Snack Industry Adapts to Post-Pandemic Shifts in Consumer Trends

The COVID-19 pandemic brought lasting lifestyle shifts, spurring growth in several snack categories.

Snacking trends shift after COVID-19 pandemic.
Snacking trends shift after COVID-19 pandemic.
Getty Images

Shifting consumer snacking trends through the COVID-19 pandemic have continued to prompt adaptation from snack brands, says David Walsh, SNAC International vice president of communications.

Walsh detailed the state of snacking at the PACK EXPO International Industry Speaks stage in Chicago. He noted trends ranging from an increase in e-commerce to a focus on functional snacks.

Snacking was the second highest contributing category to retail dollar growth during the pandemic. It trailed only personal care products including toilet paper and similar items that consumers rushed to buy.

“And even as the economy may take a few years to fully recover, we’re expecting the snacks market to really kind of hold strong, and continue to grow due to factors like high value, affordable, fun products,” Walsh says.

Snacking From Home

Stemming from the lifestyle shift forced by the pandemic, one prominent trend in today’s snacking landscape is the move toward snacking from home.

“Pre-pandemic, it was all about on the go, portability, convenience. Now with more working from home or even schooling from home, snacking from home has become really important,” Walsh says. “It’s no secret a lot of companies never brought their workforce back into the office. And that’s impacted the snack category, and snacking from home has persisted.”

Related to snacking from home, e-commerce snack shopping has also grown in popularity. It saw a 27% increase since the onset of the pandemic and an 83% increase in 2020 alone, Walsh says.

“There’s still a real major opportunity to capture some of that online growth,” Walsh says. “Many consumers still, believe it or not, don’t think to buy snacks via e-commerce yet. But COVID has really helped to program many into buying snacks online, so it’s really kind of changed the landscape.”

Snacking More Often

Snacking frequency has increased in recent years. The average consumer snacks 2.7 times per day, and the number of consumers who snack five or more times per day is on the rise. 

Walsh says millennial and Gen Z consumers (ages 18 to 34) are setting the stage for this increase, and their buying power is increasing as they get older.

“They’re the ones that are snacking all throughout the day, many meals, grazing throughout the day,” he explains. “They’re most likely to replace meals with snacks, so there’s that meal replacement trend that has become so important. 92% actually replace at least one meal per week with just a snack.”

A broadened definition of snacking has also contributed to the trend toward higher snacking frequency. As consumers snack from home more, snack choices have started to include items like cereal, packaged fruits and veggies, and even leftover meals.

Functional Snacking

Health-minded consumers watch for functional ingredients.Health-minded consumers watch for functional ingredients.Getty ImagesAnother growing trend is functional snacking, as more consumers adjust to health-focused lifestyles.

“Things like high fiber, protein, calcium, fortified vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, just to name a few, are really kind of finding a home for innovation in the snack category,” Walsh says. 

He cited trending ingredients like cassava for healthy digestion and ashwagandha for immunity and brain health as further examples.

Flavors in the Spotlight

“Snack producers are really turning up the heat to extreme levels,” Walsh says, as consumers increasingly demand spicy options across categories.

Nuance behind the heat is important though, as consumers are searching for different types of peppers, hints of lime, cheese pairings and other adventurous variations.

Sweet snacks, including fruit flavors, chocolate, maple and nut butters, are also gaining popularity and even competing with treats in the candy aisle, Walsh says.

International flavors including those from Latin America, Asia and the Middle East had “been very popular pre-COVID, and it kind of has come back now that we’re heading away from the pandemic,” Walsh says.

Snack Category Insights

  • Savory snacks increased by 5.5% in 2021, after increasing 8.2% the year before.

  • “Other” savory snacks grew by 16% in 2021 with over $5.5 billion in sales. This includes snacks that stray from the typical snack formats, such as puff products and veggie straws. This category also grew by 14% in 2020.

  • Vegan claims have been on the rise over the past year, up 36% in the snack category. Walsh says even non-vegans have shown interest in this subcategory.

  • Tortilla chips have grown 1.5% in 2021, after growing 6.3% in 2020. A trend within this category that re-emerged with the pandemic has been “putting the restaurant in the bag,” Walsh says. Snack producers are making thinner, restaurant style, authentic feeling chips to serve as at-home appetizers.

  • Meat snacks and jerky grew 21% in 2021, after an even larger 24% growth in the previous year. “High protein, low carb diets have really helped this category grow, along with, like other categories, new flavors and innovative products are driving huge growth here,” Walsh says.

  • Pork rinds grew 4.7% in 2021, after an 8% increase in the year before. Similar to meat snacks, this category can serve a variety of diets like keto and paleo, and act as a meal replacement.

  • Fruit chips of different varieties grew in 2021, with apple chips at 18% and whole fruit chips at 7.1% growth, tying into consumer demand for healthy alternatives.

  • Cheese snacks grew 4.3% in 2021, after an 8.3% increase in 2020, $2.34 billion in sales.

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