A new report from market research firm Mintel shows that after years of mediocre sales increases, the potato chip market grew 22 percent during the economic downturn (comparing 2007 market data against Mintel’s market estimate for full-year 2009).

In addition, other salty snacks experienced recession-fueled sales jumps. The tortilla chip market increased by 18 percent over 2007, while smaller segments like popcorn and cheese snacks saw similar gains (17 percent and 20 percent, respectively). Now that economic recovery is starting to take hold, however, Mintel expects sales increases to taper. Over the next five years, potato chip sales are expected to rise just above 3 percent annually, while tortilla chip sales should increase just above 4 percent.

“People bought more chips during the recession because they’re a good value,” says Chris Haack, senior analyst at Mintel. “As the economy gets stronger, we expect annual sales increases to slow, but we don’t expect markets to contract. New product innovations and the changed eating habits of many Americans will keep shoppers headed towards the snack aisle.”

Mintel’s Global New Products Database (GNPD) has already tracked over 350 new salty snack launches in the U.S. this year.

According to Mintel, 50 percent of kids, teens, and 18-to-24-year-olds say they eat salty snacks five times a week or more. Adults say they eat salty snacks 4.8 times per week on average.

“Salty snacks are clearly embedded in American’s style of eating and they’re used by all ages as a way to curb off hunger between meals or after dinner,” Haack says. “But at the same time, there is growing interest in healthier snack options.”

Mintel’s survey shows that two in three (65 percent) adults say that they’re interested in healthier snacks, such as grain or baked varieties, while another 57 percent say they’re interested in healthier alternatives to salty snacks, like pita chips or crackers. However, half of survey respondents say they think lower fat/sodium snacks don’t taste as good as the originals.