When people talk about snacks, they usually think of small portions they have between the meals. Throughout history, people have eaten pieces of fruit or different sorts of nuts to re-energize and sustain themselves until their next meal. However, in the 19th century, American consumers’ focus shifted from snacks (such as fresh fruit and nuts) to processed commercial snacks. The three ingredients that are the main “culprits” for the irresistible appeal of these snacks are sugar, salt, and fat. Namely, salt intensifies flavors, fat provides much-needed energy, and sugar induces pleasant feelings of joy and satisfaction. As a result, we have seen the increasing popularity of snacks that have become the daily, or even hourly, habits of many Americans. One study showed that the number of snacks consumed has doubled over the last forty years. Furthermore, only ten percent of survey participants in 2007 said they don’t eat snacks throughout the day, as opposed to forty percent in 1978.

The Snack Food Industry is Thriving

Another reason for the soaring popularity of various processed snacks is the hectic way of life most people lead today. Snacking has become a favorable and convenient option, compared to time-consuming meals, for those running from one place to another, trying to get various things done every day. As one professional dietitian has stated, “We live in the 24/7 food culture now.” Snacks have become easily accessible and socially acceptable everywhere – in the office coffee room, during a meeting, and while driving, walking, or shopping.

According to global surveys on the emerging eating habits, people all over the world have recently started swapping meals with snacks. Thus, 52% of responders, along with 49% of Americans, stated that they have snacks instead of regular breakfast. Also, 43% of people globally and 52% of Americans replace lunch with various snack foods. When it comes to having snacks for dinner, on average, around 40% of Americans fall into this category, while this rate varies depending on the region. For example, the percentage of people who replace dinners with snacks is around 20% in some European countries, while it soars over 60% as we move towards Asia.

Therefore, it is not surprising that the snack food industry thrives, turning the craving for indulging snacks into successful businesses worth billions of dollars. Numbers show that Europeans spend $170 billion on snacks, followed by Americans who spend $120 billion on various snack foods annually.

The snack food industry’s incredible profitability relies on three essential factors: taste, convenience, and low-cost production. Before a final product is created and released, snack food manufacturers typically spend time and money on research, testing, surveying, and improving taste, texture, and color. On the other hand, the ingredients used are all inexpensive components, such as flour, sugar, salt, and fat. This allows snack food manufacturers to produce incredibly profitable and popular snacks with minimal production costs. Also, that cost-effectiveness makes it super easy for snack food companies to invest in advanced conveying systems that fit perfectly and enhance the snack production process.

This article offers a comprehensive review of the most popular snack foods throughout history and the evolution of the snack food industry. It will also provide insight into the growing trends that have recently appeared in snack food production.

A Short History of the Snack Food Industry

Every food portion that doesn’t require complex preparation and is convenient to eat in between meals may be referred to as a snack. This term covers a wide range of foods that can be divided into two main groups – salty and sweet snacks. Since the first snack food appeared on the American market, snacking has been evolving to serve multiple purposes for consumers who nibble between meals to fill nutritional needs, satisfy hunger, or just to have fun. The rise of snacking has created a new type of consumer – the mini-meal consumer. Also, varying needs that drive snacking have blurred the lines between traditional meal food and snack food – people are no longer adhering to prescribed snack food definitions.

Let’s take a quick look at the development and evolution of the snack food industry in the United States, presenting the most popular snacks on the American market.

  • Salty Snacks

The first commercial snack foods in America were peanuts and popcorn. Cheap, tasty, and portable portions were sold in the streets, fairs, and sports events. The first to turn selling peanuts into a business was Amedeo Obici, an Italian-born immigrant from Pennsylvania, who established the Planters’ Peanut Company in 1906. Together with his partner, Amedeo continuously worked on product and packaging improvements, introducing Mr. Peanut as the company’s logo in 1917.

When it comes to pretzels, one of America’s favorite snacks, their commercial production started by the end of the 19th century. However, pretzels became widely popular only after this process became automated in the 1930s.

The next snack idea, potato chips, appeared on the American market in the 19th century. They were sold in barrels that couldn’t keep them fresh for a long time. Everything changed with the groundbreaking invention of airtight bags in 1920 that kept chips fresh and crispy, causing the skyrocketing popularity of this salty snack that is still the first snack choice for most Americans.

