Consumers' eating habits are changing; gone are the days of three square meals a day. Instead, snacking in place of meals has become more prevalent as consumers often find themselves too busy to sit down and eat a meal or even prepare one to begin with. Snack dollar sales are up 3.5 percent, according to IRI data, with consumers averaging 2.7 snacks per day and nearly half of consumers snacking three or more times a day. IRI, in Chicago, predicts snack sales to grow $35 billion in the next five years.
Along with the rise in snacking, consumers also are increasingly looking for snacks that are free from any number of ingredients. Chicago-based Mintel research reveals that 84 percent of Americans purchase free-from food items because they are looking for less processed food. Nearly half (43 percent) think free-from foods are healthier than foods without free-from claims.
One of the most popular and long-running claims is gluten-free. "We're seeing a lot more requests for snacks in the gluten-free area," says Cheryl Pick Sommer, owner of Kaune's Neighborhood Market, a specialty gourmet grocery store in Santa Fe, N.M. "They're looking for cookies, muffins and crackers." Customers often offer suggestions on which brands of product the store should stock, Sommer adds. "Some [brands] are more popular with customers than others, so we get a lot of suggestions that way. And then we research them from our distributor."
The products are merchandised along with the gluten-containing items in the category; Sommer doesn't believe in a special gluten-free section. Customers are more likely to try a gluten-free product if they see it when they're reaching for the conventional options, she notes.
Gluten-free product sales are estimated to be about $13.7 billion in the United States, averaging about 18 percent growth, says Billy Roberts, senior food and drink analyst at Mintel. The gluten-free snack category alone brings in $4.4 billion in sales, he adds.
While gluten-free sales may not be growing at the astronomical rates they had been a few years ago, many manufacturers are making additional claims like "high in protein" on their gluten-free products. This is proving beneficial as "Consumers can perceive an actual health benefit rather than just a subtraction," Roberts notes.
These added claims may help those products sustain sales when or if consumers move on to the next trendy dietary claim. Many consumers purchasing gluten-free products have no health reason, like celiac disease or gluten intolerance, to do so, but rather are purchasing gluten-free products because they perceive them to be more healthful, much like products with no or low carbs a decade ago.
Trans Fat Resurgence
Roberts also notes that consumers are once again becoming interested in trans fat-free products, which is surprising since many manufacturers have already reformulated their products to remove it. But when asked about what they were trying to avoid when purchasing healthy foods, 45 percent of consumers indicated trans fat. "I think it's a reflection that those efforts to get rid of trans fats definitely weighs heavy on consumers' minds," he adds.
In Santa Fe, Sommer also is seeing a rise in customers seeking dairy-free products as alternatives in the category away from cow milk, especially in yogurt and ice cream or frozen desserts. She is sourcing a lot of goat and sheep milk yogurt. "That area is active," she notes. "It's not for everybody, but it provides a good alternative."
As part of the free-from movement, consumers also are looking for products that are free of artificial colors, flavors, sweeteners and preservatives. "Consumers are trying to eat as close to 'real' as they can," Roberts says. "They want their mass-produced, processed foods to reflect that." They want food with uncomplicated ingredients that they could have in their own pantries and could potentially make in their own kitchens.
This move to nothing artificial also includes consumers' desire for non-GMO products. Many view genetically modified food as "artificially enhancing or impacting what they feed themselves or their families," he adds.
This clean label movement has actually grown into a clear label movement as consumers grow increasingly concerned about the environment and want to know how the ingredients are grown as well as a company's business practices. Nearly half of millennials are buying free-from products because they perceive them to be better for the environment in general, Roberts notes. "It offers an interesting perspective on what millennials seem to be looking at in a free-from product," he adds.
While all ages are seeking free-from snack products, their age does affect what claims they look for the most, Roberts says. Older consumers are more concerned with sodium-free or reduced sodium products while the younger consumer is more concerned with clear labels and the environmental impact of the foods and therefore are searching out claims like hormone-free or cage-free.
In general, more than one-third of consumers say that free-from products are worth paying more for, but again, it is split along generational lines. More than half of millennials are willing to pay more while only 27 percent of baby boomers will shell out more money for free-from products. "Free-from claims are resonating much more strongly with young people," Roberts says.
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