INDIANAPOLIS — The snack category is improving in the wake of the past few years, as consumers have been faced with higher prices that have reshaped demand in some categories, said Sally Lyons Wyatt, executive vice president and practice leader for market researcher Circana.

Lyons Wyatt spoke May 14 at the annual Sweets & Snacks Expo, sharing that snacking this year seems to have taken a turn in a positive direction.

“Snacking had some bumpy roads; it still has a bit of some hurdles we’re going to have to go through,” she said.

Several different macro-economic trends have affected snacking. Lyons Wyatt cited prices, which are about 30% higher than prices in 2019.

“That has outpaced wage growth — that creates problems for consumers, especially those with low income who are having difficulty affording anything they want to buy, let alone snacks,” she said.

Other factors that are causing consumers to look and act differently include the restart of student loan payments, supply chain issues and disruptions, and diets, including the use of GLP-1 drugs that are used by diabetics and others for the purpose of weight loss.

In a health tracking poll from KFF published May 10, one in eight adults (12%) reported they have taken a GLP-1, with about four in 10 reporting they took them primarily to lose weight.   

“GLP-1 does make an impact on what consumers eat while they are taking the medication, but GLP-1 is yet another diet,” Lyons Wyatt said. “People say, ‘Oh, I’m going to be on it for life,’ and it can be that, but it is indeed an aid to help consumers take care of their disease, like diabetes. There are some that are taking it to manage their weight, and in those situations, it is considered yet another diet.”

A few snacking categories experienced positive growth in both dollars and unit sales for 2023: yogurt, tortilla chips and “all other salted snacks.” While the rest of the snacking categories struggled with unit sales, those three bucked the trend.

“Yogurt is on a tear,” Lyons Wyatt said. “Yogurt is really filling the opportunities for consumers on their well-being journey.”

Year-to-date, Circana data showed an intermix of indulgence with better-for-you.

“I think that might be one of the things we see in ’24, is consumers going back to wanting that balance,” Lyons Wyatt said. “We talked about it a few years ago, where they (consumers) are going to look for those better-for-you options, but they’re also not going to give up on indulgence. Indulgence will never go away.”

As far as motivations for snacking goes, Circana data found emotion accounts for 55% of consumers’ motivation, including having a snack as part of a routine or because it’s a treat or as a reward.

Lisa Jackson, director of marketing at FlavorSum, echoed that trend in her presentation “Flavor trends in snacking.

“We lived in a really uncontrolled environment for the last few years, and people just want to feel better,” she said. “Food makes people feel better.”

Snack experiences also are increasing in popularity, with 53% of consumers seeking authentic or unique experiences, up 9% from 2019, according to Circana. However, that also means innovation may be difficult, with 49% of consumers reporting that when money is tight, they are more likely to stick to the same products they’ve used in the past.

Despite the macroeconomic trends that have affected snacking, Lyons Wyatt was optimistic about snack innovation this year.

“It’s pretty exciting. We saw a lot of new trends and new products coming into the market, which I’m thrilled about,” she said. “It’s been several years that innovation has been soft, so I think innovation is back.”