There are a lot of questions about what the future holds for kids in school because of COVID-19. Will some students continue at-home learning? Will cafeterias be open at full capacity? How will this impact snacktime purchases?
There are many uncertainties, but one thing is clear: The trend toward nutrient-dense, immune-boosting foods is attracting more attention due to our heightened interest in health in the midst of COVID-19, says Jeanne Reid, Marketing Manager with the Gluten Intolerance Group. When it comes to back-to-schools snacks, there are two things to remember, Reid says: Kids want foods that are fun to eat, and parents want to ensure their children are getting balanced nutrition. Parents, she adds, are looking for products that boast healthy ingredients and maintain the essence of “comfort food.”
Indeed, recent grocery spending data shows consumer interest in comfort foods has increased during the COVID-19 pandemic. Consumers have been stocking up on snack foods, according to a report by Statista, which found that cookie variety packs purchases increased 20%, and purchases of salty snacks increased approximately 15% compared to the same week the prior year (1). And that’s on top of already-strong sales. Snack industry revenue has increased an annualized 2.1% to $44.9 billion between 2015 and 2020, according to IBIS World (2).
What are health-conscious parents looking for? “Consumers want more transparency,” says Adam Kukoff, Co-founder & CEO of NUTSÓLA. “There are prime opportunities for new brands to gain market share by showing consumers that if they can read and know the ingredients, they’re getting a healthier product.”
According to David Woods, VP of Sales, LesserEvil Healthy Brands, there are four major attributes in snack foods right now that retailers should deliver:
Staples in the snack category aren’t going away, they’re just improving. Classics are being made with whole and natural ingredients—without the negatives. And even working and learning at home, Americans are still busy and schedules fill up. “We tend to see people wanting snacks that do it all,” says Dave Heuvel, Vice President of Sales and Marketing, Smart Baking Company. “They want treats for kids and adults that aren’t just empty calories, but instead have protein and fiber.” Smartcakes and Smartmuf’ns breakfasts and snacks deliver. And honing on America’s interest in immunity, SmartBaking Company recently incorporated Elderberry extract in their new Apple Cinnamon Smartmuf’ns.
Some things will always remain consistent in the snacking category, but clean-label ingredients are more in demand today as people want to know what they are eating, agrees Thomas Dilworth, General Manager at Big Sandy Organics. And there’s an interest in upgrading flavor profiles. “I see a lot of exotic product offerings and flavors on the market—people don’t want the same old thing, they want their snacks amped up a bit.” Big Sandy Organics manufactures Kracklin’ KAMUT, which provides a source of fiber, protein, magnesium, polyphenols, and vitamin B1. The company offers a Sea Salt flavor in 8-oz. resealable bag. “We’ve found people enjoy the convenience of the resealable options,” says Dilworth, “and it also helps reduce waste.”
Another brand amping it up with flavor and ancient grains: Mark’s Mindful Munchies, manufacturer of pop bitties, offers Ancient Grain Chips in hickory barbeque, Vegan Sour Cream & Onion, and Pink Himalayan Salt flavors. The Ancient Grain Crisps have 6 to 7g of pure plant protein per serving and are made with sorghum. “The eco-friendly grain is able to thrive with lower levels of pesticides, fertilizers, and irrigation, than many grains such as wheat and corn, making them a perfect choice for consumers who choose to shop in a more mindful earth friendly way,” says Mark Andrus, Founder and President, Mark’s Mindful Munchies, Inc.
Convenience and versatility are top priorities, too. “Our granola is offered in 8 oz bags or smaller 1.75 single-serve on-the-go packs that are perfect for packed lunches as kids get back to school,” says Kelli Koehler, CEO and Co-Founder of Wildway. “The mix can be used for hot cereals, eaten alone by simply adding milk or water, topped with a variety of goods like granola or fruits, or used as a base for a large variety of recipes like the crust for a pizza.” Wildway’s top-selling Coconut Cashew grain-free granola is made with dates, walnuts, organic coconut, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, dry roasted cashews, sea salt, pecans, and vanilla bean—and is naturally gluten-free.
Also for granola lovers, there’s a superfood mix from NUTSÓLA. “Our best selling product is our Peanut Butter Superfood Mix,” says Kukoff. NUTSÓLA can be used as a healthy replacement to granola, as a topping for oatmeal, yogurt, smoothie bowls, or used with plant based milk. Consumers can make energy bars or energy balls by just adding water—something fun for kids to create and enjoy.
