Trail Mix: The Healthy, Protein-Rich Snack Food

Many producers, such as Setton International, offer shippers or other display racks to help move trail mix at the retail level.

The key to growth in the produce department is in showing their many uses.

Originally printed in the March 2021 issue of Produce Business.

Trail mixes would seem to be a natural for growth because they fit with so many of the consumer trends gaining popularity over the past few years.

These combinations of nuts and dried fruits suit the rise of eating snacks rather than just three square meals a day. They are high in protein, which is a plus with many consumers. And they are plant-based, which is gaining favor for both environmental and nutritional reasons.

“You can put product in the produce section or sometimes move them to the all-natural section of produce to entice people who like to focus on organic or all natural,” advises Stephanie Blackwell, president of Aurora Products, Stratford, CT. “Keto and grain-free mixes tend to be the newest varieties of trail mixes.”

Aurora Products has offered all natural and organic dried fruits, nuts, trail mixes, salad toppings and granolas since 1998. The company makes its own trail mixes, roasts their own nuts and does not use preservatives, artificial colors or additives.

“The best way to merchandise trail mix is on large, tall racks with a planogram,” Blackwell says. “Shippers and display-ready cases are great to augment sales.”

Many producers offer shippers or other display racks to help move trail mix at the retail level.

Despite the availability of attractive displays, however, this category of snack food has failed to grow as quickly as its claim to convenience and good health suggest it should.

In its US Nuts, Seeds and Trail Mix Industry Report 2020, London, UK-based Mintel Group forecasts sluggish five-year growth for these healthy snacks due to competition from other snack options and, for brick-and-mortar stores, from rising Internet sales.

The multi-million-dollar question is what retailers can do about it.

And the answer seems to begin with strategies for showing consumers that trail mix can be more than a portable healthy snack.

Emphasize the Diversity of Uses

There is one use that accounts for the overwhelming majority of trail mix purchases: They are a healthy, portable, shelf-stable snack, according to Mintel’s 2018 survey, which found that three-fourths of consumers use nuts and seeds as a snack by themselves.

“Obviously, the first answer for how to use trail mixes is to snack on,” says Blackwell.

“Cross merchandising is a great way to get impulse buyers. For instance, put a container of salad fixings or toppers next to the lettuce or granola snack next to the bananas. Some of them are good on ice cream or added to cereals.”

While the use of these mixes has migrated some from the nature trail to the office, the key to real growth is in finding these other uses.

“Adding a floor display near beer and soda can help consumers grab a healthier snack instead of the traditional chips,” advises Joseph Setton, vice president of domestic sales at Setton International Foods, Commack, NY. “When placed near fruit snacks and popcorn, these premium trail mixes are shown to be a great lunchbox choice. Inspire bakers to get creative by including a few varieties in your next bakery display. Our pre-loaded display shippers have a large header and bright graphics that show the products inside, while each tray highlights that consumers are getting a premium quality product. Each display includes three SKUs.”

Setton International produces premium blends featuring pistachios in resealable bags of numerous sizes.
The diversity of uses should include expanding the times of day people use trail mixes, as on salads for lunch or as a dessert topping after dinner.

“Each variety offers plant-based protein and fiber to keep you feeling full for longer,” says Setton. “For consumers who want to get creative, Setton Farms Premium Blends are great on top of yogurt and ice cream, as a mix into baked goods or as a plant-based addition to your next charcuterie board,” says Setton.

The diversity of uses should include expanding the times of day people use trail mixes, as on salads for lunch or as a dessert topping after dinner.

Producers have built varied promotion campaigns that help educate consumers about the multiple uses of their trail mix products.

“We work with ambassadors and influencers around the country to organically spread the messaging of Setton Farms and our products,” Setton says. “Through social media, we not only get to show the numerous health benefits of our products, we also show how simple it is to incorporate more plant-based protein into each meal and on-the-go.”

Nuts Are on the Rise

High protein nuts are emerging as mainstays of trail mixes: Texas Star Nut & Food Co. is a third generation, family-owned Bourne, TX-based company producing trail mix products built around its walnut and almond harvests and packaged under its Nature’s Eats brand.

“Walnuts have never been more popular in trail mixes, as consumers shift their snacking focus from ‘junk foods’ to better-for-you alternatives,” says Jennifer Olmstead, director of domestic public relations at the California Walnut Board and Commission. “As an ingredient that provides protein, good fats, and most importantly plant-based omega-3 alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) fatty acid, walnuts can bring countless nutritional benefits to a trail mix while still contributing flavor and texture.”

The appeal of nuts as one of the ingredients may be for consumers looking for some specific nutritional benefit in their trail mix.

“The best way to merchandise trail mix is on large, tall racks with a planogram,” says Stephanie Blackwell of Aurora Products.

“Perhaps the biggest use for walnuts in trail mixes come on the functional side,” says Olmstead. “More and more trail mix manufacturers are developing functional lines that appeal to specific health attributes. As the only nut that is a significant source of plant-based omega-3 alpha-linolenic acid, walnuts are the perfect ingredient to build a functional trail mix formula from.”

Setton International uses harvest from its California pistachio orchards in a line intended to take trail mix nutrition to a new level.

“Consumers love trail mix but we saw a need for a new type of mix, one that goes beyond the traditional trail mix,” says Setton. “To fill this need, we created the Premium Blend line, which is nutrient-dense without any compromise on taste. Setton Farms’ unique blends include our family’s California-grown pistachios, which are a nutritional powerhouse for consumers who are living more active lifestyles. The Setton Farms line of Premium Blends includes Pistachio Berry, Pistachio Nut, Simply Protein, Sweet & Salty, Pistachio Power, and Nut Topper.”

There may be limited gains, however, from extolling the nutritional value of particular trail mix brands because consumers are already sold on the health benefits of the entire category, and recent sales statistics indicate that lower-priced private label items trump brand in attracting consumers.

Data from IRI, based in Chicago, shows that snack nuts held steady for the 52 weeks ending May 17, 2020, with only 0.9% growth to $4.9 billion in sales. But faster-rising private label, known for lower prices than branded items, saw 8.5% growth to $1.7 billion.

Price Matters

Because consumers already know that trail mix is highly nutritious, price matters in driving sales, price and visibility.

“The first [exposure] people get of the product is the package,” says Diane Longanbach, Michigan State University Cooperative Extension innovation counselor. “Shelf talkers, social media and tasting can all be important.”

From her position as counselor to producers trying to move from direct marketing at outlets like Farmers’ Markets to larger mainstream retailers, Longanbach sometimes sees tomorrow’s products today.

Trail mix producers compete not just with their products but also with eye-catching displays that bring attention at retail.

“Setton Farms’ display shippers are the best way to merchandise throughout the produce section, as they have clean, vibrant graphics that attract customers,” says Setton. “They are conveniently shipped full of product, simple to assemble and have a minimal footprint, which makes them an ideal option for retailers.”