Rethinking the bar

by Allison Sebolt
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We live in an on-the-go society where one-handed consumption is prerequisite of most new food introductions. But what happens when convenience becomes so expected that consumers demand the next level in satisfaction? That’s when nutrition and functional properties hold equal billing to taste and convenience.

While bars fill a requirement for convenient, on-the-go eating opportunities, innovation is expanding flavor and taste profiles and new packaging technology that accelerate the once-humble bar to new heights. The nutrition and snack bar market now encompass products that fall into the health and wellness, diet, athletic and sports categories as well as bars that address specific health concerns including gluten-free bars for celiac sufferers, heart-healthy bars containing plant sterols and health enhancing "green" bars made with broccoli and spirulina, a blue-green algae used in health foods. Variety is crucial to healthy and enjoyable eating experiences, but sometimes conflicting messages about what to eat to maintain optimum health and wellness can cause consumer frustration and eventually apathy. Despite this confusion, health and wellness remains a strong driver for new products, and consumer expectations for healthier and tastier nutrition bars show no signs of abating. With more consumers taking time to read labels, manufacturers are producing new products and revamping existing SKUs to include shorter ingredient lists with taste profiles that combine new and familiar flavors.

Nature Valley, a division of General Mills, Minneapolis, MN, is generally credited as the creator of the crunchy, oat-based granola bar in 1975. Later, Brian Maxwell, a distance running coach at the University of California, Berkeley, and his wife, Jennifer, formulated the first nutrition bar in 1983 for marathoners to eat during a race, which later became the template for PowerBars. The chewy nutrition bar contained 45% complex carbohydrates and 10% fat and bore little resemblance in taste or texture to the Nature Valley granola bar.

From there, the bar market exploded with bars intended for portability, pre- and post-exercise fueling, meal replacement and weight loss. While there was no shortage of bars in the market, the bar’s convenience factor occasionally trumped the taste.

While no one wants to eat something that tastes bad (unless you’re trying to win money on a reality TV show), there remains a perception that on-the-go eating requires a sacrifice in nutrition to satisfy the convenience factor or loaded with sweeteners to make it palatable. All on-the-go options aren’t confined to that rule, and today, bars that include added health benefits can provide consumer appeal in a more nutritious profile. Although the food industry hasn’t officially defined the term functional food, it is generally accepted that a functional food provides a health or wellness benefit. And nutrition and snack bars offer a perfect vehicle for fortification.

San Francisco, CA-based Attune Foods introduced Attune Yogurt and Granola Probiotic Wellness bars in January. The 180-Cal Wellness bar is a good source of calcium and contains a combination of three proprietary probiotic strains: Lactobacillus acidophilus, Lactobacillus casei and Bifidobacterium lactis — more than five times the active cultures in yogurt. It’s made with whole grain, nuts and dried fruit surrounded by a light yogurt coating. Literally defined as "good for life," probiotics are live microbial supplements, which beneficially affect the host by improving its intestinal microbial balance. Refrigeration helps preserve the live, active cultures. The probiotics in the Attune Wellness bar remain effective for three months under normal ambient temperatures and up to at least eight hours at temperatures of 90°F and higher. Prebiotic inulin, a natural dietary fiber that supports digestive function, works in conjunction with the probiotic strains. Already a strong trend in Europe and Asia, Attune Foods looked to bring the wellness benefits of digestive health and immunity to the US market.

"Over time, nutrition bars have made an evolution toward meeting more health needs," said Kathy Oneto, co-founder and vice-president of marketing, Attune Foods. "I think it’s a given that consumers will continue to snack and eat on the go, so why not offer the combined benefits of functionality and a great-tasting snack?"

Cargill, Minneapolis, MN, an international provider of food, agriculture and risk-management products and services, works with food manufacturers to produce new products and innovate existing ones. The company uses a proprietary LifeStages Research Methodology to understand consumer’s needs and learn how Cargill’s line can provide proactive health and wellness products.

