Uh oh, looks like we’re cancelling January’s resolutions. Instead, we’ll be opening the fridge and food cupboards with more frequency; grazing and treating ourselves with snacks throughout the daily grind. After all, there has to be some reward for not being able to go out. We’re equally conscious of being kind with our bodies and minds during a lockdown. Searches for ‘healthy snacks’ surge once a year during January. Last year, they also surged during April. Between fresh starts and fresh lockdowns, January 2021 is beginning to set a new record.
Pandemic peaks aside, the baseline growth of snacking is growing, trending towards better, more healthy options. We’re eating around three times more snacks than the generation before due to busier lives and more skipped meals. It’s also deeply rooted in our psyche. Humans have spent tens of thousands of years grazing as a way to survive. There’s even a science behind our cravings for food with loud and crunchy sounds. Today, we eat snacks for two simple reasons: we love it, and we think it’s an easy way to keep our weight down. Which is another way of saying ‘we think it’s good for us’.
The market’s overall size is hard to measure, but comprising everything from crisps to keto bars is estimated at £3bn in UK value sales. Staple snacks are one part of this, things like crisps, crackers and nuts. The rest splits between a range of ever-changing innovations. Nielsen estimates that the category is significantly more innovative than most, with 1,780 different snacking products available on UK shelves in 2018.
As a result, consumer expectations are incredibly high, with many willing to pay a premium for better quality. The category is a conveyor belt for new ideas, new formats and flavours whilst products must be allergy-free, gluten-free, vegan and sustainably produced. These innovations boom as ‘foodies’ exude status through their knowledge and adoption of new trends; and those that are health conscious can’t help but try anything that promises lower calories, more unique superpowers or both. The aisles of WholeFoods are stacked with bright new brands all vying for attention.
However, insider-experts feel that constant innovation fails to create scalable alternatives to traditional snacking options over the longer-term. After all, WholeFoods only caters for specific audiences. Crossing over into the mainstream comes down to one thing: taste. Given our core reason for snacking is pleasure, it’s no wonder the ‘better-for-you’ category has hit some barriers. Often these options don’t taste as good — or if they do, we have a perception that they won’t taste good and never try them. Meanwhile, the government is banning unhealthy snacks from supermarket counters amid national health concerns.
Snacking has come a long way from eating a bag of Monster Munch or half a Twix in the 1970s to nearly three times that amount in crisps, nuts, seeds and popcorn (and the statistics exclude newer snacks such as cashew quinoa bars and crispy seaweed thins). Our hunch is that in taste terms, we’ve made far less progress. The past year has been significant for changes in mass brand adoption. People are open to new ideas, and there is the opportunity for a new generation of snacks to step up to the plate (or into the ziplock bag).
Innovators are looking at the taste v. health challenge with fresh eyes. The new goal: ‘clean comfort foods’ or healthy foods we want to eat as indulgent snacks rather than as an alternative to them. No idea is off-limits. Some are experimenting with new cooking technologies. Others are looking at therapeutic and spiritual approaches like Ayurveda (which originated in India as a way of eating to keep weight down and support mindfulness). As we move towards plant-based diets for ourselves and the planet, snacking has a significant role.
The concern is that snacking remains vibrant from a growth standpoint but atomised from a choice perspective. The market is ever-evolving but transient. Innovation keeps super fans excited and can build lucrative niches. But ultimately, our ambitions over the past six months have been to find ideas with real scaling potential.
Looking at mainstream snacks, less choice, not more, is what consumers want. The big players are responding by consolidating products under fewer, more prominent master brands such as Walkers. Simple, bold new ideas are needed to disrupt the staple favourites if snacks are to find their way back onto supermarket counters. Which is why corporates are rushing to acquire healthy snack brands over the past 24 months: Unilever has acquired Graze, Kellogg’s has acquired KXBar and Mars completed its buyout of Kind. Like them, we’ve had a keen eye on direct-to-consumer and subscription-based models that build owned communities and can bypass the traditional retail, industrial complex.
True to our fund philosophy to make a positive impact, snacking has a real (and ample) opportunity to improve what we put in our bodies with ingredients that help and not hurt the planet. Lockdowns may temporarily slow life down, but they don’t make us any less busy. We’ll need to continue to balance what life throws at us in ever natural and wholesome ways. Above all, we’ll need to do it in ways that aren’t Willy Wonka but are nonetheless yummy, scrummy and delicious.