By the handful
Hamburger-flavored chips, soccer-ball puffs, ginkgo biloba bars -- snacks of the future create a wild to-chew list
By Alison apRoberts [sic] -- Bee Staff Writer
Published 2:15 a.m. PDT Monday, May 5, 2003
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SAN FRANCISCO -- Inside the Marriott Hotel exhibit hall, the air is unmistakably spiced with a whisper of salt. Turn one way and you catch a whiff of cumin, another way and there's cheddar cheese in the air.
Near the entrance, a large poster of a beaming pig in overalls reminds all who walk in: "And remember... there is no party without Evans Pork Rinds." Bowls brimming with the crackling snacks are set out for easy picking.
It looks and smells and tastes like snack time.
It is snack time -- serious snack time. This is Snaxpo, the annual convention of the Snack Food Association, a national organization based near Washington, D.C. This year, the event landed in San Francisco.
This is the place to savor the tastes of snacks to come. It's an industry event where those who hope to bring bold innovations to the insatiable American market show their wares.
Tomorrow's colors, foods and factory machinery are all on display. It's a pretty good picture of what's coming, although it is not complete. In food-marketing lingo, the association represents only those who make "shelf-stable, ready-to-eat processed food derived from vegetable, grain, fruit, nut or meat." In ordinary language, that means most grab-and-go packaged snacks that can be kept at room temperature, from packaged chips of every description to granola bars. There is not an apple or a yogurt or a candy bar in sight.
But no one will go hungry here. There are enough prototype samples offered at the more than 100 booths here to keep any visitor chewing. Based on conversations and many nibbles, here are some things that we may well be snacking on in the months to come.
Whatever the occasion, kids like fun and games whenever they eat. Snack makers are happy to oblige the 41 million-strong American market of kids ages 5 to 14.
At the Snaxpo exhibit, there are lots of prototype snacks with kid-oriented entertainment value as a key ingredient: puffed crisps in fanciful shapes, from soccer balls to four-leaf clovers; iridescent pretzels; and bright-blue potato chips.
"Kids like to play with their food," says Michala O'Brien of Sensient Colors. The company, based in St. Louis, is showing off its new product -- Spectraflecks -- which looks like the shiny glitter kids use for art projects. But these are edible. Sensient Colors hopes to entice snack companies to add sparkle to their products with Spectraflecks.
You can expect more items along the lines of products already on shelves, such as the "mystery colorz" Cheetos from Frito-Lay. They look like the usual bright-orange cheese puffs until you eat them. Then your tongue turns green or blue. Oreo makes cookies that turn milk blue or orange after dipping. Kool-Aid has its "Mad ScienTwists" flavors, rainbow powders that turn bright, solid colors once water is added.
Good for you
Kids might want color magic, but parents and other adults want a different sort of magic -- a nutritional alchemy that will turn snack food into health food.
Kim Feil, a consumer snacking expert and executive with Information Resources Inc., told snackmakers at Snaxpo that they should do more to make us feel good about eating their products.
"Consumers have no reference point right now for what 'better for you' is; the food pyramid is turned on its head," she says, speaking after the conference from her office in Chicago.
She hopes to see more easily digested nutrition information and more snack foods formulated to help out aging baby boomers. How about a ginkgo biloba bar to ward off memory loss, or a special soy formula cracker catering to menopausal diet desires?
"Twenty-five percent of us are over 50, and yet there are very few manufacturers actively marketing to these boomers," Feil says. "It's not as flashy as marketing to teens and kids, but it would be smart."
Meat-based snacks are big, spurred in part by the renewed popularity of the Atkins Diet, which puts protein on the to-chew list and knocks carbohydrates into the must-avoid list. This may explain the abundance of pork rinds at Snaxpo.
Meat-flavored snacks also are coming along. At one booth -- set up by Mane Inc., a flavor-seasoning company in Cincinnati -- a confetti-colorful bowl brings the whole Fourth of July menu together with potato chips in burger, mustard, dill pickle and ketchup flavors.
A world of flavor
There are no bumper stickers exhorting us to "think globally, snack locally." But the movement is here and destined for growth.
Snaxpo samples reflect a world of flavors.
"All Mexican-type snacks keep growing every year," says Andres del Bosque of the Mexican Snack Food Association, which had a large booth at Snaxpo.
There were dozens of salsas and tortilla-chip products on display.
Japanese snack products also made a big showing.
Yasu Yamashita invites passers-by to try some cooked, ready-to-eat chestnuts, azuki (red beans) and edamame (soybeans).
"These have been popular for years in Japan," says Yamashita, who works in the New York office of Kanebo USA, part of a large, multiproduct Japanese firm that hopes to bring the veggie snacks to the mainstream American market.
At another booth, Japanese snackmaker Takida Sea & Soy Ltd. has a line of exotic Kabuki Krisps it would like to place on U.S. store shelves. Flavors include spicy wasabi, "sea veggie" (primarily seaweed), sweet tofu, ume plum and crab.
Spoil your appetite
After a few hours of strolling and chewing in the Snaxpo exhibits, one can't help but wonder how anyone here could possibly be hungry for dinner after a day of this.
Why does an industry that caters to between-meal eating serve sit-down meals during its convention? Shouldn't it just be one long, nonstop snack?
Mike Malone at the Kraft Food Ingredients booth laughs at the question and concedes that even members of the snacking set have their limits.
"Well," he says, as he pops a cheese-flavored puff into his mouth, "even we get tired of pork rinds."
Facts on snacks
Snacking behavior -- defined as eating beyond breakfast, lunch or dinner -- has not changed noticeably in the past decade. Here are a few facts to chew on:
* 4.3: The number of times a day the average American eats.
* Fresh fruit is the No. 1 snack in the country, accounting for 16 percent of all between-meal snacks. Other popular snacks and their share of between-meal eating:
Cookies: 11 percent
Candy: 10 percent
Ice cream: 10 percent
Chips: 6 percent
* Biggest snacking occasions:
New Year's Eve
Super Bowl weekend
* American brown-baggers include potato chips in their lunches 21.4 percent of the time.
* Big growth snacks of 2002:
Sources: NPD Group, Snack Food Association, Information Resources Inc.
A chip off the old block -- and a popular snack for 150 years
Legend has it that a hot temper and hot oil came together to create the first potato chip, which is celebrating its 150th anniversary on the culinary landscape.
The legend takes us back to 1853, when a patron at Moon's Lake House restaurant in Saratoga Springs in upstate New York was not happy with the fried potatoes he ordered.
The customer complained that they were sliced too thickly, and sent them back to the kitchen.
The restaurant's grumpy chef, George Crum, apparently annoyed to the point of inspiration, sliced some potatoes very thin, fried them to death, added salt and had the waiter serve them to the customer.
The patron loved them.
Soon, the fried potatoes, initially called Saratoga Chips, started showing up on restaurant tables elsewhere in the region. World snack domination followed.
Today, potato chips are a $6 billion national market, making them the No. 1 item in the $30 billion savory snack business in the United States.
Chips are the most common form of potatoes eaten at home, according to the National Eating Trends Survey conducted by the NPD Group, a food-marketing consulting firm.
Americans who pack lunches include potato chips 21.4 percent of the time. Americans eat an average of 6.6 pounds of potato chips per person every year.