Coconut oil and Himalayan salt are trending in the snack industry.

It’s not only kale and quinoa that are hot today; look out for coconut oil and Himalayan salt as the latest nouveau trend du jour in the ever-evolving snack industry, according to Tom Vierhile, ­innovation insights director for Datamonitor Consumer, a unit of London-based Informa plc.

Mr. Vierhile should know. When it comes to tracking new product marketing, he’s recognized as an international expert on identifying and honing into the next big thing with potential opportunities for food companies.

Tom Vierhile, ­innovation insights director for Datamonitor Consumer.

Mr. Vierhile has more than 20 years of experience in reporting and analyzing consumer packaged goods trends, much of that with Datamonitor Consumer’s Product Launch Analytics database of new products. He is often quoted in publications like USA Today and The Wall Street Journal and has authored many articles on new products for a variety of business trade publications. Baking & Snack asked Mr. Vierhile to share his latest insights on the snack market, better-for-you options, labeling trends and more.

Dan Malovany: What’s driving the popularity of snacking?

Tom Vierhile: Snacking has become popular because it is flexible and easy. Meal preparation has sped up, and meals are getting simpler — developments that are conducive for snacks to gain additional ground. The snack market is also remarkably malleable and open to new concepts and ideas that stretch what a snack is. While we associate snacks with popular foods like potato chips and popcorn, we have recently seen a boom in applesauce-like pureed fruit snacks that don’t fit neatly into the traditional snack categories. And that is the beauty of the market — the ability to adapt and come up with new snack forms to hit whatever is trending at the moment.

How are companies leveraging these trends?

New flavors are driving potato chip innovation with snack makers experimenting with hot flavors like sriracha as well as new formats like Lay’s Kettle Chips in a Lattice Cut pattern that has a unique mouthfeel and crunch. Ingredients are another developing story, with coconut oil coming on fast as a “better for you” ingredient with products like Jackson’s Honest Potato Chips as well as new Boulder Canyon Coconut Oil Kettle Cooked Potato Chips.

Potato chip makers are experimenting with new formats like Lay’s Kettle Chips in a Lattice Cut pattern that has a unique mouthfeel and crunch.

The big story in chips, though, is that most of the innovation is based on anything but potatoes. Chips based on beans or breads like flatbreads are perceived as hot “better for you” alternatives to potato chips.

Vegetable chips are also booming along with the popped chip format. One new product — popchips veggie chips — hits both trends in one product. Apparently, veggie chips are now a $200 million plus category, and popchips says the category is growing at a more 40% annual rate. Protein chips are another niche to watch, with entries like ProTings and Quest attempting to capitalize on the protein craze.

“Healthy snacks” is where the majority of innovation is coming from, and the innovation is getting a little wild here. One of the more promising developments is seeing seaweed snacks, which have generally been flat strips, starting to appear in chip formats as with Gimme Chips Seaweed Rice Chips.

What’s the next big thing in snacking?

Protein was the big trend in snacks last year, and it looks like that will continue in 2015. Another trend that is exploding is the use of ancient grains in snacks and chips. A good example is Supereats Kale + Chia Chips. Chia and quinoa seem to be everywhere these days. Just beginning to trend is Himalayan sea salt. Apparently this type of salt may have a higher mineral content than other types of sea salt, which is why we’re starting to see it among health and natural food brands.

What’s hot in healthy snacks?

Larabar Renola Grain Free Granola is taking a product that is generally seen as healthful and making it more healthful for consumers worried about food allergies and sensitivities. A “grain free” granola sounds like an oxymoron, but the product uses trendy healthful ingredients like almonds, sunflower seeds, coconut, pumpkin seeds and cocoa nibs to make up for the loss of the grain ingredients.

Skinnygirl popcorn claims to have only 25 calories per mini bag.

ConAgra Foods is taking yet another approach, using the built-in appeal of the Skinnygirl brand that cut its teeth in the cocktail mix category with Skinnygirl popcorn, which claims to have only 25 Cal per “mini bag.” Much of the calorie reduction is probably due to the package size, but the branding and presentation suggest “permissible indulgence,” which is another way to attract consumers seeking better snack options but not desiring to avoid snacking entirely.

What are the emerging labeling trends to educate consumers?

Clean label remains something of a nebulous concept with consumers, but there are signs that it is becoming more consumer-facing. More snack makers are touting the use of cleaner ingredients like pea protein, for instance. Some snack makers are also looking to shrink the size of ingredient lists, an action that signals a product that may be less likely to be made with artificial or highly processed ingredients.

One ingredient category that is really beginning to come on the scene is sprouted grains. While companies cannot make specific digestion claims about sprouted grains relative to “regular” grains, it is strongly implied that these ingredients are easier for the body to digest. This focus on digestion reflects huge and growing interest in gluten-free, an area that continues to grow. Gluten-free’s continued resilience has been one of the surprises in label claims. One would think it would have topped out by now, but that does not seem to be the case.

Past surveys conducted by Datamonitor Consumer have confirmed some degree of “label claim fatigue” on the part of consumers. One replacement for covering a package with health claims is to let signature or iconic ingredients carry more of the “better for you” weight. That is clearly the case with growing use of ancient grain ingredients (perceived to be more healthful and less processed), the use of vegetable ingredients like kale and sweet potatoes, as well as grains likely to be less allergenic than wheat, like rice.

How should snack manufacturers target different demographics, including everyone from millennials to baby boomers?

Millennials are much more likely to embrace ethnic foods and flavors than baby boomers were at their age and often pride themselves as being cutting edge “foodies,” so snack companies should not be afraid to innovate with novel flavors and ingredients for this audience. These consumers want positive health messages, products that are not only good for you, but taste good too. Younger consumers also want to know more about how products are made and where ingredients come from, so snack makers are going to have to find ways to be more transparent without turning these consumers off. Millennials are also more likely than older consumers to take food cues from the latest food and ingredient trends they see at retailers like Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s.

Baby boomers are reaching ages where they may have to alter their snack choices due to health reasons such as altering snack behavior to manage blood cholesterol levels, cut down on sodium or manage weight. Datamonitor Consumer’s Q4 2014 global consumer survey found sizeable gaps in snacking for 25- to 34-year-old consumers versus consumers 65 years of age and older. The percentage of consumers stating that they do not snack on cookies, for instance, was just 13% for the 25- to 34-year-olds, but 25% for the 65 and older crowd. Similar differences were seen for snacking for sugar confectionery products, chocolate and ice cream, so dietary concerns are increasingly going to be a factor for baby boomers. One way to address this is to package, present or position snacks as permissible indulgences that won’t break the nutritional bank.

What’s next on the horizon?

The greatest opportunities for growth may be outside of grain-based snacks. Grains have taken a pounding — first from the low-carb diet and then from the gluten-free trend. It looks like grains have suffered long-term damage — just look at what has happened to ready-to-eat cereals. So, future growth may well be led by snacks that use ingredients like beans, sweet potatoes, vegetables, nuts and other replacements.

Grains have taken a hit in the past, so the future of snacking may lie with ingredients like beans, sweet potatoes, vegetables and nuts.

How will the 2015 Dietary Guidelines impact the snack industry?

The biggest impact may be on meat snacks since the new guidelines emphasize decreased consumption of animal fat, something that will encourage a shift to plant proteins like pea protein or even soy protein. It also looks like the new guidelines will declare war on “added sugar” which flies in the face of the recent trend — especially around the holidays— to sweeten up snack ­offerings by drenching them in chocolate. This may also throw a curve ball at the snack makers trying to introduce sweeter tasting snacks to try to open up new dayparts such as breakfast snacking, for instance.