For generations, many Americans have started their day with a bowl of hot oatmeal. But Ashley Thompson is betting they will soon embrace the breakfast favorite in an altogether different way — as a healthy snack-time alternative.
Thompson is the founder of Mush, a brand of ready-to-eat cold (yes, cold) oats that comes in flavors ranging from mixed berry to vanilla bean. And while Thompson does target the breakfast crowd with her product, which is already available everywhere from supermarkets to convenience stores, she says a good chunk of her business comes from those who see oatmeal as something good for any time of day — say, when they’re at work or on the go, or they have a late-night craving for something sweet and satisfying.
“When they’re thinking of ice cream, this is a perfect replacement,” says Thompson, adding that her brand has seen average annual growth of at least 100% since its launch in 2017.
Thompson’s story is proving to be a typical one in the rapidly evolving world of snack foods. Make no mistake: Americans still love their classic snacks, such as potato chips and cookies. And they’ll devour plenty of them on Super Bowl Sunday, which is considered among the prime snacking days on the calendar. Last year, snack sales increased by 12.5% during the week leading up to the game, with big upticks in potato and tortilla chips, pretzels, pork rinds and refrigerated dips, according to SNAC International, a trade association for the snack world.
These days, though, that crock of guac could indeed be replaced by a bowl of oatmeal. In recent years, countless snacks have been introduced that defy tradition.
Many have a health-conscious sensibility — what the industry calls the “better for you” approach to snacking. Picture here everything from chickpea “puffs” (from a brand called Hippeas that already boasts it has reached $70 million in annual sales) to baked veggie snacks (from a brand called Harvest Snaps that declares “Move over starchy potatoes!”).
Other snacks in this new wave are heavily loaded with protein. It’s no accident that the jerky selection at your local grocer has gone from a couple of beef sticks to practically an aisle’s worth of products.
And still others are foods that have always been part of the American way of eating but are now being packaged in a snack-friendly form. Mush falls somewhat into that category. So does a new line of snack packs from Rick’s Picks, a gourmet brand of pickled vegetables. Until recently, Rick’s Picks offerings were available only in traditional glass jars, but now they also come in 2.2-ounce and 3-ounce single-serving pouches — in short, pickles for on-the-go snacker occasions.
The tie that binds is that everyone in the food industry seemingly wants in on the eating-between-meals game.
“The world is snackifying,” says Rob Sarlls, a snack-industry veteran and former chairman of SNAC International.
In the process, snack sales are growing — and not just around Super Bowl time. IRI, a Chicago-based market-research firm, reports that annual sales for the 52-week period ending on Jan. 23 climbed by 6.9% to $30.5 billion. The growth was across the board in one snack category after another, from potato chips (up 3%) to toasted corn nuts (up 16.2%) to dried meat (up 21.3%) to dried fruit (up 15%).
“‘The world is snackifying.’”
Industry professionals say there’s no secret as to what’s going on: Many Americans are ditching traditional dining patterns in favor of all-day consumption.
“It’s not the three square meals we remember growing up,” says Denise Purcell, a vice president of the Specialty Food Association, a trade organization for the gourmet industry.
That also explains why certain types of snacks are gaining in popularity: If you’re going to graze throughout the day, you may want healthier alternatives than fried chips. And you may want some added protein to make up for that lunch or dinner you’re skipping.
Other factors come into the picture. Americans are getting more adventurous in their eating habits, so they’re willing to try new things — in particular, foods from other countries. That’s part of the inspiration behind Brami, a brand of marinated snacking beans — in this case, lupini beans. Aaron Gatti, a creator of the brand, says it was a food he knew from childhood visits to Italy, but he realized it would make perfect sense as a protein-packed snack option in America, especially for those on plant-based diets.
Gatti knows that his product may not be an easy sell, at least not for everyone. “There’s no question that consumers need to wrap their heads around marinated beans,” he says. At the same time, he’s convinced that, once people try them, they’ll be hooked. “They are totally addictive,” reports Gatti.
Technology comes into play, as well, in this snacking boom. Many companies say the products they’re offering weren’t possible in a previous era.
Rick Field, founder of Rick’s Picks, points to the special foil pouches he utilizes for his snack packs — a kind of packaging he says he spent years looking for, until he finally found it through a Canadian company with a proprietary technology.
“It allows the pickles to retain their quality and crispiness over a 24-month shelf life,” Field says.
Field adds that the financial advantage of moving into the snack realm for his brand is clear: He’s no longer limited to the pickle section of a supermarket but can have his product placed in the snack-food aisle or even near the checkout. And he can also pitch Rick’s Picks to convenience stores — something that wasn’t as likely when his packaging was limited to glass jars.
But if brands like Rick’s Picks are moving into the snack-food aisle, where does that leave long-established and traditional snack brands? Phil Lempert, editor of SupermarketGuru.com, a website that covers the grocery business, says there’s no question they could be facing a challenge.
The older brands “are vulnerable as it relates to shelf space,” says Lempert.
Which is not to say the established brands aren’t reinventing themselves. PepsiCo
whose brands include those under the label of snack giant Frito-Lay, has added a line of Simply products that speaks to the “better for you” approach. And PepsiCo has also made key acquisitions of new school snack companies, such as BFY Brands, which makes PopCorners, a brand of health-minded popped corn chips.
Quaker Oats, the ever-familiar oatmeal brand, is also part of PepsiCo. Does that mean PepsiCo will also enter the oatmeal-as-a-snack-food space? Mike Del Pozzo, a PepsiCo executive, says it’s already being discussed.
“How do we take those breakfast occasions and turn them into snacking occasions? That’s a big priority for us,” he says.