Fruit and vegetable snacks gain traction

August 10, 2015

Snack Food Association CEO Tom Dempsey ruefully observes that most of the companies making dried fruit and vegetable snacks aren’t members of his organization.

That’s likely to change.

Flory's Convenience and DeliSFA is the international trade association for the snack food industry. According to its website, it represents more than 400 companies worldwide, including manufacturers of traditional snacks such as chips, pretzels, popcorn, cereal snacks, crackers, meat snacks, pork rinds, bars – you get the idea. But he said the rise in popularity and breadth of snacks made of or including produce “represents an opportunity for the Snack Food Association.”

“It’s a category that is just emerging in the snack aisle,” Dempsey said. “A lot of them have stayed in their (fresh produce) trade associations. We would love to have them be members here.”

Changing Snacking Habits

While they may start as fresh fruits and vegetables, this growing breed of snacks end up as ingredients in trail mixes or on their own or blended with other dried fruits or veggies in multiple-serving bags in grocery stores and snack-size packages in drugstore, convenience and gas station retailers.

“There’s much more demand for healthy options in stores – not just convenience stores, but any stores,” said Jeff Lenard, vice president, strategic industry initiatives, for the National Association of Convenience Stores (NACS). “You see it at travel plazas off the New Jersey Turnpike. You see it at airports. You see it at places you didn’t traditionally see these options.”

As consumers’ snacking habits evolve, so do the opportunities for sales of these produce-based snacks.

“According to recent studies, consumers are snacking five to six times a day and we see fruit snacks fitting into that,” Dempsey said. “We see it as an opportunity for us to broaden what our industry does.”

NACS and United Fresh Produce Association recently launched a joint effort called “Building the Business Case for Produce at Convenience Stores,” which reports that millennials and women are more likely to gravitate to healthier items – 50 percent of those ages 18 to 34 say they have purchased more “healthy” items, with 45 percent of females reporting the same.

“If you don’t care about those two markets, maybe you don’t have to worry about the (healthy snacking) trend,” Lenard said.

Millennials are also likely to eat meals or snacks later in the evening and want healthy options, according to the report.

They’re also grazers, according to Lenard.

“One of the biggest trends is, when you look at millennials, they shop convenience stores more than they shop quick-service restaurants,” he said. “There’s no rush to get to the dinner table. They may go to the gym. They may go to a movie. They may work late or do something else. They may get two snacks instead of a meal.”

An October 2014 Nielsen study that examined worldwide snacking habits reported that snacks with all-natural ingredients were rated “very important” by 45 percent of global respondents, and “moderately important” by 32 percent – the highest percentages of the 20 health attributes included in the study.

Convenience stores are recognizing the opportunity such trends present. You can’t go into a 7-Eleven without encountering a refrigerated bin of fresh-cut fruit options or basket of shiny red apples, for example.

However, dried fruit and veggie snacks give them more flexibility than fresh.

“Selling dried items, whether they are bagged fruits by themselves or with nuts, can provide the healthy options without some of the difficulties of perishables,” Lenard said. “It’s a great first step. Anyone with weekly deliveries can do this.

“The advantage is the shrink is minimal. To manage the product, there is no new training. It’s a matter of making sure your distributor carries the items and that you have a planogram to display it.”

From a consumer standpoint, it’s a plus when such packages are resealable, Lenard said. While 84 percent of snack items sold in convenience stores are consumed within the hour, resealable packaging offers flexibility to save some for later. Lenard said an opportunity for growth would be dried fruit and vegetable snacks that fit in a cupholder.

A Growing Mix

When it comes to fruit and vegetable-based snacks, there’s so much to choose from – and the list is growing.

“Raisins have been around for an awful long time and they are still an excellent option,” Lenard said. “But now you have things like craisins and blueberries. You have dried pineapple – I just picked some up at the airport the other day.

“The types of trail mix with a fruit in it – there are an awful lot of options.”

Take Beanitos, made from whole beans cooked in small batches mixed with whole-grain rice and fried into chips. Calbee North America’s Harvest Snaps are created by baking fresh peas and lentils. Peeled Snacks offers dried fruit and baked peas among its organic options. There are hundreds more – kale chips, wasabi peas, various and sundry fruits.

And while sales of dried fruit in convenience stores have slowed from previous years, according to a 2014 study by the IRI research firm, they’re still growing by double digits. For the 52 weeks ending Aug. 10, 2014, dried fruit represented almost $23 million in convenience store sales. That’s up more than 30 percent over the same period a year earlier.

But these products don’t necessarily have to be displayed in the “healthy” section.

“They’re probably best if they don’t, actually,” Lenard said. “These are things you can put on the same shelf where you put your other pegged snacks.”

At the four New York state Flory’s Convenience & Deli stores, dried fruits and baked vegetables are featured with baked chips and the like in 4-foot, four-shelf sections. Owner Jamy Flory said the fruit and vegetable snack category has exploded in the last two years, and gotten his attention.

“It’s something we’ve really been concentrating on,” he said. “All are beginning to gain traction.”

Customers seeking out such healthier alternatives seem to be across the board, he notes – with the exception of one group: truckers.

“At my one site along the thruway, I would say I’m not seeing them buy (the healthier items) so much,” Flory said. “They’re still the hot dog and bag of Doritos kind of guys.”

— Kathy Gibbons, contributing writer