While pandemic stress has undoubtedly driven a segment of U.S. consumers into the arms of comforting, high-calorie snacks, it has also led to a wave of healthy munching inspired by the produce section. From whole fruit to nuts, value-added fruits and vegetables, shoppers are increasingly looking for snacks they can feel good about.
“With folks staying home, and many of them with children, the situation has led people toward healthier snacking choices,” says John Savidan, senior director of produce and floral for Gelson’s Markets, Encino, Calif. “Customers who may have been purchasing chips, cookies and crackers before have migrated to other options. They’re focusing on health and their immune systems.”
According to the FreshFacts on Retail Q1 2020 report from Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh, both vegetables and fruits boosted sales of value-added produce in the first quarter of 2020. For fruit, the snacking category accounted for the majority of sales and growth, while both snacking and meal preparation drove growth for value-added vegetables. The average dollar buy rate for value-added fruits and vegetables grew 20.6% and 11.1%, respectively. In the value-added produce category, watermelon, broccoli and carrots saw the highest dollar sales growth rates compared to first-quarter 2019.
Snacking for Health
Gelson’s Markets, which operates 27 grocery stores in Southern California, hasn’t done anything special to promote snacking items in the produce section, but according to Savidan, customers are gravitating toward them naturally.
Private-label branded products have always had a big following in Gelson’s produce department, and items such as dried fruits and nuts are now reaching new heights.
“Cashews, walnut halves, almonds, dried dates, figs and apricots have all seen tremendous growth and are driving the snack category,” says Savidan. “These are obviously all health-conscious choices.”
Sales of Wonderful Pistachios have shown steady increases since early March, confirming the popularity of nuts as a snacking item. “As people stocked up on shelf-stable foods,” says Adam Cooper, SVP of marketing for The Wonderful Co. in Los Angeles, “packaged produce such as nuts saw an increase both in-stores and online.”
In response, Wonderful Pistachios launched new items to appeal to at-home snackers. The lineup now includes a larger 11-ounce bag for its No Shells Chili Roasted and Honey Roasted flavors, along with a No Shells variety pack featuring individual 0.75-ounce bags. The larger sizes have performed particularly well as stock-up items.
“Even prior to the pandemic, we knew consumers were shifting toward plant-based protein,” says Cooper. “With the recent meat shortages, we quickly activated our marketing and social media efforts, as well as our network of registered dietitians, to spread our plant protein message, which has resonated especially well in this time of health concern.”
Cooper predicts that shopping trends through the remainder of 2020 will reflect consumers’ financial strains, yet demand for healthy foods will remain strong.
“Some shoppers may need to trade down to smaller sizes, while others will be more interested in bigger sizes to save money in the long run,” he says. “By offering both larger and smaller sizes at checkout counters and in convenience stores, we’re able to reach both ends of this financial spectrum.”
Variety is also important in the healthy snacking category. Salinas, Calif.-based Naturipe Farms offers several snack pack varieties under its Naturipe Snacks label, including the Boost Bentos and Bliss Bentos lines. Each offers a nutritious combination of items such as berries, grapes, nuts and cheeses.
“Consumers’ desire for healthy snacking continues to increase,” says Steve Ware, VP and general manager of Naturipe Value Added Fresh. “Even with people staying at home more, our consumers look for healthy food that will nourish their bodies.”
They’re also looking for the occasional indulgence. Along with fruit and nuts, Naturipe’s new Bliss Bentos line includes sweet treats such as dark chocolate granola clusters. The top sellers in the Boost line are the Sweet n’ Crunchy variety, featuring strawberries, blueberries, cinnamon almonds and white cheddar; and Classic ‘n Sharp, a combination of grapes, blueberries, roasted sea salt almonds and sharp cheddar.
While demand for Naturipe Snacks has always been strong, we expect to see increases in sales volumes as we continue to innovate and expand our snacking line,” Ware says.
All About Apples
Whole fruits such as apples are another popular option for healthy snacking—although sometimes shoppers need to be reminded of their virtues.
“You don’t need a Snickers in a wrapper, you’ve got an apple in nature’s wrapper that is 10 times better for you,” says Jennifer Parkhill, executive director of Next Big Thing, an apple growers’ co-op based in Wenatchee, Wash. “I think we as an industry need to make it easy for consumers to understand what they’re getting.”
