Salt Reduction

The Snack Food Challenge: Building a Healthier Crunch

They’re crunchy, crispy, and craved by us all. Yes, it’s those starchy, savoury snacks that help us stave off hunger, stress, and even boredom, with a quick convenient munch!

Global sales of snacks skyrocketed by over 17% in 2020, as the pandemic had many of us reaching for chips, pretzels, and popcorn. With normal routines disrupted, “snack time” became any time.

It’s not surprising that savoury snacks are high in salt. The salty flavour is one of the things we crave most about them. As manufacturers know, salt is the star of snack seasoning. It not only provides that essential salty flavour, but it acts as a carrier for other flavours as well.  

This can make the goal of developing lower-sodium snacks seem like an impossible task. Consumers demand salty flavour, while at the same time asking for healthier alternatives. Let’s take a look at the snack food challenge. 

Snacking trends

Just as it’s effected the wider food industry, the Better For You (BFY) trend has been shaping snack food. Consumers are seeking lighter options made from more wholesome ingredients.

Comfort-eating increased through pandemic restrictions, with the focus on traditional sweet and salty snacks. The familiar flavours of old favourites offered some reassurance amidst the uncertainty. 

Now health-consciousness is on the rise again – with one study reporting that 63% of consumers said the pandemic has made them more conscious of their health. 

But does that mean less snacking? Well, no. The snacking habit is just as strong, and some research shows snack food purchases continuing to grow. 

While the urge to snack endures, it’s shifting to a healthier BFY place. “Mindful snacking” is one example of this. It’s a campaign where people are encouraged develop greater awareness of their eating as part of their general well-being. 

Another healthy trend is functional snacking – or snacks with benefits. Consumers want snacks they can feel good about: foods with high protein, fibre, omega-3, and other nutrients. It’s an approach that makes snacking a guiltless, win-win activity. 

And now with people returning to the workplace, “on-the-go” snacking is returning. One study found that 25% of hybrid workers (who split their time between home and the office) said they eat more snacks in place of meals. 

Overall, the impact of these trends means more innovation is required to satisfy today’s snack consumer. 

The mighty potato chip

Whether they’re called “crisps” or “chips,” those thin and crunchy potato slices are one of the most popular snack foods in the world. In fact, the global potato chips market is projected to grow by over 40%, reaching USD 31.18 billion by 2028.

Potato chips are a universal snack. Hundreds of different flavours have been created, with each country having its own favourites. While there are many extravagant flavours to choose from in the US – like crab or cappuccino –  the fact is that the classic plain chip is still the most popular there. In the UK, the prawn cocktail crisp is a traditional favourite. Across Europe, meaty flavours like roast chicken, ham, and currywurst are best-sellers. In China, you can get flavours like cucumber and lemon tea – but the most popular is still the classic salted chip. 

While the classic chip is a slice of potato, extruded potato snacks are emerging as an industry favourite. This is mainly due to the ease of modifying the nutritional content of the product to suit the requirements of the BFY market. The extrusion process also allows for a variety of shapes, including spirals, cones, sticks and straws. 

As consumers became more aware of the salt and fat content in traditional chips, manufacturers have introduced many healthier alternatives. But while many of these tick the box for lower fat, reducing the salt has proven to be a bigger challenge. 

Popped chips are a popular variation that’s marketed as healthier than the traditional chip.  The potato slices are popped with hot air, rather than fried in oil. While they are lower in fat and calories, they can also contain high levels of sugar and salt. The leading brand’s “Sea Salt” flavour contains 480mg of salt per serving, or 840mg sodium per 100g, much higher than the WHO target of 500mg/100g 

Another newcomer to the chip world is the “oven baked” chip. Just like the popped chip, the baked chip eliminates frying and produces a lower-calorie, lower-fat product. But the difference ends there. The salt content of a single-serving packet of baked chips was similar to that of the fried type: 300mg per 25g, or 1180mg per 100g. 

Extruded potato chips are loved by consumers for their fun shape, and convenient packaging. Instead of bags of varying shapes and sizes, extruded chips come neatly stacked in a tubular container. While the shape is consistent, the leading extruded chip brand offers a vast variety of flavours, with 34 different flavours available in the US alone. 

Most of the leading extruded chip brand flavours exceed the WHO target of 500mg of sodium per 100g. Their original flavour has 535mg per 100g, and their Buffalo Ranch flavour is packed with a whopping 999mg per 100g. 

Veggie chips

As consumers sought a healthier chip, food manufacturers responded with a new innovation: the vegetable chip. Made from many varieties of root vegetable, including parsnips, beetroot, carrots, and sweet potatoes – the bright colours and feel-good appeal of a “vegetable” snack make these a popular choice with health-conscious snackers. 

The success of vegetable crisps influenced the development of some extruded snacks. Manufacturers of tortilla corn chips began adding veggies into their products, creating multi-coloured chip mixes with sweet potato, beetroot, and even spinach. In addition, some brands added ingredients like flaxseed to further boost their “healthy snack” appeal.

