Because the snack food business is so competitive, brand marketers are always looking for ways to generate interest in their products. More than ever, flavor is the key to a successful launch. This is especially true in salty snacks, which are dominated by traditional unflavored chips. In the endless parade of new products, a new and exciting flavor stands out. "To compete in the snack food industry, you need more than two flavors," says Michael Schall, senior vice president of sales and marketing at Guiltless Gourmet, Austin, Texas. Most popular flavors for salty snacks tend to fall into two categories: dairy flavors, such as cheese or sour cream, and tomato-based flavors, such as barbecue and salsa. Individual flavors tend to be associated with a particular category, such as barbecue with potato chips, nacho with corn chips, cheese with extruded snacks -- although some crossover occurs. Other varieties appeal to a limited, often regional, market. However, these may evolve into national trends.
"Salt and vinegar started out as a regional preference popular in the Mid-Atlantic and New England," says Jane Schultz, spokeswoman for the Snack Food Association, Alexandria, Va. "It's showing strong growth. However, like most flavored chips, it's only a small portion of the potato chip market -- less than 2%."
Often manufacturers use creative approaches while remaining within the mainstream categories. For example, Frito-Lay markets Wavy Lays co-branded with Hidden Valley Ranch dressing and KC Masterpiece barbecue sauce seasonings. Another method is to combine a more mundane flavor with something exotic, like chipotle, a smoked pepper flavoring. While the inclination is to equate unflavored chips to dipping, the industry focuses on flavors that complement dips commonly eaten with the product such as sour cream dips or salsa.
"Our newest tortilla chip has a chili-lime flavor," says Schall of Guiltless Gourmet. "It applies two very unique and contrasting flavor profiles to a product without oil. Eaten with guacamole, the flavor impact is outstanding. We look for flavor combinations that are complementary."
The industry is still searching for the next big flavor, something with wide appeal such as nacho or ranch. One industry source looks at meat flavors as a potential candidate. Why? Meat flavors are big sellers outside the United States. Also, the Snack Food Association reports that sales of meat snacks were up more than 10% in 1993 from the year before, but as yet this trend has not spilled over to the chip arena. The only meat-flavored items that are currently successful are pork rinds, and their appeal is concentrated in the Southeastern United States.
"The problem with most flavorings is that they appeal to various segments of the population, whether regional or ethnic or some other group," explains Wilbur Gould, technical consultant to the Snack Food Association.
Natural flavors connote goodness and high quality in snack foods, just as they do in other food products. However, the impact differs depending on the market segment of the products targeted. Products marketed as "healthy" are expected to be free of artificial flavors or ingredients that may raise concerns, such as MSG. For the consumers targeted, the label can be as important as the product itself.
"If consumers know they can buy our products in retailers that are purveyors of natural and wholesome products, we know that we meet or exceed the demands put on us by retailers and consumers that shop in the mass market," said Schall.
On the other hand, many consumers consider salty snacks an indulgence, so nutritional issues are not a high priority. Stu Greenblatt, a spokesman for Keebler Co., Elmhurst, Ill., said that although the ingredient list on the company's fried snacks is "much more extensive than you'll find on potato chips, surprisingly few customers write to us that this is a concern."
Also, as the Snack Food Association's Schultz points out, snacks are "fun foods," meant to be enjoyed as part of a healthy lifestyle. "In moderation, there is no reason snacks cannot be enjoyed as part of a healthy diet." The flavor of many salty snacks relies on the traditional ingredients -- oil, salt, potatoes, corn and so on. This includes some of the fabricated snacks, such as Procter & Gamble's Pringles and Keebler's O'Boisies. However, many new products and processes create snacks that lack the appeal of these traditional flavors. Fabricated snacks, extruded snacks and reduced or fat-free products often fall into this category. For these, added flavors can replace missing notes or provide an alternate flavor interest. Flavor companies have developed a wide range of flavors, including notes like fried fats or potatoes, that can be used with varying degrees of success.
"Fabricated snacks provide a good opportunity to introduce heat-stable flavors to products," says Michael Nelsen, industry manager for snacks at Quest International, Itasca, Ill., a worldwide supplier of flavors, including snack food seasonings
"And a dual internal-topical system often gives a superior flavor profile, especially on some of the low-fat products. Unfortunately, there's danger of people thinking that this is going to be a cure-all for a poorly-designed product. Flavors are not tremendously good at masking. Their strength lies in improving and complementing a good base.
"We're focusing on trying to bring the flavor and texture of a baked, fabricated snack back into the realm of what a fried snack tastes like," Nelsen continues. "We develop things like fried oil flavors that can be added, fried potato flavors to get away from that raw potato taste. Once you get the product closer to the standard, you can start looking at the more traditional seasoning blends."
A crop of reduced-fat and no-fat snacks has been hitting the shelves recently. Reducing the fat level of many of the fried snacks is difficult, but technologically possible. Today the fat content averages about 30%, down about one-third from the past, according to SFA's Gould. He sees this dropping even further, possibly as low as 25%.
