The next generation of food manufacturers are clamoring to satisfy your snack cravings. Just don't expect another potato chip or pretzel.
At the annual Fancy Food Show in San Francisco this week, up-and-coming brands touted seaweed chips, toasted coconut shavings, kale crackers, Wagyu beef jerky and baked pasta bites.
Among them could be the next Super Bowl party staple. Today's emphasis, however, is on guilt-free snacking — the holy grail of nosh. Manufacturers are banking on more healthful products, lower in fat, sugar and salt, but packing the same addictive punch as a can of Pringles chips.
"Even though they're much healthier snacks, I'm hoping people don't stop at one," said Jerry Bello, maker of Pasta Chips, a ravioli-shaped crispy bite dusted with Italian seasonings.
The surge in snack options comes as Americans have transformed into a nation of grazers. The number of snacks consumed per day has doubled since the 1970s, the U.S. Department of Agriculture says.
Over 90% of Americans say they nibble daily, amounting to a $28-billion annual industry for salty snacks alone, according to Nielsen.
Young consumers are driving the change. Rather than partaking in breakfast, lunch and dinner, they're grubbing around the clock.
"Millennials are redefining snacks," said Dwight Richmond, Whole Foods Market's global purchasing coordinator. He and about 50 colleagues from the Austin-based grocery chain perused the latest offerings at the closely followed trade show, a sort of incubator and marketplace for food brands that aren't quite mainstream and are typically found in higher-end stores.
"Instead of eating three square meals, they're juicing and snacking," said Richmond, who believes the shift away from junk food will grow as more consumers seek out simple, minimally processed fare.
Wendy Meraz, a 26-year-old student at Antioch University, said she picks up healthful munchies from Whole Foods and Trader Joe's to avoid snacking on processed junk food when attending classes.
"At my school, it's so easy to eat bad snacks," said Meraz as she sipped a smoothie chock full of spinach and kale at Sustain Juicery in downtown L.A. "I am against unhealthy snacks existing. It's food for cheap industrial profit."
James Russo, senior vice president of Global Consumer Insights at Nielsen, said nearly a quarter of Americans surveyed said they prefer a quick snack over a meal.
"Snacking seems to be replacing meals for many Americans and globally, because of convenience and also as a way to cut down on calories," Russo said.
Among the new wave of more healthful brands is Dang, a Berkeley maker of coconut chips. Crunchy and creamy, they are the invention of 30-year-old entrepreneur Vincent Kitirattragarn, who was inspired by preparing his mother's Thai lettuce wraps.
"The wraps have seven ingredients, and one is toasted coconut," said Kitirattragarn, who cornered a Whole Foods buyer three years ago at a Fancy Food Show on the East Coast to taste his chips. "So we bought shredded coconut, put it in a wok on low heat, and the smell filled up the whole house."
The result was so delicious that the wraps became an afterthought. The Cornell-trained engineer decided to market the coconut slivers just as coconut oil and coconut water was gaining popularity.
A snack, Kitirattragarn reasoned, would command better placement in the grocery aisle than an ingredient, stashed in purgatory next to the chopped nuts and baking powder.
With $90,000 in start-up capital, Kitirattragarn started developing new flavors to pair with the original chips (which include three ingredients: coconut, cane sugar and salt). There's caramel and sea salt, chili lime, and to no one's astonishment, bacon.
Dang, which is named after Kitirattragarn's mother, is now available at Whole Foods and Sprouts, among others. It racked up $4 million in revenue last year.
Robert Mock and his three business partners were also inspired by an Asian ingredient: seaweed.
Three of his partners have children that attend the same school in the Bay Area. They watched as the kids devoured seaweed snacks.
"I love seaweed too, but I'm used to tortilla chips and queso," Mock said.
So the dads started Ocean's Halo, a company that introduced the Seaweed Chip, a crunchy green ribbon built for dipping. Every bite is packed with protein and vitamins. It's also organic, gluten-free and low in fat — prerequisites for many of today's discerning snackers.
"There's nothing like it out there," said Mock, who used to sell financial derivatives for JPMorgan.
This week, he was wooing supermarket buyers at the Fancy Food Show.
The winter fair, which ended Tuesday, is in its 40th year. Originally geared toward imported European specialty food, it helped popularize brands such as Ben & Jerry's ice cream, Perrier sparkling water and Walkers Shortbread.
Snacks have always been central to the event, though the trends (think bagel chips and chocolate-covered pretzels) have come and gone. In one corner of this week's convention hall — tucked behind the chocolatiers, olive oil makers, seasoned salt purveyors, fermenters and sprouters — was Bello and his Pasta Chips.
The New Jersey native has a knack for inventing original snacks.
There were the Veggie Straws, chips that resemble hollow French fries that he sold to the Hain Celestial Group, owner of brands such as Terra Chips and Rice Dream.
Bello also developed Trader Joe's Pita Bite Crackers and a biscotti he "Americanized" by using more butter and creating a softer center.
The Pasta Chips are his latest, inspired by a trip to Tuscany with his wife. It took two years of tinkering in the test kitchen to arrive at the proper snap around the edges and tenderness in the middle.
"If I didn't, it would feel too much like a water cracker," said Bello, whose company is based in Windermere, Fla.
Bello says his Pasta Chip has 20% less fat than a pita chip.
But for pure health food cred, there's Way Better Snacks, a Minneapolis company that makes tortilla chips chocked with sprouted whole grains and seeds. Sprouting, it says, unlocks nutrients in the ingredients and allows for easier digestion.
"There's so much competition in the snacking category," said Jim Breen, the company's founder and chief executive. "The key for us or anyone is simply being different."