Corn chips, originally from Mexico, are cut up, fried, or dried up corn flour tortillas. Elmer Doolin first bought a bag of “friotes” for a nickel, and since he liked the tasty chip, he then bought the recipe for just $100. He renamed this snack “Fritos” and started commercial production in 1932. Soon after, he found a partner willing to distribute “Fritos” nation-wide, and the two companies merged into the “Frito-Lay” snack food company. The rest is history. Frito-Lay swiftly conquered the snack food market by introducing a wide range of different-flavored snacks.

Chips, corn chips, and pretzels represent the most profitable category of the snack food industry, with $4 billion and an 8% growth marked between 2016 and 2018. However, Americans indulge in various salty snacks, like pizza bites, string cheese, and beef jerky meat snacks that scored a 26% increase in sales within the same period.

  • Sweet Snacks

The wide range of sweet snack foods can be divided into five essential categories: hard candy, chocolate candy, chocolate chips, baked goods, and frozen sweets.

1. Hard Candy

This type of sweet snack was produced in Asia thousands of years ago. However, the hard candy production in Europe started in the late 18th century. Since then, an array of different hard candies has appeared on the snack food market. The first commercially produced hard candies in the USA were saltwater taffy made in Atlantic City and Life Savers produced in Cleveland.

2. Chocolate Candy

It all started when Joseph Storrs Fry invented the process of mixing cocoa powder, sugar, and cocoa butter into a thin paste that could be molded. This revolutionary invention led to the commercial production of chocolate-based snacks. Nowadays, chocolate candies are the second-most profitable category in the snack food industry, with a $2.5 million gain. Swiss and Belgian chocolate brands with traditions that date back to the 19th century are still leading this flourishing market.

Chocolate candies and caramels became increasingly popular in the United States around 1870, although they were handmade and expensive. The early producers of chocolate confections appeared in Boston, and the first chocolate retail stores opened in the 1920s. However, in 1903, Milton Hershey revolutionized the entire market by inventing the next snack idea – the iconic Hershey chocolate and peanut butter bar, which was the first in the vast array of sweet snacks that came off the “Hershey” assembly line. Nowadays, the chocolate bars market is mushrooming with famous brands, such as Snickers, Mars, and Milky Way, which are still the favorites among the American population.

3. Baked Goods

This category of sweet snacks includes a wide range of bagels, buns, rolls, and puff pastries, but we will focus on the ultimate baked snack – the cookie. Cookie, an American term that originated from the Dutch language, initially referred to sugar cookies flavored with spices. Later on, this term extended to other baked snacks, like wafers, snaps, and macaroons. At first, they were home-made and sold in grocery stores, until the first commercially produced cookies appeared at the end of the 19th century. Nowadays, Oreos are the world’s best-selling sandwich cookies, reaching $2 billion in annual profit, with more than 40 billion cookies produced worldwide every year.

4. Frozen Sweets

The first ice cream parlors must have appeared in Italy and France during the 18th century. However, the three most recognizable products, like ice cream cones, ice cream bars, and popsicles, originated in America. Ice cream cones, which enabled people to eat ice cream on the go, became widely popular in the St. Louis World Fair. One of the most popular products in this category is the Eskimo Pie, which came into the market in the 20s, approximately at the same time when the first chocolate-covered ice cream bar was made in Youngstown, Ohio.

2020 Snack Food Industry Trends 

Attempting to shed the unpopular association with unhealthy eating habits, the snack food industry started developing more convenient, better-for-you snacks to replace any meal, providing enough energy throughout the day. Snack foods and snacking are difficult to study and define because the definition of snacks and the motivation to do it depends on various factors, such as location, food availability, type of food, and time of day, among others. But one thing is for sure – more and more people are turning to snacks, and we are witnessing the development of new snacking trends.

Since the healthy snack segment is on the increase, snack manufacturers are also focused on developing healthy and sustainable products. Their main goal is to diminish or replace salt, saturated fat, and sugar with other options while keeping the appealing taste. The search for healthy snack products has led to inventive snack combinations, like chocolate quinoa bars, kombucha granola, or ice creams blended with vegetables. Also, packaged food manufacturers and healthy recipes developers tend to introduce various herbs, like lavender, rose, or chamomile, to add flavor to snacks instead of sugar and salt. Low carb snack alternatives, like crackers, snack mixes, and wraps made with cauliflower, coconut, legumes, vegetables, and nuts and seeds, are growingly popular healthy office snacks that will soon become mainstream products.