Another parent priority: low/reduced/no sugar, says Christian Quie, President, Mavericks Snacks. Many brands, he says, are making sugar reductions through a variety of methods and ingredients. Mavericks, a manufacturer of kids cookies and crackers, created cookie snacks segment by using chicory root fiber, and whole grains in their cracker snacks.
“There’s a growing understanding between refined processed sugar and carbohydrates that come from whole fruits like dates,” adds Isabelle Steichen, Co-Founder and CEO, Lupii. “Carbohydrates from fresh or dried fruit means you also get all the fiber, vitamins and minerals that support a balanced diet.” Lupii’s popular Peanut Butter Cacao Nib LUPii Bite is made with lupini beans, peanut butter, cacao nibs, and dates. Lupini beans, Steichen explains, are the beans with the highest concentration of plant-based protein, with 2 times more protein of chickpeas and 3 times more protein than eggs.
Finding healthy snacks for the back-pack can be challenging, but brands are delivering. One pick gaining in popularity: puffs. Puffed snacks are typically higher in protein and lower in carbs compared to the typical potato chip, says Birgit Waites, M.S., Holistic Health Practitioner, Nutritionist, Master Herbalist, Founder & CEO at Pauli Broccoli & Friends. They’re school friendly, and typically lack common allergens, she says. Waites advises parents to try out chickpea puffs, veggie puffs, honey puffs or paleo puffs.
A puffed snack boasting plant-based attributes, HIPPEAS, is disrupting the snack category with puffed and tortilla based snacks. “We think both our puffs and tortillas are a fan favorite because they satisfy a nostalgic craving without the guilt,” says Livio Bisterzo, Founder & Chairman, HIPPEAS Organic Chickpea Snacks. The company’s Vegan White Cheddar puffs and Nacho Vibes Puffs are organic, gluten-free, vegan, and contain 3g of plant-protein and 3g of fiber.
LesserEvil Snacks, another master puffer, has 3 top-selling healthy snacks: Organic Popcorn with Himalayan Pink Salt + Organic Extra Virgin Coconut Oil, Organic No Cheese Cheesiness Paleo Puffs, and Grain-Free Egg White Curls with Himalayan Pink Salt + Organic Avocado Oil. “The organic popcorn is air-popped, which leads to a product that is lower in fat, lower in calories, higher in fiber, and higher in protein per serving,” says Woods. “After our popcorn has been air popped, we take oils that are room temperature (never heated to high temperatures to maintain the integrity of the healthy fats), and we tumble our popcorn in a mixture of the oils and Himalayan Pink Salt/Organic seasonings.” And coming this September, LesserEvil will launch Organic Grain-Free Veggie Sticks: a snack made with seven different organic veggies, organic olive oil and baked, not fried.
For a convenient school-time sip, Once Upon a Farm offers a cold-pressed smoothie for kids.“They are great for lunch boxes and after school treats but even better for mom because it’s snacking made easy,” says Nicole MacNeill, Once Upon a Farm Brand Director. “The nutritious convenience of whole, organic fruits and veggies that are cold-pressed (to lock in nutrients!), dairy-free and have no added sugar, they can’t be beat.”
Another smart sip: Me & the Bees Prickly Pear Lemonade. “I’m from Texas, so I see prickly pears all across the street,” Mikaila Ulmer, Founder and CEO, of Me & the Bees, told WholeFoods Magazine. “It’s our best seller, known for its antiviral and anti-inflammatory properties. Kids love it because it’s pink, and looks cool. When I do demos in NY, consumers say ‘What’s a prickly pear? I’d like to try that.’” Read more about Mikaila here—and get the scoop on her new book, Bee Fearless, Dream Like a Kid.
Whether the kids and parents continue working from home or not, functional and plant-forward snacking is the future, says Bisterzo. “Consumers want to enjoy their favorite snacks but with added nutritional benefits like protein, vitamins and minerals often made with plant-based ingredients.”
In the aisles, stay forward-thinking with dietary and consumer trends when it comes to blocking out sets in the snacking aisle, says Woods. “Think about the affinities that consumers have across burgeoning segments and find a way to tie them together in the snack set to build bigger baskets, and to make it easier for the shopper to find what they are looking for.”
An important reminder from Dilworth: We are all in this together. “We make organic snack foods that we believe help promote a healthy lifestyle. We aren’t in competition with other snack food manufacturers to sell the most snacks, we are in competition with ourselves to be the best company we can and provide the best snack food we can in a way that enhances people’s lives,” he says. “Our overall main goal is to find a way to make healthy snacking options affordable to everyone.”