"Past that level, chips get too dry and it affects the flavor," he says. "We now know how to better control the amount of oil. You've got to have the right variety of potatoes -- the higher the solids content, the less oil. Secondly, the thicker the slice, the less surface area and oil absorption. "The third thing that affects the fat content is the maturity of the potato. If the potato is mature, it will always fry light. That's due to the sugar content. You can fry the potato for a shorter time at a higher temperature."
The no-fat or no-oil-added products present a whole different set of challenges. Unless a product such as Procter & Gamble's Olestra is approved, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to create products that mimic full-fat versions. However, the food industry has learned that when an exact match is not feasible, often a dissimilar, yet equally acceptable, product finds a substantial market.
"People really want to see the words 'no fat' on products, although 'reduced fat' is still a positive," says Keebler's Greenblatt. "They like the concept that they can snack without guilt." Flavoring no-fat or no-added-fat snack products creates a number of challenges. First, even if added flavors provide the missing notes, they do not compensate for the changes in flavor perception. Oil tends to alter the flavor release and prolong its intensity. For this reason, flavor systems developed for traditional snack items rarely taste the same in these types of products. Second, many snack food seasonings contain significant amounts of fat, especially dairy-based ones like cheese powder. For example, the addition of a ranch flavor to Frito's Baked Tostitos takes the fat content up from 1 gram per serving to 3 grams per serving. Reformulation is often required to meet the fat-level target.
Normally the film of fat that remains after frying causes the seasoning to adhere. With baked products, that film does not exist. Ingredient manufacturers have successfully developed systems that can be applied in a slurry or paste form using gums or starches for adhesion. The problem is that these products have to be redried to give them an acceptable texture and shelf life.
"It's easy for manufacturers not to cook their products in oil," says Schall. "It's not so easy to find a system to apply a flavor that makes economic sense and appeals to the consumer's flavor requirements, while maintaining consistency and quality."
The other approach to flavoring baked chips is using a flavor that goes into the product before baking. Difficulties arise with this technique for several reasons. Many of the traditional flavors like dairy are not heat stable. After high heat processes like baking, most of the top notes are gone and the flavor has reduced intensity. Also, the flavor delivery from an internal system comes across differently. A topical flavor delivers a quick, intense hit as soon as it hits the tongue. Internal flavors just don't have the same impact and adding more flavor in an attempt to compensate raises flavor costs without achieving a flavor match.
Despite the obstacles, these "baked, not fried" snack chips seem to be developing a following. Guiltless Gourmet, for instance, started out in health foods and specialty stores like Whole Foods, but, according to Schall, are now essentially distributed nationally and are found in many mainstream supermarkets.
"We put the first baked chip on the market. Our company has grown exponentially once the consumer validated the baked chip flavor, without frying and the added fat," Schall says. "We certainly spawned a range of imitators."
"A lot of consumers will try a low-fat or fat-free product once," said Jill Bond, spokeswoman for Guiltless Gourmet. "But having them come back again and again -- that's a big challenge. But it's something that has really driven our sales."
The category was once limited to smaller brands, but now Frito-Lay has entered the market with Baked Tostitos and has put Baked Lay's Potato Crisps into test markets in Iowa. These are a fabricated product containing less than two grams of fat per one ounce serving. The line, consisting of Original (plain) and Bar-B-Q varieties, is slated for a national launch late this year.
"There's some dispute within the snack food industry, whether low-fat is merely a trend or something that is here to stay," says Schultz. "You have to be cautious, because what consumers say they want and what they do are often two different things. "The industry is hoping that this trend will result in incremental sales and not siphon sales off from the existing snacks. Certainly some companies believe low-fat products will have a major impact on the snack food industry and intend to offer them. Also some feel that the whole segment is going to become more mainstream."
These low-fat and no-fat products appear to have serious market potential, especially if the cookie and cracker market is a harbinger of the trend. Both pretzels and popcorn have been positioned as low-fat alternatives to traditional fried snacks and their increased sales, especially pretzels, certainly reflect consumer demand for reduced-fat alternatives. Keebler is generating incremental volume with its new fat-free pretzels, according to Greenblatt, who also noted that the pound volume is up more than 100% from a year ago. Although the Snack Food Association has no figures on the market, Frito currently reports a $430 million business in low-fat and reduced-fat snack items and is projecting that in the future it could rise as high as $2 billion. But if there is a lesson to be learned from low fat in other categories, it's that the road to success is littered with a great deal of poor-tasting products.
"The figures look small, but flavoring chips is a way to generate incremental sales within a product line," says the Snack Food Association's Schultz. "If the consumer is familiar with a brand, an extension is introduced. We've seen that it can definitely help sales. Currently, there is a lot of innovation and a lot of new products, especially with low fat, and consumers are experimenting. "It remains to be seen whether repeat purchases are going to be there to carry the products. They are going to need to deliver on taste," she says.