Americans have a growing appetite for specialty food. US sales of specialty food and beverages reached $88.3 billion in 2013, a record high for the fourth year in a row and a jump of 18.4 percent since 2011.

Cheese dominates specialty food sales at retail, with $4 billion in sales in 2013, followed by the categories meat, poultry and seafood; and chips, pretzels and snacks. The fastest growing categories are nut butters, eggs, and frozen desserts, according to new research from the Specialty Food Association.

“US consumers are more sophisticated and discerning about their food choices than ever before,” says Ron Tanner, vice president of philanthropy, government and industry relations for the Association. “Retailers and restaurants of all kinds are responding by offering more specialty foods crafted by makers of artisanal cheeses, innovative vinegars, and health-oriented snacks.”

The outlook for retail is robust, with sales at specialty food stores and natural markets skyrocketing by 42.4 percent and 33.8 percent, respectively, between 2011 and 2013. Mainstream supermarket sales growth was more sluggish, at 6.9 percent.

Foodservice sales at cafés, fast-casual chains, restaurants and venues from casinos to cruise ships represent one fifth of the specialty food market. Sales in this sector remained steady at $18.1 billion in 2013, but manufacturers report it is their slowest-growing sales channel. Importers, however, report growth.

Distributors of specialty food say non-GMO has the highest potential for growth of all product claims during the next three years. Seventy percent of retailers surveyed cite “local” as the claim that interests consumers most today. Energy bars had meteoric growth in 2012; in 2013 the category lost some steam, ranking 21st in specialty food retail sales vs. seventh in 2012.

These finding are included in The State of the Specialty Food Industry 2014, an annual report from the Specialty Food Association prepared in conjunction with research firms Mintel International and SPINS. The report tracks U.S. sales of specialty food through supermarkets, natural food stores and specialty food retailers and includes surveys of food manufacturers, importers, distributors, brokers and retailers. Specialty foods are broadly defined for the report as products that have limited distribution and a reputation for high quality.

More highlights from the State of the Specialty Food Industry, as well as a 16-page overview of the report are It is also published in the spring issue ofSpecialty Food Magazine