Crisps, or chips, as they call them in the US, used to be the flavourful, umami-pleasing snack. Until, that is, guilt was induced through reports of high fat content and too much salt. They became more the guilty pleasure. Enter more friendly alternatives – lentil chips, vegetable crisps, sweet potato slices. But the winner, at least in sales terms, was popcorn.
An American staple, of course, and elsewhere more a cinema treat, popcorn has undergone a reinvention as the ‘healthy’, super low calorie snack of choice within what the food industry calls the RTE or ready to eat category. And all the more so since popcorn embraced flavour. The last two years has seen an explosion in both sweet and savoury flavourings – cheese and chocolate flavours are the biggest sellers.
In other words, popcorn risks losing its healthy allure, despite almost half of consumers saying they’re interested in all-natural popcorns. Not that this is denting sales. Sales of popcorn in the US, for example, have increased by 32% over the last five years, according to Mintel. It’s now a $2.5bn market there alone. But sales of flavoured ready to eat popcorn have increased by 118% – from practically nothing to a $1.1bn annual business. It’s a pattern now repeating itself around the world: this shift to seeing popcorn primarily as a medium for carrying big flavours and toppings. The problem? There’s a distinct leaning towards salty flavours.
Indeed, popcorn is slipping into the same category that sees meat snacks the fastest growing of all varieties. Yes, there’s an interest in meat snacks made from primary cuts, but the big sellers – and especially among younger people, are meat snack bars; which to many will be just about as appealing as they sound. And how are these meat snacks separating themselves? Though niche flavours, for one. And through an emphasis on the protein they provide; protein, of course, being the health ingredient du nos jours.
So what does all this add up to? Self-delusion, put bluntly. Sure, snacking is popular, even though people, when asked, are more likely to say they’re eating fewer salty snacks today compared to last year than they are likely to admit they’re eating more. The need to munch on the go; an energy boost; any reason is given why popping a salty snack is a good idea. And that’s why it’s a $11.9bn market, with sales of salty snacks up almost a third over the last five years. So mind what you eat – even if you kid yourself it’s ‘healthy’, it’s probably not.