Putting the science in snacks

Weary of taking flak in the debate over obesity, disease and processed foods, snack companies are fighting back with ready-made products that pledge to be good for your health, reports Shane Starling.

The question of what constitutes a healthy snack is a subjective one. To a puritan it would be an apple, a carrot or maybe even a tub of natural yoghurt. But could a bag of potato chips with the trans fats removed be considered a healthy snack? It is certainly a healthier snack than before, but it is not necessarily a healthy snack in the eyes of a nutritionist, who might point to the salt and saturated fat levels that remain and raise an eyebrow. Still, it can?t be denied that it is a step toward better nutrition.

The removal of perceived ?bad? elements from foods like savoury snacks is a trend that is gaining pace, partly because of the ubiquity of low-carbohydrate dietary patterns. The world?s largest snacks maker, PepsiCo-owned Frito-Lay, has moved quickly, adding to its trans fat-free initiative of a year ago with a new tortilla line with half the carbs of its core range.

Other factors such as obesity culpability litigation that is being brought against multinational food manufacturers in the US and regulatory clampdowns against ?bad? foods in regions like the Far East and Europe are also having a significant effect. Major snacks manufacturers are under scrutiny like never before over the nutritional profile of their products and the ways they market them to children.

It is no surprise then that snack giants are rushing to launch low-carb ranges of chips and crackers as a sure-fire way (for now) of catering to an increasingly health-conscious audience, at least in the US. Previously obscure niche players such as soy chips makers, realising their moment has come, are vying for shelf space in health outlets, convenience stores and supermarkets, both with each other and the bigger manufacturers.

?It wasn?t difficult getting our products into these outlets because they have performed very well,? says Jake Field, sales manager at California-based soy food maker Genisoy. ?There?s a bridge being built between healthy snacks and traditional fatty, salty snacks. That?s exemplified by Frito-Lay with their healthy line, and that?s where there is room to move for companies like ours.?

Working with suppliers
The addition of a wide range of functional ingredients to savoury snacks is an adjunct to this activity and a crucial means of differentiation in a frenzied, increasingly cluttered marketplace. Good relations with dynamic ingredients suppliers can be the difference between product success and failure. One such supplier, Bioriginal, has been very active in the low-carb snacking era.

?The low-carb craze is an opportunity for us to reformulate existing products,? says Janice Brenner, product development scientist at the Saskatchewan-based firm. ?Our commitment is to supply?high-quality ingredients and products with an?exceptional nutrient profile, acceptable taste and texture, and convenient packaging. We work very closely with food manufacturers to formulate products that meet customers? needs, including functional foods, low-carb products and convenience foods.?

It?s not just the low-carb phenomenon that is driving sales of this new breed of healthy snacks. Perceptions of what a bag of chips can be are changing, according to industry consultant Jim Tonkin of Arizona-based Tonkin Consulting. Consumers have come to expect more from a savoury snack than great taste and a vacuous nutritional profile. They want a health benefit too.

?People are willing to accept that a bag of chips can be good for them,? he points out. ?There are many companies out there, particularly smaller entrepreneurial companies in the snack foods industry, developing new products that are healthy. R&D departments are working overtime to try and figure out ways to lower the unhealthy attributes of snacks and increase the healthy attributes. The world doesn?t need any more snack foods. We?ve got enough cookies and chips—now it is just a question of horizontally improving products.?

Statistics from Chicago-based research firm Mintel support this observation. The company puts the US healthy snacks market at $5.5 billion in 2003, a 41 per cent growth rate from 1998. This includes crisps; popcorn; pretzels; cheese; energy; cereal and snack bars; yoghurt; cereal snacks; nuts; dried fruit; trail mix; and crackers.

Healthy chips were the largest single category with sales of just under $1 billion in 2003. Chips/popcorn/pretzels led the overall healthy snacking market with 41 per cent market share in 2003. The company highlighted increased health awareness spurred by government and supported by manufacturers, new product innovation across all segments, and increased distribution as the primary growth factors. The average American ate 7.4 healthy snacks per week with survey respondents naming chips/popcorn/pretzels as the healthiest snacks after fresh fruits and raw vegetables. Nuts/dried fruit/trail mix ranked next.

?An increase in numbers of older people and a greater awareness of heart disease and a desire to combat it have increased the number of people who carefully watch cholesterol or sodium,? the report stated.

