Natural Foods Merchandiser

Move over Polly, consumers want crackers too

Have you crunched the numbers on your cracker traffic lately? You might want to; sales of natural and organic crackers increased 15 percent in the 52 weeks that ended March 21, according to SPINS, a Schaumburg, Ill.-based market research firm.

Why the double-digit growth? The perception of crackers as a healthy, time-honored pantry staple may explain their ongoing success, despite the recession. “It’s not a luxury purchase that you have to give up, even if you’re cutting back,” says Nicole Dawes, president of Late July Organic Snacks in Barnstable, Mass. And naturals manufacturers are bringing an explosion of innovation to the category.

Healthy and convenient
Natural crackers have a wholesome reputation, partly because they tend to be made with whole grains and, often, organic ingredients. “[Our crackers] are all high in fiber and low in carbohydrates,” says Carsten Kruse, president of Dallas-based organic cracker manufacturer Doctor Kracker. Many also contain healthy additions like flaxseed and sesame seeds minus trans fats.

For consumers who avoid yeast in their diets, crackers are a great alternative to bread. “Usually you see them made with nonyeast leaveners, like baking powder or baking soda, or no leavening at all,” says Chef Eric Kastel, associate professor of baking and pastry arts at the Hyde Park, N.Y.-based Culinary Institute of America.

Crackers also stick around longer than other snacks. “They have a low moisture content so there’s nothing to go rancid,” Kastel says. “As long as the package is sealed well, it’s not going to go bad.”

Versatile and tasty
Head swirling from all the choices in crackers? Here’s a breakdown of some common types.

Water crackers. The most Spartan of crackers, these are made from just water and flour. Carr’s is a classic brand.

Lavash. A Middle Eastern cracker, lavash is typically very thin and made from water, flour and salt. Venus makes five flavors.

Flatbreads. Usually very crunchy and made without leavening, this category includes crackers made with a variety of different grains. Doctor Kracker fits the bill.

Saltines. Also known as soda crackers, these are usually leavened with baking soda. Holes allow steam to escape so air pockets don’t form. Late July has an organic classic saltine.

Butter crackers. Made with, um, butter. And sometimes sugar, but no yeast. Late July and Annie’s Homegrown offer organic alternatives to the ubiquitous Ritz.

Graham crackers. Originally made with coarsely ground wheat flour, these were invented by Rev. Sylvester Graham in 1829, as part of a diet he was promoting to curb “carnal urges.” U.S. Mills and Health Valley each make a version.

Animal crackers. These have created a rift in the industry, with one camp declaring them to be cookies by virtue of their sweetness and the other insisting that their very flatness renders them crackers. Don’t take sides; just sell (and eat) them with abandon. Try ones made by Nature’s Path and Eco-Planet.

According to one story, crackers are an onomatopoetic food. In 1801, when Josiah Bent burnt his biscuits, he noticed they made a crackling noise. Bent discovered they also tasted pretty good, and began selling them—first to individuals and later to the National Biscuit Co., or Nabisco. But other evidence indicates that everyone from Neolithic farmers to 18th-century sailors ate dried flatbreads made from grain and water. They were the original to-go food: Extremely hard, with a lengthy shelf life, crackers (or sea biscuits, as sailors called them) were portable and bland—important qualities for travelers.

Going crackers
Gluten free is the best-selling buzzterm in crackers these days, according to SPINS. Among natural crackers, those labeled gluten free saw sales increase 32.2 percent. Among all crackers, flavored and gluten-free offerings rose a meteoric 43.9 percent, while unflavored gluten-free crackers still skyrocketed 60.3 percent in the 52 weeks that ended March 21. Get them on your shelves with the brands below.

Mary’s Gone Crackers. Offers organic wheat-free, gluten-free crackers made with whole-grain brown rice, quinoa, flaxseed and sesame seeds. Also available in Sticks & Twigs and Just the Crumbs!

Foods Alive. The eight varieties of flaxseed crackers from this family-owned business are organic, kosher, vegan and gluten free.

Glutino. Makes cheddar, multigrain and vegetable
crackers as well as a variety of pretzel sticks and twists.

Aunt Gussies & Dr. Kracker. Both offer spelt-based crackers. “Some people who are allergic to gluten seem to tolerate spelt better, but it cannot be sold as gluten free,” says Carsten Kruse, president of Dr. Kracker.

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