Through social media promotion and a partnership with The Produce Moms, Parkhill aims to convince consumers that comfort food can also be healthy and delicious. This includes Next Big Thing’s premium apple variety, the SweeTango.
“What’s great about the apple category is that it’s so innovative,” Parkhill says. “You’re going to get a different taste and crunch experience with a Rave than with a SweeTango, just as you would with different candy bars. A Heath is going to be different from a Butterfinger. That’s really important within the snacking category—that we get our consumers to the right apple for what they’re looking for.”
While a few grocers display taste profile cards in their produce sections, clean store policies prevent many retailers from hanging promotional signage. “Shoppers may not want to take a chance on an apple they’ve never tried, especially if it’s a little more expensive,” Parkhill says. “We’ve got to help people.”
Despite the marketing challenges, Parkhill says she’s seeing an increase in SweeTango sales thanks to consumers’ desire for healthy snacks. In response, the co-op has introduced pouch packages for shoppers who want to stock up.
Salty Snacks with a ‘Healthier Twist’
Snackers who crave crisp, salty snacks but want to avoid excess calories are finding satisfying alternatives in the produce section.
“Because of the pandemic there’s been an increase in the sales of comfort foods like Kraft Mac and Cheese and Frito-Lay-style snacks,” says Nick Desai, CEO of Los Angeles-based Snack It Forward, maker of the Peatos line of pea-based snacks. “We’re essentially creating an analog of America’s favorite comfort food, but with a healthier twist.”
While April saw a sales dip for Peatos, recent months have brought a comeback via the e-commerce channel. “It’s bounced back to the point where the last two months have been our two strongest on record,” says Desai. “We’re ahead of where we were before [the pandemic].”
Peatos flavors and packaging mirror those of their inspiration snacks, but you won’t find them in the chip aisle. Since 2018, when the company landed its first nationwide placement in Kroger stores, Peatos have lived in the produce section. “The salty snack aisle is really dominated by Frito-Lay,” Desai says. “No matter how good of a product you have, you’re going to get crushed.”
Currently, the company’s top-selling item is Peatos Rings—a take on Funyuns—which hit the market in late 2019.
Peatos hopes to gain another boost with a tongue-in-cheek billboard and digital advertising campaign called “Hey, Chester,” in reference to the Cheetos mascot. “If there was any confusion before about whether we were going for the big dog,” says Desai, “there won’t be anymore.”
Snacks That Boost Health
According to The Power of Produce 2020: An In-Depth Look at Produce through the Shoppers’ Eyes, many consumers view snacking as an opportunity to increase their produce consumption. The report presents the results of a survey of 1,501 U.S. consumers, conducted in fall 2019 by the Arlington, Va.-based Food Industry Association.
When asked about their dietary goals, 59% of respondents expressed a desire to consume more produce as a snack. Eighty-four percent of consumers said they view whole fruit—such as apples, grapes, peaches or berries—as a top snacking solution, while 65% called out snacking vegetables such as grape tomatoes, carrots and mini cucumbers.
While produce snacking is popular across population groups, above-average interest was reported by women, parents, buyers of organic produce and higher-spending grocery shoppers.
Interest in precut produce was highest among younger respondents, parents, people living in urban areas and higher-income shoppers.
To help consumers turn their good intentions into reality, the FMI report recommends retailers consider secondary placements of produce snacks in areas such as the checkout or the snack aisle, or create a snack-specific section in the produce department.
Shoppers reported price as a barrier to purchasing value-added produce, and cost is likely to remain a challenge due to the financial strains caused by the pandemic. Despite the challenges, industry analysts continue to see opportunities in promoting fresh produce for snacking occasions.
“Emphasizing fresh fruits’ snacking and health-boosting powers would be a great thing during the pandemic,” says Jonna Parker, principal with Chicago’s IRI Fresh Center of Excellence. “So many other products in the store are tailor-made and heavily marketed toward snacking, so fresh produce needs to recognize that those items really are their competition. They need to emphasize the benefits of produce snacks not just over other fruits and vegetables, but truly across the store.”