Unprecedented demand for top-quality foods has pushed the specialty food industry to record highs for the third year in a row. US sales of specialty food and beverages rose 14.3 percent to $86 billion in 2012, more than double the 6.8 percent increase that was recorded in 2011.

Snacks had the highest percentage of product introductions in 2012, followed by meat, poultry and egg products.

Yogurt and kefir have leapfrogged over other foods to become the second largest specialty food category behind cheese, claiming $2.27 billion in sales in 2012.  Energy bars and functional beverages are the fastest growing categories, according to new research from the Specialty Food Association (formerly NASFT).

“Three years of solid growth is clear evidence that consumers are choosing specialty food as part of their everyday lives,” says Ron Tanner, vice president, communications and education for the Specialty Food Association. “Not only the foods but the artisans and entrepreneurs behind them are enjoying remarkable attention and interest across the U.S.”

Cheese and cheese alternatives is the largest category, with $3.6 billion in sales, followed by yogurt and kefir. The next largest categories in 2012 were chips, pretzels and snacks; coffee, coffee substitutes and cocoa, and meat, poultry and seafood. 

The top claims for new products are Kosher, Ethical-Environmentally Friendly Package and All Natural, with fewer claims than in 2011 for diet-centric descriptions like Low/No/Reduced Cholesterol and Low/No/Reduced Sugar.

These findings are included in The State of the Specialty Food Industry 2013, an annual report from the Specialty Food Association prepared in conjunction with market researchers Mintel International and SPINS. The report tracks sales of specialty food through supermarkets, natural food stores and specialty food retailers and includes surveys of specialty food manufacturers, importers, distributors, brokers and retailers. The data does not include sales through Walmart.

Report highlights:

  • Foodservice sales of specialty food rose 13.6 percent to $17.5 billion from 2011-2012
  • Natural food stores recorded the biggest sales increase among retail channels, growing 28.2 percent between 2010 and 2012
  • Gluten-free and convenient/easy-to-prepare are characteristics most likely to be included in product development plans this year
  • Importers report that Mediterranean is the fastest-growing cuisine, followed by Latin, Italian and Vietnamese
  • The average annual sales for a specialty food manufacturer are $1.17 million
  • Eighty-three percent of specialty food manufacturers recorded sales increases in 2012
  • Industry insider gripes include: “Lack of distinction between true, artisanal specialty foods and faux specialty food.”  “Going overboard on a trend.”