Flavor Heats Up RTE Popcorn and Salty Snack Markets


Known for its healthy attributes, popcorn is now increasingly sought out for its interesting flavor innovations, which include savory and indulgent twists on the classic snack.

"The popcorn segment, and RTE popcorn, in particular, is likely to continue benefiting from a generally healthy image as well as its suitability as a medium for a wide range of flavors and toppings. As such, there is an opportunity for brands in other salty snack segments to innovate with unexpected flavors to engage consumers, especially among younger generations who, our research shows, are looking for variety in the salty snack aisle," said John Owen, senior food and drink analyst at Mintel.

"The diverse salty snacks category benefits from the increasing prevalence of snacking and the blurring line between traditional meal times and snacking occasions."

What’s Popping in Popcorn

According to a Mintel report, the total U.S. retail sales of popcorn increased 32% in the last five years to reach an estimated $2.5 billion in 2017, with RTE popcorn accounting for almost half of all sales ($1.1 billion). Additionally, the overall U.S. salty snack market was estimated to be worth $11.9 billion in 2017, increasing 5% from 2012-2017.  

Leading the growth in the RTE popcorn segment is consumer interest in flavor innovation. According to a survey of 557 consumers, 49% prefer cheese flavors, while indulgent chocolate or caramel covered popcorn was sought out by 32% of consumers. In addition to indulgent and cheesy flavors, 39% of consumers are interested in mixed flavored popcorn, while 12% are interested in seasonal flavors like pumpkin spice and gingerbread. Additionally, natural is a driver in popcorn purchase with 45% of consumers saying that they are interested in buying all-natural varieties. 

"Popcorn sales have been on the rise in recent years and now the category is shifting from traditional flavors toward more dynamic flavors and combinations, driven by the ready-to-eat (RTE) segment which has seen sales more than double since 2012. RTE popcorn brands are finding success not only through an expanding array of creative new flavors but also by tapping into growing interest in healthy, natural and portable snacks and eating occasions," said Owen.

Salty Snacks Get into The Mix

Despite the growth in the popcorn and overall salty snack market, consumer perception of salty snacks is a bit conflicting.

According to a survey of 1,822 consumers, 19% of consumers reported eating fewer salty snacks, while 16% are eating more. Of the same group of people, 42% agreed that taste was more important than health benefits, while 48% of consumers reported looking for healthier snack options.

However, despite consumer perception of salty snacks, overall market growth and the rise of snacking occasions provide a different picture. Per the same survey, 41% of consumers snack on-the-go and 22% are looking for an energy boost in their products.

"The diverse salty snacks category benefits from the increasing prevalence of snacking and the blurring line between traditional meal times and snacking occasions. However, salty snack purchasers report eating less salty snacks, suggesting they aren't as willing to admit to their changing behavior, likely due to lingering negative perceptions of the category," said Owen. "Our research shows that because salty snacks are still primarily seen as an indulgence, there are opportunities for brands to shift their messaging and new product development to better position salty snacks as a healthy snacking option, such as popcorn, or more nutrient-dense, such as meat snacks, to continue the category's growth." 

Meat Snacks Make Moves

Despite the growth in popcorn and other salty snack segments, the meat snacks market is the largest and fastest growing. In 2017, sales of meat snacks reached $3.6 billion, increasing 45% from 2012-2017. In a survey of 558 internet consumers, 58% of meat snack consumers of all ages were interested in prime cut snacks, while 45% of consumers aged 18-34 are interested in portable meat snack bars.

"While the inherent benefits of protein and portability favor all meat snack brands, we're seeing some of the smaller brands drawing a point of distinction by offering niche flavors and formats. Our research shows that young salty snack purchasers place extra value on the portability of meat snacks, as well as its versatility to be eaten beyond snacking occasions. There is an opportunity for brands to position meat snacks for breakfast, where protein and portability have become essential attributes," said Owen.

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