Why we love to crunch; With the texture of food almost as important as the taste, companies are scrutinizing the way we eat

August 13, 2013, 6:51 p.m. ET

Why Food Companies Are Fascinated by the Way We Eat

Texture Is Almost as Important as Taste in New Products


Texture is an area of increasing focus among food companies aiming to zero in on that perfectly crispy crunch or silky smoothness. Christine Kalvenes, vice president of innovation for Frito-Lay, and WSJ’s Anne-Marie Chaker, join Lunch Break. 


Are you a cruncher? Or a “smoosher”? Some people crave the perfectly crispy crunch of a cracker or a salty chip. Others yearn for the silky smoothness of a chocolate mousse. Food companies are paying closer attention to consumer’s texture preferences as they drill down on attributes that make new products stand out on store shelves. Food developers are putting specific textures at the top of the list of traits they want to achieve, and they are emphasizing “mouth feel” in descriptions on packaging. Texture “is just as important as taste or flavor, in many cases,” says Jack Fortnum, president of the North American business at Ingredion Inc.,INGR -1.37% a Westchester, Ill., food-ingredient processor that holds hundreds of consumer taste tests a year. It says the tests can, for example, help clients calibrate the precise amount of crunch in a new product. There were 20,790 new food packages world-wide making a texture claim in 2012, roughly double the number in 2008, according to Netherlands-based Innova Market Insights.To build on the “tooth-rattling crunch” it says 20-something males crave, PepsiCo’s Frito-Lay unit launched bigger and thicker chips last year for its Doritos’ Jacked line. Yogurt maker Chobani Inc. in January launched Chobani Flip, which pairs a combination of ingredients including toasted almonds, graham-cracker pieces and praline pecans with a yogurt cup.

Some companies are combining textures, adding crunch or chew to drinks. Carlsbad, Calif.-based Mamma Chia offers nine “vitality” beverages that suspend whole chia seeds in fruit juice.

Consumer researchers Jacqueline Beckley and Melissa Jeltema say there may be “unexpressed need” behind people’s preferences for different food textures.

The two researchers, founder and vice president, respectively, at Understanding and Insight Group, of Denville, N.J., studied 500 consumers in December, showing them photos of foods and recording their responses to statements such as “I like foods that I can smoosh. I even smoosh foods that I can chew.” (Smooshing, according to the two researchers, is a way of manipulating food between the tongue and roof of the mouth without using the teeth.)

Consumers, they found, fall generally into one of four major categories of texture preference and “mouth behavior.” “Chewers,” the biggest group at 43%, enjoy the prolonged chewing action involved in eating, say, a soft cookie.

“Crunchers,” at 33%, favor the sound and force of a bite, as with hard granola bars. “Smooshers,” at 16%, are into the smooth and creamy feeling, whether from a sweet dessert or mashed potatoes. And “suckers,” at 8%, prefer the long-lasting hard-candy experience. “Companies, if they understood these differences, could better develop particular products for different groups,” Dr. Jeltema says.

Many companies see texture as a way to address consumers’ emotional reasons for eating. “If it’s been a more stressful day, a person will eat crunchy things that compact into smoother things in your mouth,” says Christine Kalvenes, vice president of innovation for Frito-Lay. “That helps with that emotional transition.” In the late evening, a person may want to “come down into a more smoothing moment.”

For the Doritos “Jacked” line, Frito-Lay wanted to appease its core consumers, 20-something men, who are “always looking for the next bolder thing” in snacking, Ms. Kalvenes says. The company explored how thick it could go with the chip, and how big. They settled on a chip that was 40% bigger and thicker and provided a crunch that “rattles all the way through your ears,” Ms. Kalvenes said. “It breaks into little shards in your mouth that continue to crunch all the way through.”

You “don’t eat Doritos when you want to be comforted and soothed,” Ms. Kalvenes adds.

Chips Ahoy! Chewy Gooey cookies offer an extra-soft texture for chewy-cookie lovers. “There are people that …wanted more of a softer texture but with a little bit of surprise,” says Amelia Strobel, senior director of consumer insights and strategy for Chips Ahoy! maker Mondelez International Inc. MDLZ +0.63%

Midwesterners prefer soft cookies while Northeasterners prefer hard cookies, Mondelez says. In 2011, the company developed a concept it dubbed “middle”—a chocolate-chip cookie with an extra-soft filling.

The result, Chips Ahoy! Chewy Gooey cookies, launched in 2011 with
Chocofudge and Megafudge fillings; Caramel was added last year and Brownie last month. The fillings move the cookies out of after-school snack territory, Ms. Strobel says. “The way it coats your mouth a little more, it tends to pull you a little more into an evening treat.”

Werther’s Original, a hard-candy line from German confectioner August Storck KG, knows all about suckers. Sucking on candy “forces you to take a moment to wind down,” says Kelly Cook, director of marketing. Hard-candy lovers tend to roll the candy around, letting the flavor coat the inside of the mouth. “This is their stress relief,” Ms. Cook says. This month, Werther’s is launching a Sugar-Free Caramel Chocolate flavor.

General Mills Inc. GIS -0.13% recently turned its new-product focus to the surprising statistic that about a quarter of 18- to 34-year-olds don’t eat breakfast, making them part of the larger population of “breakfast skippers.” “They want the nutrition of a bowl of cereal and milk, but want to take it in the car or have it while they are doing their makeup,” says Betsy Frost, marketing manager.

The company considered the idea of a breakfast bar. Then came the idea for a liquid drink, something satiating and nutritious. “We came up with a tight range [of texture]. ‘Smooth’ was within this range, and ‘filling’ meant a little more thickness,” she says. “But when we gave [consumers] a thicker shake, they didn’t like it.”

The shake proved to be too thick to drink through a straw. “Too much work,” Ms. Frost says. The shake General Mills launched this year, called Bfast, is less thick, strawless and available in chocolate, berry and vanilla flavors. The boxes say, “Chug it.”

Luigi DePasquale, 25, a store supervisor at Logan Airport in Boston, says his 3:30 a.m. alarm usually means he skips breakfast. He tried the Bfast shakes in a promotion and “fell in love with them,” he says. “It’s like a thick chocolate milk.” Other textures are less appealing in the morning, he says. “Protein bars make your mouth dry, and a lot of protein shakes have that grit at the bottom.”

Diamond Foods’ Emerald Nuts entered the cereal aisle in 2011 with Breakfast On the Go, single-serve packets of nuts with things like granola bits, dried fruit and chocolate-covered espresso beans. It took two years of experimenting. “We were trying to find the Goldilocks solution,” says Craig Tokusato, senior vice president for nuts at Diamond Foods. “What’s the right level of chew, what’s the right level of crunch.”

With the explosion in sales of Greek yogurt, supermarket yogurt aisles now are home to more textures, whether whipped products, creamy products or beverages. Stonyfield, a unit of Groupe Danone, has launched “Blends” yogurt, which is less thick than Greek yogurt but more thick than “traditional, plain Jane yogurt,” says Amy Elkes, insights and innovation manager. It was a challenge to find the right way to describe the texture. “We toyed with ‘la crème’ or things like that,” she says, but in the end called it “thick and creamy.”

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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