Ensuring sustainability through advanced processing and packaging solutions is another leading trend in the snack industry. Adopting innovative processing techniques may contribute significantly to adjusting the nutritional values of savory snacks. Applying efficient and cost-effective systems in different production stages from pre-processing, frying, and seasoning to packaging will lead to the production of healthy snacks.

Vacuum Frying Method

In the food industry, vacuum frying technology has been recognized as an alternative to traditional frying methods. As the name indicates, vacuum frying technology is a method of frying where the snack is deep-fried in oil in a near-vacuum or vacuum condition. Vacuum frying occurs under low pressure, allowing the fruit or vegetable to cook in oil at a low temperature.

The fruit or the vegetable is placed in an airtight vessel where oil is heated. Using a pump to generate a near-vacuum condition, the vessel is then depressurized. The snack is then deep-fried for a specified amount of time, and when the frying process is complete, the vessel is quickly re-pressurized. With the vacuum frying method, less oil is required to remove the moisture content from the fruit or vegetable, and every piece is more evenly fried.

Vacuum fried snack foods have a plethora of great qualities – the fruit or vegetables absorb less oil and retain its flavor and most of its nutrients, which is why healthy snack food manufacturers usually utilize this method. Vacuum-fried snacks are crispy, very tasty, and require no additives.

Flexible Packaging Systems

Meeting the consumers’ ever-changing demands for snacks is the ultimate driving force for the evolution and innovation in the snack food industry. We see a lot of snack products packaged in flexible packaging containers, such as resealable baggies and pouches. Flexible packaging systems allow for greater portability in order to fit with modern consumer’s on-the-go lifestyle. Also, people don’t finish a whole package in one sitting, which is why they want to keep their snacks fresh in between.

The snack’s packaging is also a factor that determines whether consumers will or will not buy the product, meaning that flexible packaging also plays a vital part in the consumers’ decision-making. It all depends on a variety of factors, such as functionality, design, and size. One of the most popular snack packaging formats is PET jars. These jars are grip-friendly and wide mouth, and we see them especially in wholesale sizes of products. PET jars are containers that have wide-mouth closures, which allow consumers to easily scoop or take out the product. These vessels are a great option for families who buy their snacks in bulk and portion out the snacks.

As for on-the-go snack packaging, it has shifted from share-size bags to single-portion packages, demanding advanced packaging systems that provide flexible packaging sizes, high speeds, and lower reject rates. Implementing these innovative systems will enable snack food companies to produce smaller packaging sizes and comply with the WHO guidelines.

Tubular Cable Drag Conveying Systems

Reducing the packaging sizes requires additional adjustment of other parts of processing equipment to ensure that the packaging line can cope with the produced amounts efficiently. For this reason, snack producers need to invest in high-quality, customizable conveyor systems, such as Cablevey conveyors, that will ensure gentle and sanitary movement of specific amounts through different production stages. Cablevey Conveyor systems offer a wide range of tubular conveyor capacities to ensure gentle material handling and an enclosed, dust-free environment in various stages of the production process. Small 2-inch diameter high-capacity tube conveyors are suitable for moving cookie crumbs, seeds, or ground coffee. In contrast, high-volume 8-inch diameter cable conveyors are perfect for gentle and safe moving of in-shell walnuts, peanuts, or puffed rice breakfast cereals.

Using modern processing and packaging systems, like Cablevey Conveyors, that are clean, fast, and energy-saving will ensure sustainability. Furthermore, Cablevey Conveyors will considerably reduce product damage while simultaneously reducing waste. This cabled tubular conveying system will gently move crackers, chips, or extruded materials through different production stages without breakage. This also stands for moving wrapped or unwrapped candies. They will not be broken, beaten, squeezed, or scarred in any way while being moved from the extruder to the packaging line.

Conclusion

People love snacks because they are tasty, convenient, and indulgent. The snack food industry has become a business worth hundreds of billions over the years, and it is still growing. The fast-paced world we live in has caused people to change their eating habits considerably, having snacks instead of regular meals.

Snacks can be processed by a variety of techniques and methods. New raw materials that contain functional and nutraceutical properties are being introduced in the snack food market almost daily, and snacks can be made by combining different raw materials with different properties.