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“Eat what you want – just make sure it’s actually food.” – Mark Bittman

ExpoWestSNACKS

What is “real food”? How do you define “natural”? And does a snack = a meal? These were just some of the questions on the minds of the 71,000+ attendees and 2,700 exhibitors at the 2015 Natural Products Expo West – the world’s largest natural and organic products tradeshow – which took place March 5-8th at the Anaheim Convention Center.

The size and scale of this year’s event mirrored the rapidly-growing consumer demand for better-for-you, natural and organic products. In the last five years, U.S. Natural and Organic food and beverage sales have nearly doubled – from $40 billion in 2010, to an estimated $80 billion in 2015 – with a CAGR of 15%1. And in the past two years alone, global sales of products with “natural” and “organic” claims have grown 24% and 28%, respectively2.

But while consumers across the globe are paying more attention than ever to their wellbeing and the role that good nutrition plays in staying healthy, there is recognition that we are all human – and we still enjoy our indulgences and snacks. Snack foods in fact emerged as the biggest growth segment within natural food and beverage at Expo West – and the variety and innovation in this category was impressive.

Popcorn-Indiana

From familiar staples like ready-to-eat popcorn and yogurt to the more adventurous options of insect-based protein and vegan cheese, small bites of all varieties had their moment in the sun – and research indicates that this snack frenzy is here to stay. U.S. consumers have dramatically increased their snacking frequency over the past five years, from 1.9 snacks per day to 2.8 snacks per day (+67%) – and 51% report consuming 3+ snacks per day3.

With the boundaries between snacks and meals becoming increasingly blurred, the door has been kicked open wide for food manufacturers to develop and market almost any conceivable snack form. Yet a single thread connected all of the diverse snack types we saw at the show – the inclusion of “natural ingredients,” which is the #1 attribute consumers look for when purchasing a snack4.

The following are four macro snacking trends we observed (and taste-tested, of course!) on the show floor at Expo West:

#1: FROZEN ISN’T DEAD (FOR THE INNOVATORS) 

Gardein Pockets

While the frozen snacks category as a whole has experienced only modest growth in the past five years, innovative brands like EVOL Foods and Gardein (who debuted their stellar new pocket meals at Expo) are proving that the frozen aisle is far from iced over. And like other high-performing snack brands in the natural space, both were also recently acquired by Big Food – EVOL by Boulder Brands, and Gardein by Pinnacle Foods.

Some other frozen snack brands to watch: Hilary’s Eat Well, maker of tasty and allergen-free veggie burgers; Sweet Earth, with two lines of healthy burritos (global-inspired flavors and “functional” varieties); Veggie Fries, a better-for-you fry option made up of at least 25% non-potato vegetables and beans; and Smart Soup, a low-sodium yet super-flavorful frozen soup packaged in single-serve pouches – in exotic flavors like Vietnamese Carrot Lemongrass and Indian Bean Masala.

#2:  BARS – STILL THE MOST CONVENIENT (AND PROLIFIC) SNACK FORMAT

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The nutrition bar category has come a long way since the early days when Power Bar and Clif Bar were waging a two-man war. Today the category is approaching $6 billion in sales (a staggering 800% increase over the last decade)5 – and is showing no signs of slowing down, with brands like KIND and thinkThin emerging as the new behemoths. Despite being one of the most crowded snack categories – with an estimated 2,000+ bars on the market today6 – several exhibitors at Expo West challenged the conventions around what ingredients a nutrition bar can, or should, include.

We tried bars of all varieties, but a few were truly memorable. On the more indulgent side: Sahale Snacks (full disclosure: a client of ours), who debuted their Layered Nut Bars in rich combos like Salted Caramel Apple Pecan and Almond Vanilla Latte, and Nature’s Bakery with their new brownie bars (filled with figs for a healthier twist); and on the functional side, we demoed some surprisingly tasty offerings from Chapul and EXO – both manufacturers of protein bars made with cricket flour (from yes, ground up insects), and a plant-based Beet Bar from Love Beets – a sweet and satisfying concoction of beet juice, apples and pea protein crisps (which packs an impressive 7g of protein!).

#3: SPECIAL DIETS DRIVE CREATION OF UNIQUE (YET FAMILIAR) SNACKS

Chapul

Millennials – who now make up roughly 27% of the U.S. population – are round-the-clock snackers. But perhaps a more surprising statistic on this age cohort is that 45% of Millennials report they have adopted a “special diet”7. Whether Vegetarian, Vegan, Gluten-Free, Dairy-Free or Paleo – snack options abounded at Expo West for almost any conceivable lifestyle.

KRAVE_CHILI-LIME

And while these special diets often necessitate creativity when it comes to the manufacturing of packaged foods, many products we saw were less about innovation and more a credible imitation of the “real thing.” Two standout examples from the show: Daiya Foods and Beyond Meat’s collaboration on their “supreme pizza” – a meat-free, gluten-free and dairy-free delight (featuring Daiya’s cheese-alternative “shreds”); and Field Roast’s vegan take on sandwich staples (meat-free Deli Slices, made from vital wheat gluten, and Chao, non-dairy cheese substitute slices made from coconut oil and chao tofu).

And while 40% of Americans report that they are reducing their meat consumption today vs. three years ago8, the Paleo Diet is seemingly acting as a counter-balance to the plant-based diets – driving growth of high-protein, gourmet meat snacks like Krave Jerky, Fusion Jerky and EPIC jerky bars (another familiar form – yet all of these products are drastic improvements on the highly processed Slim Jim and its ilk).

