Food companies give snacks a healthy makeover

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 last 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 is on guilt-free snacking – the holy grail of nosh. Manufacturers are banking on giving their new snacks a more healthful reputation.

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 percent 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.

“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 a juice bar in downtown LA. “I am against unhealthy snacks existing. It’s food for cheap industrial profit.”

Among the new wave of more healthful brands is Dang, a 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 startup 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.