particularly RTE popcorn, 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,” said John Owen, senior food and drink analyst at Mintel. “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.”

Today’s consumers are interested in flavor innovation—both familiar and unexpected—in the popcorn category. While traditional varieties like cheese-flavored (49 percent) and indulgent (e.g., chocolate/caramel covered) (32 percent) are high on the list, popcorn buyers are also interested in purchasing options that are mixed flavor (e.g., salty, indulgent, and cheesy popcorn in one bag) (39 percent), have additions mixed in (e.g., dried cranberries or candy) (20 percent), and are seasonal flavored (e.g., pumpkin spice, gingerbread) (12 percent).

The popularity of snacking is undeniable, but salty snack consumers are more likely to say they’re eating less (19 percent) salty snacks today (compared to 2017) than they are to say they’re eating more (16 percent), Mintel noted. While they’re seen as an acceptable indulgence, 42 percent of consumers agree taste is more important than health when it comes to salty snacks, while 48 percent want healthier snack options. Increased snacking occasions and variety of products helped the salty snacks category see continued growth over the last year, with overall category sales increasing 5 percent to reach an estimated $11.9 billion in 2017. According to Mintel, sales have grown 31 percent since 2012, making salty snacks one of the best performing major packaged food categories in recent years.

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