#4: HASSLE-FREE PRODUCE IN SIMPLE SNACK FORMS

EarthBoundFarms

While it’s true that fresh produce tops the list of snacks eaten by consumers in the past six months – 97% have eaten fruits or vegetables as a snack9 – the trend toward perimeter shopping in general seems somewhat counter to the snacking trend, where products are traditionally found in the center store aisles or at checkout. Enter a glorious alternative to fresh produce (which is easily damaged in transit, and sometimes difficult to prepare) – no-prep, produce-based snacks. Whether par-cooked, flash-frozen, baked, dried, dehydrated, raw or pureed – there is no shortage of innovative and delicious ways to get your daily dose of the good stuff.

Love-Beets_giveaway

Some products we saw at Expo that are making it fun to eat your F’s & V’s: Earthbound Farm, with their Organic Smoothie Kickstart – a frozen blend of Kale / Strawberry / Blueberry or Carrot / Mango / Peach, perfectly portioned and ready to blend with your favorite Silk non-dairy milk; Kurakon’s Seaweed Salad On The Go, a dry product that comes in a convenient travel cup, and is rehydrated by adding cold water and soaking the seaweed for five minutes; Rhythm Superfoods’ new Broccoli Bites – crunchy florets in flavors like Garden Ranch, Asian Citrus and Zesty Nacho; Love Beets, again enticing us with their ready-to-eat, pre-cooked and seasoned beets in convenient packaging (perfect to bring to the office for salads); and The Hyppo, a gourmet ice pop company that literally serves up fresh fruit on a stick (free from juice or other typical popsicle fillers) – in tantalizing flavor combinations like Pineapple Cilantro, Watermelon Hibiscus, Strawberry Basil and Mango Chia.

BIG FOOD BRANDS TAKE NOTICE OF NATURAL – AND THEY’RE HUNGRY 

EXPO

It’s always a blast to attend Expo West – who wouldn’t enjoy getting a sneak peek at all the exciting new products set to hit shelves this year, as well as the chance to meet the incredibly passionate people behind these brands? But as a marketer and strategist, I always try to go into these events looking at the big picture – and what the trends I’m seeing today mean for our industry’s growth tomorrow.

While the CPG vertical as a whole has been relatively flat the past few years, the natural products industry is an obvious bright spot – with total category sales forecasted to exceed $252 billion by 2019 (a 64% expansion over a six-year period)10. While many mainstream brands are lamenting their decline and blaming it on the new habits of the modern consumer (e.g., impulse sales are down because people are distracted by their mobile devices at point-of-purchase, frozen is suffering because people are ignoring center-store in favor of the perimeter), natural products brands are proving that no aisle is dead for the innovators.

Day2BestOf

The most successful natural product brands today are well-attuned to consumer diet and lifestyle trends (often because the founder follows a special diet, and designed the product with himself or herself in mind), nimble enough to bring their products to market quickly, confident enough to pitch them to the big retail players, and capable of creating a groundswell of support for the brand – both online and locally via creative, grassroots sampling programs.

And all this growth has caught the attention of Big Food. General Mills, Mondelez, Kellogg, Campbell Soup and Hershey are just a handful of the enormous, global CPG companies that have recently bought what natural is selling. These companies know that consumer purchase intent for healthy foods is now 4-5x higher than for indulgent foods11 – and that if they don’t innovate along those lines with new product R&D, they’ll have to acquire their new portfolio stars from the natural channel. 

So what does this all mean if you are a Natural Food David in a world of Big Food Goliaths? You have options: beat them – or, you can join them. The right path is different for each brand and buyer. But if you’re looking to sell, you can feel encouraged: 2014 was the biggest year for M&A activity in the last decade, with 4,908 deals closed – 161 of those in the Food & Beverage sector12. And the average multiple (estimated value/revenue) for premium natural food product transactions was 3.1x – with some sales producing a multiple almost double that.

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Image Credit: Piper Jaffray

While there will always be the detractors that cry “sell-out” when it comes to natural products brands being scooped up by Big Food, I try to look at the bright side – with new funding comes expanded distribution, more distribution brings greater access to good food and drives the cost down… and improved access helps all consumers make healthier choices, while bringing increased awareness to natural brands and their missions. But whether you stay indie, or go mainsteam – please, just keep bringing me the snacks.

Sources:  

  1. Nutrition Business Journal (Aug. 2014)
  2. NielsenGlobal Health & Wellness Survey (2015)
  3. IRIState of the Snack Food Industry (2014)
  4. MintelThe Snacking Occasion (2014)
  5. MintelSnack and Nutrition Bars (2014)
  6. FortuneWhy Kind Bars are Suddenly Everywhere (Feb. 2014)
  7. Piper JaffrayMarket Pulse: The Better-For-You Transaction Landscape (Janica Lane, Mar. 2015)
  8. Datamonitor ConsumerFood & Drink Innovation (2014)
  9. MintelThe Snacking Occasion (2014)
  10. NEXT Forecast (2015)
  11. Nielsen
  12. Piper JaffrayMarket Pulse: The Better-For-You Transaction Landscape (Janica Lane, Mar. 2015)
Nora DiNuzzo
Nora DiNuzzo
Director Of Business Development

Nora leads business development efforts for SBA, introducing the agency to prospective clients and partners through outreach and engagement. She began her career in client service, but quickly realized that new business was the most exciting place to flex her strategic, creative and organizational management skills. With over a decade of experience, Nora has contributed to hundreds of pitches – and has stayed in at least one very strange hotel along the way. She holds a B.A. in Communication & Rhetoric from the University of Pittsburgh.