Parents sending their children back to school are bound to venture down the fruit snack aisle, but apparently in fewer numbers.
Sweet treats have been a staple in lunchboxes for years. The fruit snack industry has been holding steady with sales of about $1 billion, but, excluding the effects of price changes, unit sales were down about 5.5 percent in the past year, according to IRI data.
The decline may be partially because shoppers are becoming increasingly skeptical about the food they're eating as they look for healthier alternatives.
Only two of five companies saw fruit snack sales increase in past year, according to IRI. Annie's Homegrown saw the largest growth, with unit sales increasing about 26 percent. Its parent company, General Mills, saw unit sales actually fall about 7 percent for its other brands.
Kind, a maker of snack bars and granola, sees these trends an opportunity for its new entry. The company is betting that it can persuade parents — and children — to change the way they think fruit snacks should look and taste.
The company introduced fruit bites, which are essentially crushed fruit pressed into shapes. Fruit is the only ingredient. They lack the distinct shapes and shine that kids are used to when they eat fruit snacks.
"We talked a lot about how are kids going to react to this because they have a trained reaction to something that looks so finished and polished," said Elle Lanning, Kind's chief of staff. "A lot of us started testing them on our own kids. They weren't turned off and actually loved the product."
Kind recommends fresh fruit first, but the company thinks its fruit bites are a good substitute for people on the go, said Stephanie Perruzza, a dietitian and health and wellness specialist at Kind.
The snacks are made with only fruit. But even then, they still contain a similar amount of sugar as traditional products.
Fruit is naturally high in sugar, said Wesley Delbridge, a dietitian and spokesman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. That's why he recommends viewing fruit snack products as a treat that should be eaten sparingly.
"It's not added sugar or refined sugar, it's naturally occurring sugar. But at the end of the day, it's still a sugar," he said. "Fruits are higher in sugar. That's why we recommend fruits and vegetables, not just fruit."
Fruit snacks have gotten some companies into trouble. Annie's Homegrown was sued earlier this year for alleged false and deceptive advertising of its fruit snacks.
General Mills said it does not promote its fruit snacks as a replacement for the real thing. It labels its products as fruit-flavored snacks rather than simply fruit snacks.
"All fruit-snacks products are at their core treats, and our studies show kids love the products we provide because our products deliver the right balance of fun and nutrition for a treat," senior marketing manager Melissa Gallant said in an email.
Promotion in Motion, the maker of Welch's fruit snacks, has also been sued. A 2015 complaint claimed Welch's snacks were merely candy disguised as a healthy snack.
Like General Mills, Promotion in Motion says it does not market its products as a substitute for fresh fruit. The company said in an email it stands by its products, noting it sells a variety of items including a reduced sugar version and portion-controlled packs.
"We are always seeking to improve the quality and nutritional profile of our products while maintaining the great taste consumers have come to expect," a spokesperson said.