From meat sticks to popcorn, Americans can’t get enough of salty snacks.

By Rieva Lesonsky

Salty snacks are on the rise—even though 19% of Americans say they’re eating fewer of them—according to new research from Mintel. While 42% of consumers say “taste is more important than health,” they’re also trying to be good—48% “wish there were more healthy snack options.”

Part of that search has led them to popcorn. “Americans are now embracing flavor innovation, driven by the increasingly popular ready-to-eat (RTE) popcorn category,” Mintel reports. Total U.S. retail sales of popcorn increased 32% in the last five years, reaching about $2.5 billion. The “flavor innovation wave” was led by RTE popcorn, which increased 118% from 2012 to 2017, hitting $1.1 billion in sales.

Mintel’s research shows consumers are “interested in flavor innovation—both familiar and unexpected”—in the popcorn category. While they’re still buying traditional flavors, like cheese-flavored (49%) and chocolate/caramel covered (32%), they’re also purchasing mixed flavors (salty, indulgent and cheesy popcorn in one bag—39%), popcorn with mix-ins (dried cranberries or candy—20%) and seasonal flavors (pumpkin spice, gingerbread—12%). And 45% are buying all-natural popcorn varieties.

Mintel’s John Owen, a senior food and drink analyst, says popcorn, especially RTE, will likely continue to benefit from its generally healthy image. This gives businesses “an opportunity to innovate in other salty snack segments [by] introducing unexpected flavors to engage consumers, especially younger [ones] who are looking for variety in the salty snack aisle.”

Meat snacks remain the salty snack category leader, boasting a 30% market share. They’re also the fastest-growing category, with sales increasing 45% in the last five years, to $3.6 billion, according to Mintel.

Owens says smaller snack brands are attempting to stand out in the market by “offering niche flavors and formats.” Mintel’s research shows young salty snack buyers place extra value on the portability of meat snacks, as well the appeal of eating them for meals (such as breakfast, says Owens, “where protein and portability have become essential attributes,”) instead of for snacks.

Overall, salty snack sales grew 5% to $11.9 billion in 2017. Since 2012, Mintel reports, sales have grown 31%, making salty snacks one of the best-performing packaged food categories.


Popcorn stock photo by Oxana Denezhkina/Shutterstock