While vegetable and vegetable-added snacks can offer nearly three times the fibre of plain potato chips, and some additional vitamins and minerals, they are often just as high in salt. A leading vegetable crisp brand has 440mg of salt per 40g single serving. A popular supermarket brand of vegetable tortilla chips has 300mg per serving, putting it in the “amber” traffic light zone with 5% of total RDI for salt. 

Cool beans

A later arrival on the healthy snack scene are legume-based products. While beans have been a snack staple in Asia for many years, they weren’t a widely used ingredient in the rest of the world until recently. Driven by the increasing demand for plant-based protein, food manufacturers have taken a fresh look and legumes and pulses. Their high-fibre, high-protein nutritional profile makes them ideal in formulating healthier processed foods. 

Soybeans, chickpeas, lentils and fava beans all feature in this new generation of legume snacks. In many instances, the legume is swapped into the place of a grain to create a new healthier version of a traditional favourite. 

One popular example is a chickpea-based product that has reinvented the classic “cheese puff” snack. Instead of corn or rice flour, it uses a chickpea and quinoa mixture which results in a protein content nearly four times that of the original grain-based version. With these great improvements in nutrition, the salt content remains at the same or higher levels. A leading brand of chickpea puffs has 1400mg of salt per 100g, or 560mg of sodium per 100g, which exceeds the WHO target per 100g. 

Wholegrain gains

The wholegrain trend in healthier food has been embraced by food manufacturers. While potato chips are undeniably delicious, their reputation as a “junk food” led health-conscious shoppers to look elsewhere for better way to get a crunchy snack fix. 

Extruded chips made from wholegrain flours soon emerged as a leading snack category. Brands were able to appeal to consumers with snacks made from “heart-healthy” grains like whole wheat and whole oats. The natural wholesome messaging around these products was a breath of fresh air compared to the greasy image of the fried potato chip. 

While wholegrain extruded snacks can claim higher fibre and fewer calories than their potato-based cohorts, their healthy credentials fall down where salt is concerned. A 25g single-serve packet of a leading multigrain crisp has about the same salt content as the same amount of potato chips at 320mg. And a leading sour cream flavoured grain crisp has 1200mg of salt per 100g. 

Popcorn & pretzels

Once only consumed in cinemas or around a campfire, popcorn has been enjoying a resurgence in popularity. A natural fit for the on-the-go snack market, it also boasts wholefood, high-fibre, and gluten-free attributes. 

Now available in a spectrum of sweet and savoury flavours, the taste of popcorn has moved beyond buttery. New flavours include toffee apple, peanut butter, and blue cheese. 

The most popular flavours are cheddar, caramel, and the classic butter and salt. 

A typical ready-popped 80g bag of salted popcorn contains 960mg of salt. Some of the highest salt content is found in the popular cheddar cheese flavoured popcorn, with one brand having 1300mg of salt per 100g. 

The pretzel has a long history in its native Germany, where soft baked pretzels were often enjoyed with a beer. The traditional fresh baked pretzel made its way to the US in the 1800s with German immigrants and can still be found today at speciality shops and food trucks, sometimes coated in sugar or dipped in cheese sauce. 

A smaller, hard version of the pretzel was created to provide a more convenient snackable version of the original format. In 1935, the invention of the first automated pretzel machine allowed for their mass-production, and they’ve been a popular product in the US ever since. 

The hard pretzel category has seen steady growth in the US, with $1.4 billion in sales from 2020-2021. 

Just like other snack types, the consumer focus on cleaner labels and healthier ingredients has led to innovation. Adding legume flours into the mix to boost plant protein is one way pretzel manufacturers are responding to the better-for-you trend. 

While manufacturers make adjustments to create healthier pretzels, many have neglected to make these adjustments to the salt content. For example, a premium pretzel product that includes “organic,” “oven baked,” and “wholegrain” on its label contains 866mg of salt in a single 33g serving. That’s actually 4% more salt than in a classic baked pretzel brand. 

Better snacks with 35% less sodium and the same salty flavour

Salt is the vital star for producing a satisfying savoury snack. And nearly all the snacks we looked at exceeded recommended salt levels. But as consumers look for healthier, mindful and BFY options, how can snack manufacturers preserve the delicious salty flavour of their products in a clean and natural way?

With more transparent nutritional labelling, brands can no longer rely on healthy-sounding buzzwords to capture market share. They must be able to back up their branding with a lower salt content number on pack.

Research found that 69% of consumers look for simple, recognisable ingredients when shopping. As a natural sea salt, Saltwell is a perfect fit.  

When used as an ingredient within topical seasoning blends, or in your extruded snack batters, Saltwell is an easy 1:1 replacement for regular salt but has 35% less sodium. 

Many leading snack brands have already made the switch to Saltwell to achieve a significant sodium reduction in their products, and to retain a natural salty profile to satisfy consumers. Ready to learn more? Get in touch or request a sample.