Is a seaweed flake the new potato chip?
Hoping to elevate snack foods out of junk territory and into a healthier zone, more companies are offering munchables made from ingredients with ironclad nutritional credentials, including black beans, brown rice, seaweed and parsnips.
Never mind that recommended serving sizes in many cases are minuscule, or that calorie, fat or sodium profiles can rival or exceed those of old-school pretzels and potato chips.
"Consumers are looking for 'permissible indulgence'—that's the big buzzword," says Lu Ann Williams, head of research at Netherlands-based Innova Market Insights.
The proportion of consumers reporting that they eat three to four snacks a day in addition to meals rose to 31% in 2013, up from 19% in 2010, according to Chicago market research firm IRI.
To help people feel better about snacking amid concerns over childhood obesity, many companies have been working to eliminate trans fats and reduce saturated fats in products.
PepsiCo's Frito-Lay unit announced in late 2010 that it would eliminate artificial and synthetic ingredients, and monosodium glutamate, from much of its snack lineup, and says since then it has made "many changes."
The percentage of US snack foods making at least one health claim rose to 71% in the first half of 2013, up from 56% two years earlier, according to Innova.
Seaweed is a mainstay in permissible indulgence, with 16 new seaweed-containing snacks introduced in the first half of the year, up from three in the same period last year, Innova says. There were 51 new snacks containing beans and legumes, up from 28 a year earlier.
Seaweed snacks are papery sheets of roasted seaweed whose hand-held size and salty taste satisfy some consumers' potato-chip craving.
Kimberly Hyman, a 32-year-old Belvedere, Calif, mother, says seaweed is her new go-to midday snack, sometimes replacing fruit or yogurt. She keeps a stash seaweed snacks in the diaper bag and shares them with her 18-month-old, Jake. He recognises the packs now," she says. "He screams for them."
Last year, CJ Foods of Commerce, Calif, the parent company of Annie Chun's Roasted Seaweed Snacks, doubled the flavour offerings in its lineup, adding Brown Sugar and Sea Salt, and Cracked Pepper and Herbs, to Wasabi and Sesame.
Beans, not corn, are the basis for tortilla chips from Beanitos of Austin, Texas, founded by veteran snack entrepreneur Doug Foreman, who also started the Guiltless Gourmet low-fat line in 1989.
Foreman says while on a diet he became intrigued with beans' "low glycemic" virtues and asked himself, "I wonder if I could make a chip out of this?" Texas supermarkets began selling Beanitos' black bean and pinto bean chips in 2010 and now the brand is in 15 000 stores nationwide.....