Snack innovators see shift to positive nutrition but 'cutting the nasties isn’t enough'

By Katy Askew contact

- Last updated on GMT

The evolution of healthy snacking in the COVID era / Pic: GettyImages-fizkes
The evolution of healthy snacking in the COVID era / Pic: GettyImages-fizkes

Related tags: healthy snacking

Innovative snack brands say they are seeing a shift in the snack category as consumers seek out products that deliver positive nutrition in response to COVID-19. But ‘cutting the nasties’ isn’t enough - brands also need to remember that taste remains the most important purchase influencer.

Recent data from Kantar Worldpanel shows a rise in UK snacking during the coronavirus lockdown. The majority of this gain, the research provider noted, came from comfort products like crisps and chocolates, with a 10% fall in ‘healthy snacking’.

Anecdotally this is not, however, a trend recognised by many innovative healthy snacking brands.

“We’re seeing an increased demand for our healthy popped lotus seed snacks across all D2C platforms following an initial flurry of orders at the beginning of lockdown,”​ Anushi Desai, co-founder of health focused brand Plant Pops reflected.

This is an experience echoed by other healthy snack start-ups. Cathryn Zielinski, director of Simply Seedz porridge, revealed that lockdown saw the group ‘completely sell out of stock’. “Over the past eight months and in the grip of lockdown we’ve noticed a greater appetite for ‘truly’ natural products from consumers as they learn what a pivotal role a healthier diet can play in preventing illness. Boosting the immune system with natural foods is one simple way consumers can significantly help themselves,”​ she explained.

Indeed, the link between diet and health has been placed under the microscope by the COVID crisis. From higher morbidity rates among COVID sufferers who are obese, to government-backed advice for to increase vitamin D intake, to the rise of mood-boosting foods, how we eat has firmly been connected in the public mind to health and wellness.

Stef Pellegrino of Purely Plantain Chips believes that improved sales trends for healthy snacking brands can also be linked to better access. COVID-19 has prompted consumers to shift their shopping habits online, with more and more people looking to e-commerce. This means that smaller healthy snacking brands have been able to broaden their consumer reach. “I would say the snack industry has seen some rather positive changes during COVID. We have personally seen an increased demand for our Purely Plantain Chips throughout the pandemic period, especially with regards to online operators like Amazon and Ocado,”​ she told us.

Innovating propelling healthy snacking

Within the context of the pandemic, ‘health was the number one topic’ and the focus frequently falls on diet, Pellegrino observed. She believes this has prompted many consumers to reassess their decisions around food and snacking: “I think with more time on their hands, especially during lockdown, a lot of people have started thinking more about their long-standing consumption habits.”

The snacking sector is seeing a lot of renovation focused on removing nutrients that have negative consequences for health – salt, sugar and fat. Innovation is also evolving to deliver products that focus on positive nutritional messages, offering benefits that improve health.

This is a trend Zielinski of Simply Seedz hopes to see accelerate. “Snacking innovators should be producing products that are truly nutritionally savvy. We have become a nation of snackers who exercise less. With a greater onus on people working from home and desk-based sitting, impromptu snacking is on the increase.

“Cutting nasties is just one of our key principles… It’s vital as a food producer with integrity that we keep the consumer’s health in mind. We want our customers to trust our products and know that our business objectives put a healthier mindset/lifestyle before profit.”

Seed Snacks founder Susan Gafsen observed that innovation in the snacking space is largely ‘in the more healthy spectrum’. “With many people having put on weight during lockdown the tide will turn towards more healthy options,”​ she predicted.

“We firmly believe that snacking should deliver nutrition enabling consumers to have a positive relationship with food. Snacking is good for you as it avoids hunger and maintains blood sugar levels, provided you eat the right food.

“No one should feel guilty about eating or starve themselves. Unfortunately, too many people do not have a positive relationship with food or body image. This is why we are all about nutrition. We do not mention calories on our packs as calorie counting and ‘yo-yo’ dieting often doesn’t have a good outcome.”

What is healthy snacking? Consumers remain confused

However, people aren’t buying into healthy snacking based on nutritional credentials alone. The healthy snacking brands we spoke to suggest that that there is still consumer confusion about exactly what healthy snacking means.

“There is still a lack of understanding of what healthy really means and I think we are a long way from this being mainstream. I think people are looking for reduced sugar and salt in their traditional favourites (crisps, cake and biscuits) rather than switching to a healthy diet,”​ Gafsen suggested.

Zielinski said she is also concerned that clever marketing and glossy packaging can misrepresent products as ‘healthy’ when their nutritional credentials don’t necessarily stack up. “One of the biggest obstacles for consumers is that often their buying decisions are based upon disingenuous glossy packaging, purporting to be healthy. The key is getting consumers to understand food nutrition labels better.”

But taste remains key

It is also vital that brands positioning themselves in the healthy snacking category do not prioritise nutrition over taste because consumers simply won’t buy into those products.

“A lot of new products are trying to hit all the goals: no sugars, low in salt, low-fat, low-carb, low in calories. While that is all well and good from a health perspective, people don't return to a product that didn't taste nice - however healthy it may have been. Sacrificing taste is the last thing you want to do,”​ Pellegrino advised.

Plant Pops’ Desai believes that the recipe for success in health snacking is to deliver on all fronts. “Taste is the most important thing – across all categories, not just snacking. Consumers still want something different and are looking for snacks that take them on a flavour adventure or instil an authentic sense of exploration. They are still looking for these snacks to tick key health credentials too.”

Pooch power: Healthy snacking isn’t just for humans

As people look for healthier snacks to look after their own health and wellbeing, they are also seeking them out for their best friends – their pets. Dog snacking, it transpires, is following the same trajectory as human snacking.

“Today, dog treats are increasingly mirroring the same inflexible standards we're demanding in human snacks - finally nutritional counts and ingredient decks are being mulled over and critiqued by increasingly savvy and health conscious pet owners who want their pets to enjoy the same healthier living and considered diets that they are adopting themselves,”​ Prash Patwardhan, founder of premium dog food maker Pawfect Foods, told us.

With one-in-four UK dogs clinically obese and pet owners counting spiralling vet bills as a result, people are looking for products that deliver dietary balance. In the context of pet nutrition this can actually mean less meat. “Only slowly are pet parents recognizing that 'dietary balance' is everything - dogs contrary to common perception are flexitarians not single-track carnivores - as its been proven that dog's ancestors foraged for herbs, fruits and grasses in addition to meats. Yes, top-grade meats are integral to your dog's ongoing 'health welfare' but so is the right balance of nutritionally robust fruit, veg and dairy.”

And, like in human snacking, pet owners are also looking to positive nutrition for improved health outcomes. “Positive nutrition is the buzz phrase in premium tier dog snacking - with pet owners appreciating that a well-balanced diet must include the right balance of 'real ingredients'.”

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