College students and other hungry consumers are increasingly turning to the ever-popular peanut and peanut-filled trail mixes as a nutritious, grab-and-go snack solution throughout the day. And this trend is prompting foodservice operators at colleges and universities to offer new and flavorful ways to meet this growing demand.
The versatile peanut's ability to satisfy diverse tastes and culinary demands is helping to drive the sale of nuts in the U.S. In fact, peanut consumption is at an all-time high, at more than seven pounds per person per year, according to the USDA. Sales are strong, and according to Chicago-based research firm Mintel in its 2016 Nuts, Seeds and Trail Mix U.S. report, this category experienced several years of consecutive sales increases. In 2016, total retail sales reached $8.6 billion for overall growth of 28 percent between 2011 to 2016.
Mintel also found that 90 percent of U.S. households purchase any type of nuts, seeds or trail mixes — and of those households 67 percent purchased peanuts while 59 percent bought trail mix.
While flavor and convenience are key drivers in the growing popularity of peanuts, health concerns also are emerging as an important factor. Amanda Topper, associate director, foodservice research at Mintel, says peanuts are gaining popularity for several reasons, including their health benefits. In addition to having more protein than any nut, peanuts also contain more than 30 vitamins and nutrients. “Additionally, peanuts provide healthy fats, and there is growing acceptance of healthy fats in Americans’ diets,” Topper says.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration — which regulates labeling to ensure that manufacturers aren’t making misleading claims — is in the process of revising its definition of “healthy”. Previously, certain foods that are high in good, unsaturated fats, such as peanuts, were not allowed to be called healthy because they contained too much fat, too much saturated fat, or not enough of some other key nutrients, according to the FDA. Now, thanks to evolving nutrition science, the FDA is working to incorporate the latest information into their definition. In the meantime, interim guidance from the FDA now allows nutrient-packed peanuts to be called healthy.
Peanut snacks also have a good price point, and they offer wide versatility. “The opportunities for flavor innovation are endless and manufactures are incorporating savory flavors such as chipotle or buffalo, as well as sweet flavors like cocoa,” Topper says. She adds that trail mixes also are appearing in new flavor combinations, including indulgent varieties such as s’mores or salted caramel.
One of the trends with trail mixes, Topper says, is to combine meat snacks such as jerky with peanuts, berries and seeds to create a nutrient dense mix. Trail mixes also fit into the trend toward incorporating more the global flavors, including Asian flavors such as curry, sriracha, and lemongrass, and also South American or Latin flavors.
Millennials tend to seek these new flavors, and colleges and universities are responding. Some offer custom trail mixes, which Topper says reflects the rise of “homemade” menu claims. More and more schools are adding create-your-own trail mix bars, which appeal to an age group which, famously, likes to customize every food. “Students can create their own blends based on flavor and functional preferences,” she says. “iGeneration — including consumers aged 18 to 21, which includes many students — are the most likely consumer group to eat trail mix specifically for snacking occasions.”
Lebanon Valley College (LVC) in Annville, Pa., offers a line of high protein trail mix cups in its retail locations. John Hopewell, chef for Metz Culinary Management at LVC, says one of the best sellers is the Crunchy Snack, which has mini pretzels, Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal, raisins, sunflower seeds and mixed nuts, including peanuts. Another popular trail mix is the Special Oat Cup, which has toasted oats, sunflower seeds, mixed nuts and chow mein noodles. There are also some gluten-free varieties that feature ingredients such as dried cranberries and roasted garbanzo beans. “You get all the flavors in it, the saltiness and the sweetness,” he says. “I try to take it a step further.”
The trail mixes are one way LVC Dining Services keeps up with consumer, especially student, trends. “People are evolving in their tastes and what they like to see,” Hopewell says. “Students are willing to try those new things.”
Kim Smith, Metz Culinary Management general manager at LVC, says trail mix has evolved from the “good old raisins and peanuts” or “gorp,” and not only because students have adventurous palates. “They are looking for protein as well,” she says. “A third of our students are athletes.” Students take the trail mix cups with them to practices and games so they can eat something nutritious and energy sustaining. Even students who are not athletes like the cups because they can bring them to class.
Portability is an important feature of peanut snacks. At University of Washington Tacoma, the convenience store, called West Coast Grocery, offers a wide assortment of peanut snacks. Angela Zurcher, convenience store manager, says students have requested everything from the old school Boston Baked Beans, which are peanuts with red, hard candy shells, to traditional trail mixes with nuts, raisins and M&Ms, to nut mixes that feature spicy Asian flavors.
“We do well with all the nuts and different snack items,” she says. “People are wanting something healthy that they can just grab.”
The campus, which serves more than 4,600 students, will soon open a second location of West Coast Grocery. Zurcher says the new store, near a YMCA where students and the public work out, will have more healthful foods, including a wider variety of nut treats.
Peanuts by themselves are big sellers too, says Ruth Sullivan, registered dietician at Syracuse University. “Peanuts, which are a legume, are a great protein source,” she says. “There are many people who don’t like the taste profile of tree nuts such as almonds and cashews so peanuts are more popular with that crowd. Peanuts also add fiber, magnesium, B6, iron and calcium. The fat in peanuts consist mostly of monounsaturated fats, which may help lower LDL, or 'bad,' cholesterol and increase good cholesterol when part of a healthy diet.”
Students are leaning towards the more adventurous flavors. Sullivan says one item that students are buying a lot is the Cajun Trail Mix, which offers spice, salt and protein.
According to Mintel, there are opportunities to sell more nuts and trail mix, as consumers also said they would like to see more packaging options, such as resealable packs (43 percent) and single-serve packaging (27 percent). In addition, 40 percent of consumers said they are also looking for high protein, and 35 percent said they are looking for high fiber. Looking forward, Mintel predicts the nuts, seeds and trail mix category will grow an additional 23 percent to reach $10.6 billion in 2021.