Better Bite

Healthier' snack trends forging appeal among c-store customers.

By  Angel Abcede, Senior Editor/Content Development Coordinator

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Who knew pork rinds would be considered a healthy snack? “Some people would rather kiss a pig than eat a pork rind,” says Mark Singleton, vice president of marketing and sales for Rudolph Foods, Lima, Ohio. “But with zero carbs and zero trans fat, we had a story to tell.”

While the healthier, better-for-you trend has been chipping away at the ubërindulgent, quick-snack c-store environment for two or three years, retailers still say it has a way to go. In a recent CSP Daily News poll, three-quarters of respondents said healthier trends did not affect their business. (See poll on p. 100.)

And yet, in the era of Michelle Obama’s Let Move! campaign and national concerns over obesity, makers of candy, chocolate, chips and numerous other potentially decadent snacks are responding to health-conscious consumers, believing their numbers are increasing. Low calorie, low carb, no sugar, low sugar, no or low salt, no gluten, high protein: All are emerging as featured qualities in a slew of new products.

Why? Changing demographics, for one thing. Millennials suspicious of chemicals and preservatives, baby boomers conforming to health advice and women focused on nutrition for themselves and their children are fueling the surge [CSP—Dec. ’11, p. 123].

Second on that list is foodservice. The documented c-store trend toward high-margin foodservice items has been evident for several years, with a basic threshold being store cleanliness and the perception of freshness.

Many believe better-for-you foods make a big contribution to both the perception of freshness and the bottom line. Many are building chain brands around fresh food. Rich Libonate, general manager of retail sales for Promax Nutrition Corp., Newport Beach, Calif., says companies such as Kwik Trip, La Crosse, Wis., are using bananas as their lead.

“That’s what they’re known for, but they carry [the fresh concept] through to a lot of other categories,” he says. “Convenience is making that transition.”

Apples and Oranges

Kwik Trip execut ives agree with Libonate’s assertion, saying the shift to a healthier vibe—bananas (big time), oranges, five varieties of apples, and open-air coolers of cut fruit and salads— has transformed the company.

“We feel that food, including the healthy aspect, is a crucial part of our sales going forward,” says Steve Loehr, vice president of operations support for Kwik Trip, remembering the days when the open fruit-salad-and-sandwich display was pushed to the back of the stores as opposed to where it is now, front and center. “We continue to look at different salads and healthier, prepared meals to take home.”

The stores are now able to snare a new demographic of health-conscious young people and women. “Certainly, there’s some contradiction where they buy a doughnut for now and a salad for lunch,” he says. “But we’re glad we got in when we did and secured a line of supply so we were ready and able to start.”

In other parts of the store, Loehr is noticing no- or low-calorie beverages continuing to grow at the expense of “regular” versions. And in terms of snack items, he’s seeing many with low sugar or none at all. Even with its sandwiches, Kwik Trip purposely allows customers to put on as much or as few condiments as they choose.

The chain even works with a local hospital to identify items that fall within its “500 Club,” a listing of food choices of 500 or fewer calories that customers can feel good about eating. Collectively, the effect is a perception of fresh. “If you have fresh, golden bananas; crispy, shiny red apples; and wonderful salads, other foods will appear fresh, wholesome and good,” he says.

What’s Happening

Big-name companies tied to traditional, more indulgent snacking are taking bold stands. Mars, for instance, is committing all new products to being 250 calories or fewer.

“Our chocolate products … can be enjoyed in moderation as part of a healthy diet,” says Melinda McLoughlin, corporate social responsibility manager for Mars Chocolate North America, Hackettstown, N.J. “But we are actively developing better-for-you snack options, and we offer a variety of products that allow for responsible snacking.” Part of that work has been to reduce calories, sodium and partially hydrogenated vegetable oils. Other initiatives, says McLoughlin, include providing nutrition labels on packaging to help consumers make better choices, with Mars one of the first confectionery companies to add the information to the front of its packages.

Mars is also working on making new chocolate products that have fewer calories and less saturated fat and still retain a quality taste. In addition, the company has committed to making its single-serving Mars Chocolate products 250 calories or fewer.

Similarly, Northfield, Ill.-based Kraft Foods has introduced SnackWell’s Cinnamon Creme Drizzles Caramel Popcorn and Peanut Butter Flavored Pretzels at 130 calories and 110 calories per pack, respectively. Other new products include a peanut butter spread, a whole-grain biscuit and a sugar-free gum that fea- tures B vitamins.

As part of its efforts, New York-based Nestle is focused on “improving the nutritional density of its products by featuring fruits and vegetables, whole grains, calcium, omega-3’s and antioxidants where it makes sense,” says Chris Johnson, Nestle’s zone director for United States, Canada, Latin America and the Caribbean. “We have introduced specific product improvements focused on adding healthier ingredients like whole grains, while also reducing sodium, fat and sugar in many of our products.”

One of Nestle’s latest products is a candy line offshoot of its Skinny Cow icecream brand. The offer sits in the 110- to 120-calorie range. It falls in line with what many call the “better for you” segment of snacks that are “surprisingly low-calorie,” says Tricia Bowles, spokesperson for Skinny Cow candy.

Back in the Day

In reality, a remarkable range of products has emerged due to health reasons, says Singleton of Rudolph Foods: “A 100-calorie pack … wow,” he says. “I guarantee you, 10 years ago manufacturers would say, ‘You want me to make how small a bag?’ ” His pork-rinds company also has 80-calorie servings.

People on diets who get a little hungry and don’t want to blow their meal plan want such options, he says. But 10 years ago, seeing fruit or a sandwich in open coolers was unheard of. “Now you see individually wrapped bananas,” he says. “I’d never take the time to slice a grapefruit, but now it’s in a nice cup.”

With the help of manufacturers and wholesalers, retailers are seeing the emergence of truly “convenient food,” Singleton says.

But health is the primary driver, he says. In his case, the frenzy over the no-carb Atkins diet about 15 years ago started people considering pork rinds as a healthy option. “Our product became the poster child for no carb, low sugar, low salt, no trans fat,” he says. “Diabetics write us letters saying we’re the one salty, crunchy, zero-hypoglycemic snack they can have.” Sales in pork rinds have gone up 36% over a decade ago. “Consumers are aware,” he says, so much so that the company recently purchased an all-natural product called Gaslight Popcorn.

Sending a Message

Ultimately, success or failure with healthier or better-for-you foods may come down to store-level execution. Grouping like products is always a good way to send a message, says Libonate of Promax. Maybe it’s not a 4-foot section; maybe it’s two shelves of bars and healthy things such as nuts. And for additional visibility, maybe it’s on an endcap that faces a register.

Placement near the coffee area is another option, he says. Sometimes people consider items such as nutrition bars a midday snack or lunch meal replacement. If so, that customer may be in the store for some coffee and decide to take care of that meal period as well.

Of course, packaging and signage play a role, too, says Singleton of Rudolph Foods. “Packaging is the best piece of advertising— in that 5 to 6 seconds that you have the eye of the consumer who’s making a moment-of-truth decision,” he says. “Graphics must be clear and compelling.”

Advances in packaging also have helped. Newly formulated barriers against moisture help product stay fresh, Singleton says, citing the success of prepackaged guacamole.

Still, despite product development, packaging and messaging, the final test is taste. “When we do focus groups, they don’t want to talk fat or the art on the bag,” he says. “They want great taste.”

His products strive to offer interesting taste profiles. “We’re constantly looking for new niches that are going to address the growing trend [of healthier-for-you],” Singleton says. “It’s in our top five strategies for next year. 

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