Soup-to-Nuts Podcast: What is behind the overnight explosion of puffs?

By Elizabeth Crawford

- Last updated on GMT

Once considered simply a children’s snack that parents would sneak when no one was looking, puffs suddenly are everywhere – and for everyone – thanks to their better-for-you profile, new sophisticated flavors, increasingly diverse bases and playful shapes that encourage sharing.

According to data from SPINS, sales of puffed snacks grew 9.9% in 2017 – outpacing the overall snack category, which grew only 1.4% to $33 billion. Leaders in the space note that puffs account for about 7-10% of the overall snack category, making it a small but important segment.

And companies are acting fast to seize the trend – and market share – by launching all types of puffed products from SkinnyPop’s debut of a sweet and a savory popcorn-based puffs earlier this year to popchips’ protein-packed Nutter Puffs to the US launch of Spokes’ air-popped potato puffs. At the same time, brands that already have a stake in the segment are stepping up their game, such as SniKiddy’s recent move to certify some puffs as USDA Organic.

This episode of FoodNavigator-USA’s Soup-To-Nuts podcast looks at what is behind this growth and who is driving it. It also analyzes whether the market can bear so many new players and what they are doing to stand out from each and on store shelves.

Demand for puffs is growing (up)

Puffs are undeniably kid-friendly, and until recently have mostly targeted children, but that is changing, according to Kyle Banahan, the brand manager for SkinnyPop, which launched at Expo West two popcorn puffs for all ages.

 “If you look at the category dynamics of puffs, super high indexing on households with kids 2 to 17, like a 200 index. So, we know there are kids in the house for households that buy puffs,”​ he said, explaining the shapes, traditional flavors and cartoon characters used to advertise mainstream puffs have helped attract children.

At the same time though, he said, parents also eat puffs, revealing a demographic that, if targeted correctly, could become a new base buyer for the product.

He explained that SkinnyPop is trying to woo older users by leveraging its brand heritage, which is well trusted among adult women, delivering the nutritional attributes adults care about as well as a consistent crunch that also is light and feels like a bigger snack than it is.

It's all about the base … or is it?

Another big driver behind puffs explosion on the market is the flexibility of the technology to make a wide variety of ingredients snackable, according to Marc Seguin, the chief marketing officer at popchips.

“As a technology that allows you to deliver interesting ingredients, sort of puffing and popping really gives you a lot of flexibility. So, we are seeing a lot of chickpea products out there that are puffed, you know vegetable bases that are puffed, and it seems like what people have recognized is that this is a really interesting way to deliver on a snack, and they can make it taste good if it is done right,”​ he said.

Popchips is hoping the blend of peanut butter, chocolate and honey flavoring its trio of new Nutter Puffs will add to the appeal of puffs by playing to consumers nostalgic love for the peanut butter while at the same time meeting their demand for a high protein snack that satiating.

How it is made matters

In an era when consumers are fearful of processing, how puffs get their shape also matters and is another driver for the snacks burgeoning success, according to Dave Pullar, president and CEO of Left Field Foods, which launched its line of Spokes puffed potato snacks in the US at Expo West.

He explained that the process also has a lot to do with how the finished product tastes.

“Spokes are hot air puffed potato snack and a unique way to make a low calorie version of that by the unique processing method. So, unlike kind of traditional extruded puffs, we have a special method that allows us to have the lowest calorie salty snack, and it allows us to deliver great taste,”​ in part because it requires very little oil that needs to be masked with excessive seasoning, he explained.

The company uses this clean slate to deliver a wide variety of bold flavors, including classics like salt and vinegar and dill, but also modern ones such as mango habanero, which Pullar says is the perfect balance of sweet heat that consumers are looking for today.

The children are still the future

Even as companies court adults with more sophisticated puffs, some like Good Health Natural Products also is raising the bar for kids’ puffs, such as with the organic certification of its SniKiddy line of puffs and brought its line of Veggie Fries up to ‘made with organic ingredients,’ according to Jim Ehlen, who is the vice president of marketing for the company.

He explains that the company went for the certification, even though it was difficult to source key ingredients for its puffs, because parents increasingly want organic for their children. And by offering this option, the brand can not only hold on to the consumers it attracted as a long-time player in the space, but attract new, young parents with higher standards.  

As more companies continue to enter the puffs category and existing ones step up their game, the segment no doubt will continue to grow quickly. But in time there could be a shaking out or consolidation of brands and product. For now there, it appears that the category is growing full steam and has plenty of room for innovation.

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