Pandemic Spurs Craving for Salty Snacks

Experts predict a post-COVID-19 demand for healthier munchies.

January 21, 2021

ALEXANDRIA, Va.—As bored consumers wait out the pandemic, the salty snack category is growing at a rate that’s outpacing all other snack categories. In fact, retail sales data from IRI and the Frito-Lay Snack Index indicate that salty snacks have been the No. 1 growth food segment since March, reports

Indulgent snacks have provided comfort in the time of COVID-19. Sales of Frito-Lay legacy brands are up over the past several months, with Lay’s up 32% and Tostitos up 42%.

“Snacks provide a bit of accessible excitement during difficult times,” said Beth Bloom, associate director, U.S. Food and Drink Reports, Mintel. “New flavors and formats can provide an enjoyable change of pace and sense of agency when other life factors feel beyond your control. Leading into the pandemic, 38% of salty snackers who reported increasing their snack consumption in the past year attributed it to a better variety of flavors.”

The focus on variety isn’t likely to end any time soon. Consumers—particularly Gen Z and Millennials—have an insatiable appetite for new products in the snack aisle. Nearly 40% of younger consumers say they’re likely to try a new snack option. Mintel research shows that most salty snack consumers eat three to four types of snacks in the category. But after the pandemic, experts predict a renewed focus on healthy snacking. Premium and innovative brands have been gaining ground even at traditional outlets, and better-for-you snacks with simple ingredients are becoming a bigger part of the category.

“Consumers are more discerning now than ever over their health, and the brands that deliver against these needs will win,” said Lynn Hemans, vice president, consumer intelligence and strategy, Hershey.

“Signs point to the desire for consumers to adopt better habits once the threat of the pandemic wanes,” said Bloom. “Health-focused snacks have been driving much of the growth in the salty snack space, with strong increases seen in high-protein snacks, low-carb cheese snacks, veggie-based snacks, bean snacks and snacks using alternative grains.”

Mintel research shows that 35% of salty snackers who reported increasing their snack consumption in the past year attributed it to the availability of healthier options. 

“Most of the new products that are entering the market are plant-based,” said Rachel Krupa, founder of The Goods Mart, a better-for-you convenience store in New York, and a consultant for the category.

“Our customer is definitely looking for a better-for-you option for snacks they grew up with,” said Krupa. “They are looking for the flavors they remember, but don’t want to put all the junk in their body. And they don’t want to compromise health for flavor. The smaller brands entering the market have ... nostalgia, flavor and better-for-you ingredients.” (Krupa is featured in the 2021 Ideas 2 Go series in Doing More and Doing Good and also “Look for the Heroes” in the November 2020 issue of NACS Magazine.)

Mintel research also confirms that shoppers want variety packs. Multiple snack types packaged or bundled together are not only an opportunity to boost sales but also a chance to encourage trial and have the benefit of portability. Merchandising is critical to generating trial, impulse purchases and an overall boost to the category’s bottom line.

“Merchandising can definitely make a difference,” said Krupa. “We are constantly moving items around to see to how customers gravitate toward them. Products at eye level always outperform, but when you put a new similar product next to a crowd favorite, you can make the new product pop.”