KANSAS CITY -- Dairy snacking has come a long way from a swig of milk or a cube of cheese. To meet ever-expanding cravings, dairy processors are developing a range of snack products packaged in a way that also aligns with the demands and interests of today’s consumers.

As anyone who has sat in on an R&D meeting or studies consumer behavior knows, consumers want a lot when it comes to what they will eat or drink as a snack. Taste, variety, safety, convenience, nutrition, portability, sustainability and social responsibility are factors — often concurrent — that are driving innovations in snacks and snack packaging.

The ongoing global health crisis also has impacted snack choice.

“We’re seeing larger formats for sharing at home in a multi-person household, as people are not going out to eat,” said Chris Higgins, regional sales manager for Matrix Packaging Machinery, a ProMach brand, Saukville, Wis. “There are also more bag-in-bag solutions, with smaller serving sizes that people can take to go, since they won’t be sharing in a public space.” 

As consumers have been working and learning from home, there have been other shifts that have led to a propensity to snack.

“When people were working in offices, we saw a big number of meal replacements, including in the protein shake category,” said Pedro Gonçalves, vice president of marketing for United States and Canada at Tetra Pak, Denton, Texas. “While they are at home, though, it’s more about comfort during the break they are having.”

Mike McCann, packaging specialist at Resier, Canton, Mass., said  snack preferences have been impacted in a way that may be more than temporary.

“The pandemic has changed a lot of habits,” he said. “People are not sitting down for a long lunch — they are picking up bits and pieces throughout the day. I think there will be carryover from it and people will feel safer buying things like a 24-pack of protein bars or snacks.” 

Snack time is all the time

Whatever type of snack they ultimately choose, consumers are definitely noshing more. According to a new report from The Hartman Group, 48% of all food and beverage occasions are now snacking occasions. Mordor Intelligence projects that the global dairy snack market will grow at a combined annual growth rate (CAGR) of 3.49% through 2025.

A variety of dairy and alternative dairy products fit the bill for this kind of all-day eating across demographics. The milk, cheese, yogurt and ice cream categories encompass an array of snacks that can be purchased for single-serve and smaller portions as well as larger and family-sized portions. 

Within dairy snacks, some segments are faring particularly well. Not surprisingly in a pandemic, snacks with health claims are garnering attention. In its recent research on the dairy snack market, Mordor Intelligence reported that demand for healthy and convenient snack options is largely fueling sales of dairy snack products.

Several examples of dairy snacks positioned as better for you are available in the market. Bel Brands rolled out a new Laughing Cow Blend cheese spread made with dairy cheese and plant-based ingredients such as lentils, red beans and chickpeas and packaged in pre-portioned wedges with eight wedges in a round. 

When the California Milk Advisory Board recently offered an innovation-focused competition called the Real California Milk Snackcelerator, several entries were healthy takes on sweet and savory dairy snacks. Finalists included Peekaboo Ice Cream, organic ice cream made with added nutritional benefits of vegetables; Point Reyes Farmstead Whey Cool Kitchen Curd Cup, a high protein snack in a mix-in cup format; Wunder Cheesecake Bites, a high-protein, low-carb snackable cheesecake available in a single-serve package; and FitPro Heroes’ Cookies, packaged protein cookies with ingredients touted for healthy energy, joint support, and inflammation relief.

For consumers who are trying to reduce health risks by losing weight, keto snacks are still hot. Keto-friendly dairy snacks include cheese sticks, cheese crisps, multipacks of cheeses, meat snacks and nuts and higher-fat, lower-carb ice creams and novelties, among other items.

“Multivac has seen significant growth in dairy snack stick lines which take advantage of traditional flexible vacuum packages as well as rigid film packaged for higher-end protein snacks and assortment trays,” said Christian Uebele, director of product innovation and technical training for Multivac, Kansas City. 

