People in the UK eat more savoury snacks than any other European nation, averaging 7.2kg each per year, and market value is forecast to creep up from around £2.4 million to £2.6 million by 2009, says a new report by market researchers Key Note.
But the report also issues a stark wake-up call for manufacturers, saying: "There is no doubt that the future of snack foods is beset with potential obstacles to growth, including the cost of developing substitutes for fat, sugar and salt, moves to reduce the availability of snacks and a possible ban on advertising food to children."
The possibility of a traffic light scheme to highlight healthy foods, as suggested by the government, would likely put many savoury snacks in the unhealthy red zone due to high salt content, and the report even raises the fear that companies could face lawsuits from obese consumers, similar to those already seen in the US.
The same problem is likely to occur throughout Europe as many governments wake up to the dangers of obesity. In France, a recent survey by Senator Claude Saunier claims obesity levels there could match those of the US by 2020. By September, all vending machines will be banned from French schools as the first step in combating this problem.
Key Note sympathises with snacks manufacturers who "may feel that they are being demonised when it is people's overall lifestyles that are to blame for rising obesity levels", but the group says producers must nevertheless embrace healthier products, such as reduced fat and salt ranges, which it claims may be the only varieties on retailers' shelves in the future.
However, "smaller UK operators may find it difficult to weather these problems," says the report, adding that larger producers such as Walkers, owned by PepsiCo subsidiary Frito-Lay, will have more financial backing to implement vital innovations, such as new exotic flavours, varieties and gimmicks.
All manufacturers will also face increasing competition from other food sectors which are expected to steal more ground in the snacks market by using ingredients perceived as healthier by consumers, such as cereals, cheese, seeds and olives.
The lifeline for traditional snacks producers in the UK will be British consumers' raw addiction to snacks they already know and love. "The fact remains that the British love their savoury snacks and are generally unwilling to compromise taste for health," says Key Note, adding that consumers will continue to demand savoury snacks as a treat despite being "bombarded with healthy eating advice".
Britain's strong economy should also help to soften the blow and keep the snacks market heading in the right direction. The latest figures predict that unemployment will rise only slightly from 870,000 to 910,000 up to 2009, still more than eight times smaller than current figures in France and Germany, and the country's gross domestic product (GDP) is set to rise by around 2.5 per cent year-on-year.