Changing eating habits
Further growth is being driven by the growing number of time-starved individuals, coupled with the breakdown in family structures, and with them traditional eating times, Tonkin notes.

?We are eating on the run. Convenience and availability are the key concepts along with good taste. Snacking is much more about meal replacement now. If somebody sits down and eats a bag of chips that may have vitamins and other health attributes, they would consider that a portion of a meal.? It?s a point echoed by Chip Marsland, CEO of Massachusetts-based high-protein snack maker Betafoods. Healthy snacking also presents a tremendous opportunity for the Western world to simultaneously reduce its ?obscene? calorie intake, he says.

?Junk food formats like chips present a wonderful opportunity to bring healthful foods to the nation,? he says. ?The beauty of protein is that it is a satiating food. It fills you up and snacks are a controllable form of nutrition. You could buy a sandwich at a deli, but it might take much longer to prepare and the portion is not controlled so you don?t know the nutritional profile. That?s why healthy snacks can be meal-replacers. For people who are diabetic, obese, athletic, or just wary of their food consumption, it is a wonderful form of controlled nutrition.?

Marsland believes Betafoods? US range of 10 chips and cracker varieties, many of which will be launched in the considerably less-developed European market this year, have also resolved the taste question that stumps many healthy snack producers.

?Consumers want good-tasting foods. In the old days, health products tasted like cardboard, which in a way can be seen as a cause of the current obesity epidemic because many people tried these products and rejected them and went back to the junk foods. We have worked extensively on texture and taste, studied the functionality of proteins and learned how to engineer proteins so they mimic carbohydrates in terms of taste, texture and processing.?

It?s a contention not bought by all in the industry. Emanuel Stern, PhD, of New York-based food product developer Culinova, is less sure about protein?s ability to deliver the necessary taste benefits without the compliance of fat, carbohydrates, salt or all of the above.

I haven?t seen a chip where you remove the salt and the fat and the product still tastes good; I don?t see kids begging their parents for bags of soy chips.
?Chips are experiencing the same paradox that existed in the bakery industry a few years back when everyone went low fat,? he notes. ?The problem was they tasted bad and no one bought them. I won?t even bother with a product unless I believe it can taste as good with fortification as without fortification. It?s a waste of time to try and market a product that doesn?t taste absolutely right—that isn?t right in every way.

?It?s the same with (Proctor and Gamble?s failed low-fat oil) Olean. It sounded like the ideal product until people realised it caused incontinence. That?s a pretty unpleasant side effect! I haven?t seen a chip where you remove the salt and the fat and the product still tastes good; I don?t see kids begging their parents for bags of soy chips.?

He adds: ?That said, there are some specimens out there that taste OK and given that there are a lot of people consuming the wrong kinds of products and feeling guilty about it, there is a market there and it appears to be growing. By removing some of that guilt, you can get consumers to eat more of a product or to pay a price premium.?

More than low fat
An innovative array of functional ingredients is also finding its way into savoury snacks. Companies like New York-based Robert?s American Gourmet have introduced ingredients such as St John?s wort, camomile and orange peel, echinacea and kava into its chips. Not all have been successful, indeed some ran into trouble with the Food and Drug Administration over labelling problems, but the willingness to experiment gained Robert?s the kind of mainstream media attention that has allowed it to punch above its weight.

The addition of all kinds of fish extracts to chips and other savoury products in Japan is similarly exciting. Meiji?s O-Sakana Snack, made of puffed corn and powdered fish bones, is just one example. In Europe, regional differences are prevalent. According to Euromonitor, Brits, like Americans, are coming to see healthy snacks in terms of their potential to replace meals, while the French, Italians and Spanish see savoury snacks as being little more than accompaniments for aperitifs.

While not taking the leap of faith into low-carbs undertaken by its parent in the US, PepsiCo-owned UK snack-maker Walkers has reduced saturated fat levels by 10 per cent in all its chips.

?We?ve also launched a product called Originally Smiths Salt & Shake Potato Crisps that has a sachet of salt so the consumer can control the amount of salt on the product,? a spokesperson says.

Wherever they may be located, Tonkin offers the following advice to niche players: ?Be aggressive. If you can get your hands on clinical trials and make the most of any data in relation to ingredients, then that is all well and good. Consumers want to know! The more information you can get to them the better, and the more willing they will be to pay a little extra too.

?Consumers have learned there is a value-added premise to buying healthy products. As long as the delivery system is viable and there is some added value to the product, people will be willing to pay the price.?

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