Healthy Snack Food?

No one should be eating a steady diet of unhealthy junk food. I am certainly not going to suggest that you become "potato chip vegan." But many people are looking for healthier snack options. Below is an article that was published Wall St. Journal about the new players and new products in the snack food industry.



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.

[image] F. Martin Ramin/The Wall Street Journal, Styling by Anne CardenasRoasted seaweed from Annie Chun's.

The snack-food aisle's neon-colored bags contain cheesy, spicy fare designed mainly for guys in their teens and 20s. The new munchies are directed at a potentially larger group—consumers who want to eat better but also love salty chips.

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 Inc.'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 U.S. 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 recognizes the packs now," she says. "He screams for them."

Last year, CJ Foods Inc., of Commerce, Calif., the parent company of Annie Chun's Roasted Seaweed Snacks, doubled the flavor 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 Inc., of Austin, Texas, founded by veteran snack entrepreneur Doug Foreman, who also started the Guiltless Gourmet low-fat line in 1989.

Mr. 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.

The brand promotes its "high fiber" content—as much as six grams per serving—and four grams of protein, versus just one gram of fiber and two grams of protein for standard nacho cheese tortilla chips.

Good-for-you, of course, doesn't equal all-you-can-eat. "If calories and grams of fat and levels of sodium are what you are concerned with, then there aren't huge differences" between many commercial snacks and the better-for-you niche brands, says Barbara Davis, director of medical and scientific affairs for PL Thomas and Co., a Morristown, N.J., natural-ingredients supplier.

A one-ounce serving of nacho cheese tortilla chips has 146 calories, seven grams of fat and 174 milligrams of sodium, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Nutrient Database. That isn't very far from 140 calories, seven grams of fat and 140 milligrams of sodium for a one-ounce serving of Beanitos Nacho Cheese tortilla chips. "You have to really adhere to a serving size," Dr. Davis says.

Serving sizes for alternative snacks can be just as unrealistic as they are for regular snacks. A serving of Annie Chun's sesame-flavored seaweed snacks has just 30 calories, 2.5 grams of fat and 70 milligrams of sodium. But a serving size is 5 grams, equivalent to about 10 sheets—and a fraction of the 28-gram serving size (or about 1 ounce, with 150 calories) for pretzels, chips and crackers.

Japanese snack food maker Calbee Inc. relaunched Snapea Crisps, pea-based snacks with a french fry shape in the U.S. in April. Sales have grown 60%, says Steve Kneepkens, vice president of sales and marketing.

Some of these snacks have the risk of sticker shock. Brad Gruno, founder of Brad's Raw Kale Chips, in Pipersville, Pa., says his product's relatively steep price tag—approaching $8 for a 2.5-ounce package—is due to the labor-intensive process of preparing and dehydrating vegetables, which takes up to 15 hours.

The product has a following among health-conscious shoppers and in just over three years distribution has expanded from Philadelphia-area farmers markets to 7,000 stores nationwide. Mr. Gruno says he is looking at cauliflower and collard greens, following the launch of Brad's Raw Onion Rings earlier this year.

Wonderfully Raw Gourmet, of Watsonville, Calif., recently launched dehydrated parsnips called Snip Chips (in Cheezy Herb Truffle, Chipotle Lime Cilantro, and Dill Pickle varieties) and dehydrated Brussels sprouts called Brussel Bytes, in Tamarind Apple Crunch and Chili Pumpkin Seed Crunch.

Kings Food Markets, a chain of 25 stores in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, says it has created "healthy snacks" displays within the produce section. "Customers are looking for 'healthy' in healthy departments versus it being lost in the snack aisle," says Paul Kneeland, vice president of the produce, floral, seafood and meat departments.

"Consumers are shifting away from three square meals a day and increasingly snacking," says Jimmy Wu, senior brand manager for Mondelez International Inc., whose Triscuit crackers now come in several brown-rice varieties. "They are looking for real food values and real food ingredients. . .that they traditionally found in regular meals."

Finding wide acceptance is the big challenge. Stephen Broad, co-founder of seaweed snack company GimMe Health Foods, of San Rafael, Calif., says flavors like Cheddar Cheese and Honey Dijon have been a "sort of training wheel" for skeptical consumers.




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