Cassava Crunch – made from the native South American root vegetable cassava or ‘yuca’ – launched onto the market earlier this year in a variety of flavors including sea salt and beet and goat cheese, with each pack containing 140 calories.
Pete Lescoe, founder and co-CEO of Plant Snacks, said the product took around one year to develop – longer than a typical snack food launch; something Lescoe had plenty of knowledge on, founding Food Should Taste Good in 2006 which sold to General Mills in 2012 for an undisclosed sum.
“In the past, working with ingredients like corn, rice and wheat, there was a lot of heritage knowledge that we had on how to make snacks with those items,” he told FoodNavigator-USA. “So, when we started to use cassava flour, because the flour is made up of a different level of carbohydrate, starch, fiber and comes in a different size grain, it was definitely a large learning curve.”
The largest challenge, he said, was getting the product to sheet well with a light, crunchy texture and “not turn into, essentially, a gluey mess”.
Making the cassava chips, he said, was much closer to that of cookie or cake manufacturing – making the dough, adding inclusions if necessary, sheeting it and then baking the product – with a flash fry at the end, ahead of seasoning.
“If you treat this product the same way you’d treat wheat or corn, you don’t get the same product. We had to modify every part of the recipe and processing.”
Start-up snacks in a competitive world
The global healthy snacks market was valued at $21.1bn in 2016 and set to grow at a CAGR of 5.1% this year, according to Grand View Research, but Mintel’s latest better-for-you snacking study suggested only a slight growth had been seen in the US, due to low penetration and challenges propelled by fierce competition and ambiguity around the definition of a ‘healthy snack’.
However, Lescoe said one thing he had learned in his years working in the healthy snacking category was that there remained a strong consumer desire for alternatives.
“I think there’s a ton of things I learned before and during [my previous] business. There’s the general mechanics on launching and growing a new business – building a team; distribution; managing cash flow… But beyond that, it’s an ever-increasing belief that was supported by real-world results that consumers are looking for different, healthier alternatives to what has been on the market forever,” he said.
For Cassava Crunch, Lescoe said the biggest consumer draw was the unusual primary ingredient – a high-energy root vegetable, rich in vitamin C, high in fiber and free-from ingredients like gluten, grains and added sugars.
“We don’t have corn, wheat or rice, so we fit well within a paleo community diet and we’re also thinking of moving the line over to a vegan attribute – we’re going to swap out our cheese SKUs over to vegan cheeses and with that we’ll be free of the big eight allergens…I think it’s great if we can make a snack that is healthful and has a lot of attributes that can appeal to a lot of people.”
Whilst potato chip alternatives were relatively widespread – rice, bean and corn as just a few examples – Lescoe said cassava snacks were only just starting to gain stronger recognition and so continued consumer education would be key to paving out future success.
“In having an ingredient that doesn’t have the same awareness as corn, wheat or rice, we want to make the product as broadly available, understandable and desirable as possible.”
This, he said, just needed time. “I’m in the snack business in cassava - I think it has a lot of potential. Will it displace corn? Probably not any time soon, I have to be realistic about it. The volume of corn production and pricing as a commodity is just staggering… But in the next three to five years, cassava will certainly grow.”