During most of the last decade, health has emerged as one of the main drivers within the global snack foods market, mainly as a result of more people paying greater attention to their diets. Suppliers of snack foods are also facing increasing pressure from government and other regulatory bodies, keen to encourage people to improve their dietary habits and lead healthier lifestyles so as to reduce healthcare costs. 

The world market for healthy snacks amounted to US$22.93bn in 2009, having risen by 20% since 2004. Although growth has been reported in all four of the market’s main sectors during this time, sales have risen especially sharply within the healthy potato crisps, chips and other salty snacks segment, where levels of new product activity and hence the range of snacks on offer has widened dramatically.

By sector, nuts, seeds and mixes account for the bulk of global sales of healthy snacks, with a value share of almost 60% in 2009. This figure has declined from over 63% in 2004, despite the growing popularity of packaged seeds in regions such as North America and Western Europe. Cereal-based snacks accounted for an additional 29% of sales in 2009, ahead of fruit snacks (7.5%) and healthy crisps and salty snacks (3.3%).

Although healthy products continue to make headway across many parts of the world, penetration levels remain on the low side within the overall snack foods category. Together, sales of healthy crisps and salty snacks, plus nuts, seeds and mixes, account for less than a fifth (19%) of the global savoury snacks market, which is currently valued at US$75bn. However, the share taken by the healthy sector rises to more than a quarter (27%) if cereal-based and fruit snacks are included.

Two of the world's largest and most well-documented markets include the US and the UK, where most consumers snack on a regular basis. As a percentage of overall snack sales, healthy products took a share of just over 23% in the US in 2009, rising to nearer to 28% for the UK.

However, as is the case for the snack foods market as a whole, much of the future growth may come from emerging markets such as India and China, where the appetite for western-style snacks amongst urban consumers continues to grow.

The global market for healthy snacks remains highly fragmented, mirroring the situation which exists in the overall snack foods industry. Most of the leading suppliers of snack foods supply some healthy varieties within their respective portfolios, having either launched products marketed on a specific nutritional platform or reformulated existing lines to improve their health appeal.

Very few companies command a truly worldwide presence, preferring in most instances to focus their operations on a particular country or region, where their products can be tailored to suit local tastes and preferences. This is especially true in the healthy snacks segment, where the steadily widening range of products on offer has created a very fragmented supply structure. 

Nevertheless, a number of industry leaders within the snack foods market can be identified - including PepsiCo, Procter & Gamble, United Biscuits, Kraft Foods and Kellogg.

Most compete within the healthy snacks sector to some degree at least, since considerable pressure exists from both consumers and authorities to offer products with better nutritional qualities. In response, snack food manufacturers have either reformulated their products to incorporate lower levels of fats, salt and sugar, or developed new ranges which better suit nutritional guidelines. For some of the larger suppliers, their strategies have featured a combination of both.

In many parts of the world, snack food manufacturers also compete against a strong private-label sector. The share of the snack foods market taken by private-label products is highest in places such as Western Europe and North America, especially for widely popular snacks such as potato crisps and nuts.

In many instances, the global economic downturn has increased the appeal of private-label products, with more people increasingly inclined to seek better value for money when shopping for groceries. In the US, for example, consumer penetration of private-label snacks exceeded 80% in 2009, with price cited as the main reason behind their purchase.

Looking ahead, by 2014, the value of the global healthy snacks market is forecast to reach over US$27bn, up by nearly 21% compared with 2009. Although growth levels may start to level off as some sectors mature, the healthy snacks market is expected to outperform the overall snack foods industry during the coming years.