Meanwhile, with more people at home spurring a cooking renaissance and an interest in food as entertainment, other dairy snacks have a time to shine. For example, the popularity of charcuterie boards has led to new packaged charcuterie products, such as a Charcuterie Tasting Board from the Columbus Craft Meats subsidiary of Hormel Foods. Austin, Minn. The ready-to-serve product includes two kinds of salami, aged white cheddar cheese, chocolate-covered cranberries, olives and multigrain crackers presented on a wood-printed board and wrapped in a peel-off clear film.

Convenience, a significant driver of packaging innovation for the past couple of decades, continues to be a hallmark of package design for dairy snacks.

One new product that marries convenience with other in-demand product attributes is Silk Kids Almondmilk Yogurt Alternative. The Silk brand recently introduced this yogurt alternative product, which is fortified with calcium and vitamin D, free of peanuts, gluten and lactose and available in a four-pack of 4-oz single-serve cups.

While dairy processors and brands are spearheading many dairy snack innovations, there is also a certain inventiveness coming from retailers.

“One of the things we are finding out in discussions with retailers is that there is such an opportunity to innovate, differentiate and add value,” said Burt Flickinger, managing director of Strategic Resource Group in New York City. “And unless dairy brands innovate, retailers will start to do it themselves.”

Sustainable snacking

The groundswell of interest in sustainable packaging overall is impacting dairy snack categories, too. Many dairy processors are investigating or investing in sustainable packaging materials and methods, as part of their own corporate responsibility practices and to meet burgeoning consumer demand.

“We recently finished surveying over 10,000 shoppers and up to one-third of them said they would switch brands or stores to ones that they knew were supporting sustainability,” Flickinger said. “There is real brand risk for not taking steps toward sustainability and there is also a huge opportunity to build dairy brands.”

Dairy processors are working toward greater sustainability with various packaging changes for snack foods and beverages. For those who drink milk as a snack, Clover Sonoma in Petaluma, Calif.,  is switching to a fully renewable plant-based paperboard milk carton for its half-gallon organic milk. The carton is made with RenewablePlus paperboard from Evergreen Packaging. 

Ice cream packaging also is being given an earth-friendlier makeover. In Canada, consumers can buy Häagen-Dazs ice cream in reusable containers through the Loop circular recycling program. 

Keeping pace

Those who provide dairy processors with packaging materials and equipment are likewise updating and expanding their solutions to reflect today’s marketplace drivers.

Tetra Pak, for its part, is adding more sustainable offerings to its portfolio of packaging materials, including packaging made with layers of plant-based polymers and a solution for chilled products made with more than 70% renewable material.

“Consumers have said for a long time that they want more sustainable packages,” Gonçalves said. “It was hard to translate that in value, but it looks like it’s picking up now.” .

Consumers’ changing snacking habits also are affecting packaging equipment. At Matrix/ProMach, Higgins reports strong demand for snacks like cheese crisps and cheese curds and said the company is helping processors make diversified products while keeping up with the need for safety. 

“Over the last two years we have made significant R&D investments in the hygienic level of our machine, with additional levels for meat and cheese processors,” he said, citing features like open channel frames and passivated stainless steel for washdown and materials that meet the USDA 3-A standard for product contact surfaces.

At Multivac, the desire for single-serve packaging has led to a greater use of the company’s thermoforming packaging machines.

“These packages can range from a low-cost flexible film vacuum package for a single stick of string cheese to offering the upscale protection of a rigid package for fragile product like cubed cheese and even a customized multi-compartment tray,” Uebele explained.

Opening features for these packages include peelable and resealable film and “zig-zag” knife cutting for flexible film that allows easy consumer access, he added.

Finally, customization and connectivity are propelling packaging solutions for dairy snacks. Gonçalves at Tetra Pak cited a digital printer that allows customers to be more flexible with their campaigns and promotions, and the use of technologies like QR codes on packages to better engage with consumers. 

“Four or five years ago, everyone was concentrated on getting the product to shelf,” he said. “Once the consumer picked it up and bought it, there was more advertising and promotion. That was the formula — whoever had more money would win the game. Today, the journey is much longer and we are seeing more specialized products and subcategories. Value is coming in waves:  different consumption occasions, new products, offering a very specialized communication with consumer and convenience with digital. Dairy needs to be in all four phases.”