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The snack that was the chip of the '90s
The story of Sun Chips
Hello, Snackers. Today on Snack Stack:
Let me start today by showing you two graphs, both from Newspapers.com. On the left are the number of articles that come up with you search for “multigrain” and “snack” together; on the right are the results for “whole grain” and “snack.” (The former combination returns no hits prior to 1922, which is why the spread of years is different.)
Perhaps you notice a trend! Perhaps you even know exactly what I’m about to say! Here it is: Dang, snack companies sure did make a lot of new multi/whole grain snacks during the late 1980s and early 1990s!
We’ve talked before about the shift in snacking starting in the 1980s—how consumers became more health-conscious and brands responded by cranking out endless varieties of food labeled as “High fiber” or “Low sodium” or “Now with 83% less asbestos.” Sometimes the label claims were, uh, dubious (shouts to Sunny D, Jell-O Pudding Pops and Fruitopia, among many others) and sometimes there was a genuine effort to make the food itself healthful, although there were often trade-offs, like how Snackwell’s Cookies were low-fat, as advertised, but still not, like, great for you.
So this is the cultural context for Sun Chips, a Frito-Lay product that began life in the Minneapolis-St. Paul test market in 1990. Food manufacturers were trying every trick they could think to catch consumers’ eyes with the HEALTHY!! label, which usually involved something beginning with “low”: low calorie, low fat, low sodium, etc. But, thanks in large part to the natural foods movement, “multigrain” and “whole grain” were also entering the mass market—see, for example, Multigrain Cheerios, which debuted in 1992.
Frito-Lay dominated the snack industry and was always searching for new ideas. Here’s Frito-Lay executive Dwight Riskey talking to the Associated Press in July 1990 (read all the way to the end!):
The big snack trend, Riskey said, was making healthier versions, like the lower-in-oil “light” versions of Ruffles, Doritos, and Cheetos that the company had just begun selling. Frito-Lay’s ads spoke to the cultural moment, which is to say they played up both “health” and body-shaming: one Doritos Light TV spot featured “documentary clips of real children talking disparagingly about how awful adulthood will be (‘Thunder thighs,’ groans one girl),” contrasted with scenes of smiling, skinny adults who ate low-fat chips, which are the key to looking like a model. I’m paraphrasing, but not much.
Riskey was especially excited about Frito-Lay’s newest product, Sun Chips, which were selling well in their test-market phase and were unmistakably based on corn chips but, with their wavy texture and beigeish color, unmistakably not corn chips. (The main ingredients are whole corn, sunflower and/or canola oil, whole wheat, brown rice flour, whole oat flour, sugar, and salt.) When they went national the following year, another Frito-Lay executive bragged to The Modesto Bee that Sun Chips were “the next Doritos” and had “the potential to be a $1 billion seller”—in fact, she said, Sun Chips were going to create a whole new category of snacks. In 1991, Frito-Lay invested $70 million in establishing Sun Chips (including $40 million for new manufacturing equipment) plus another $30 million on marketing.
Sun Chips had sales of $100 million the first year and the numbers stayed solid throughout the 1990s, often increasing by double-digit percentages. Sun Chips featured in a thousand stories about the recent influx of “healthy” snacks; the entrants in 1993 alone included Doritos Tortilla Thins (not the same as Doritos Light), a direct Sun Chips competitor called Graingers multigrain chips, and a General Mills product called Fingos, a multigrain cereal intended to be eaten as a snack and with your fingers (I’ll have to write more about this last one sometime; it’s a wild story).
But the thing about snacks is that … well, remember what Riskey said in that newspaper clipping above? Snacks are personally important to people. And while Sun Chips did sell pretty well, sometimes outperforming expectations, other snacks—the more traditional, beloved, personally important in a comfort-food kind of way—continued to dominate the sector. Multigrain chips never did get their own category; they’re listed as “other salted snacks (no nuts),” which includes things like Baked Lays and Chex Mix.
“The consumer is always dieting, but snacking is still a fun, indulgent occasion,” Peter Duggan, a vice president of Borden Inc.'s—a Frito-Lay competitor—told The Wall Street Journal in 1993, and that feels accurate. There’s also the fact that if you’re basing your product on a pitch that it’s healthful, there were always be some new diet craze and its own snacks. Consider: in 2006, Supermarket News reported that the category “other salted snacks (no nuts)” had done well over the last year, but its growth lagged far beyond the star performer, pork rinds, “up nearly 34% for the latest 52 weeks…in large part due to their mention in popular low-carb diet plans.”
Sun Chips don’t have the same cultural resonance as they did in the early 1990s, although they’re still readily available in stores. PepsiCo, which now owns Sun Chips, doesn’t release sales data for the brand by itself, and I haven’t been able to figure out exactly how those chips are doing sales-wise, although I can tell you there was a major dip in sales about ten years ago, when they switched the packaging to a biodegradable bag that was widely criticized for being loud (they soon went back to the old earth-killing-but-quiet format). I haven’t had them for ages, but even as tastes change, this little piece of the 1990s is still around, doing its thing, kind of like Bryan Adams but for snacks.
And now, please enjoy this extremely cheesy ad: