Once upon a time the peanut butter market used to be all about peanuts, but that’s no longer the case, says Lynn Dornblaser, analyst with Mintel, Chicago.

“Peanut butter, as a category, you could say isn’t just about peanuts anymore,” Dornblaser says. “There is cashew butter, almond butter and nut butter blends. It’s a much bigger market than it ever was before because it’s expanded beyond peanuts.”

She says peanut butter is an economical source of protein that is accepting of additional flavors and may appeal to everyone in the family. She says she anticipates seeing the protein benefits of peanut butter to be leveraged even more in the future with Hormel Corp.’s acquisition of the Skippy peanut butter business from Unilever. Because Hormel’s primary business is protein, she says the company will be able to communicate the brand’s protein benefits better than its predecessor Unilever.

Dornblaser says there has been significant product development with sea salt and natural nut butter varieties, and there are more types of nut blends and nut and seed blends than ever before. The blends may include peanuts and cashews or varieties with chia seeds.

Through its NUT-rition line, Kraft Foods Group, Northfield, IL, has Cinnamon Raisin Granola, Berry Nut and Banana Granola Nut peanut butters. Jif also has a chocolate hazelnut spread as a way of appealing to the Nutella market.

Dornblaser says the large companies tend to be more traditional in their flavor varieties, but some of the smaller companies introduce interesting flavors with a short-term novelty appeal such as Java Vanilla Espresso Almond Butter from Wild Squirrel Nut Butter, Eugene, OR. Acai berries and other nutritional ingredients are being used as well. Most nut butter varieties are sweet but occasionally a spicy or savory variety comes on the market.

Texture options used to be smooth or crunchy, but that’s even expanding as ConAgra Foods, Inc., Omaha, has a whipped variety in its Peter Pan line for consumers who enjoy that texture.

Dornblaser says she believes any company could have significant potential in developing a line of limited edition nut butters with varieties that cycle in and out. Also, she said a bacon-flavored variety may be a big success for Hormel with Skippy.

In addition to flavor exploration, Dornblaser said there will be more opportunities for low-fat formulations if the technology continues to advance. Currently, low-fat versions still have about the same amount of calories as full-fat versions, and changing this may give the niche a boost.

Different portion sizes are another potential area of innovation, Dornblaser says. Sandra Williams, brand director for Peter Pan at ConAgra Foods, agrees, and says opportunities with snacking will be a driver of growth for peanut butter in the future.

“There is a big opportunity we see with snacking and how to get peanut butter in more formats that make it easier to take out of the house,” Williams says.

There also has been an increase in snacking with fruit items, so ConAgra sees opportunity to position peanut butter alongside fruit for further snacking innovation.

“I’d love to see more partnerships with fruit companies — let’s have some peanut butter in the fruit aisle so consumers can pick it up at the same time,” Williams says.

Williams says ConAgra has seen its natural varieties grow at double-digit rates recently. She says going into new geographic areas with natural products and combining natural products with snacking innovation will be a focus in the future. Additionally, the growing Hispanic population presents an opportunity for different flavors and portion sizes. She says the company’s honey roast flavor skews high with the Hispanic population.

The market also has proved rather resilient recently as it has faced significant cost increases due to crop size and quality issues in 2010 and 2011. Yet Williams says consumers still stayed with the category, causing it to remain flat despite price hikes. Williams attributes value for the level of nutrition as a contributor to this strength.

Food safety concerns also have presented a challenge in the market due to a number of recalls and contamination concerns in recent years. To address this, companies are becoming more transparent about their processes. ConAgra has posted a video tour on a web site of its Peter Pan plant in Sylvester, GA, the same plant at the center of a large recall in 2007 due to Salmonella contamination. Dornblaser believes Hormel will be well positioned to communicate messages of safety and trust openly with the Skippy brand as they already deal with this issue regularly as a meat processor.