Janet Johnson, senior marketing manager, Cargill Snack and Cereal, observed the trend of snacks providing more meal-like nutrition. "I think that people are looking toward bars and snacks as minimeals," Ms. Johnson said. "Consumers have higher expectations for food than ever before, and people are being more proactive about their health and wellness." In response, Cargill has worked with food manufacturing customers such as General Mills to create Heart Healthy Nature Valley Granola bars that contain Cargill’s CoroWise plant sterols, which are proven to lower cholesterol.

Cargill recently introduced Fiber Krunch Crisp, a high-fiber extruded ingredient that provides a crunchy texture to products. The fiber pieces maintain a crispy texture without added carbs and allow manufacturers to preserve the original aspects of the bar while increasing fiber content. In many cases, manufacturers can achieve a good/excellent source of fiber claim by using Fiber Krunch Crisp.

Mintel International Group, a Chicago, IL-based consumer, media and market research company, found that wellness bars are leading the bar segment with 35.5% of the market and sales gains of 9% from 2002 to 2006 in the food, drug and mass merchandise area, excluding Wal-Mart. The convenience and natural channels have also seen growth and increased interest in natural and organic products.

The explosion in the natural and organic channels has proved a catalyst for organic alternatives. Cargill’s current customer base drove the launch of its organic glucose syrup. The company introduced an organic cranberry almond granola bar sweetened with organic glucose syrup at the All Things Organic show in Chicago, IL.

Today’s less-is-more philosophy is embraced by consumers, but seven to 10 years ago, the trailblazers who created minimally processed bars were told by manufacturers and consumers alike that they were misguided and on occasion, "crazy" or "nuts" to even consider it. Times have changed, priorities shifted, and words like sustainability, environmentally conscious and recyclable packaging have entered consumer’s everyday lexicon. This mindset where everything old can be new again is one backdrop for the acceptance of the health and wellness trends driving the food industry today.

Mintel traced the acceptance of minimally processed bars to Denver, CO-based Lärabar. Seven years ago, founder and c.e.o. Lara Merriken set out to make a bar that centered on the ideas of simplicity with a "less is more" approach. The result was Lärabar, a kosher-certified, unprocessed, uncooked bar made with whole fruits, nuts and dates that were free of sweeteners, gluten, dairy, GMOs and soy.

"I’m passionate about eating healthy food, and when I began, I found that people ate nutrition bars for the convenience, but they really didn’t like the taste," she said. "The Lärabar was the result of believing that you should eat something that tastes good." The company’s most basic bar is Cashew Cookie, which contains only dates and cashews.

In December 2006, the company’s released Jocalot, a dark chocolate bar with a fair trade and organic focus that contains one serving of fruit and is free of sugar, gluten and soy. The name Jocolat is an 18th century English word for chocolate.

"Our focus is to get the naturally occurring vitamins from the food and the omega-3s from the nuts you eat," Ms. Merriken said. "What you put in your body does make a difference, and I believe there’s a benefit to eating whole food rather than parts of food that sacrifice the realness of food."

While consumers might have once primarily looked at packaging to determine ingredients, an increasing number of manufacturers are taking ingredient identification a step further by using recognizable whole pieces of fruit, nuts and seeds. No longer relegated to the health food store or co-op, whole food bars are coming center stage to the general public, and consumers are seeking bars that could once only be found under the healthy-snack umbrella. As a result of expanding channels and blurring target audience groups, taste has become the primary driver in today’s food bars.

As food manufacturers know, good taste is universally appealing. Mrs. May’s Naturals, Carson, CA, found its Trio bar, which was originally released into the California natural foods channel, has great acceptance with mainstream consumers who enjoy eating nuts. This was discovered when the company expanded its sampling into club stores.

The Trio Bar is made with three nuts (cashew, almond and pistachio), three seeds (sesame, sunflower and pumpkin) and three fruits (raisins, dates and a berry or tropical fruit). The third fruit (strawberry, cranberry, blueberry or tropical) distinguishes the flavor of the bar. The kosher, vegan and all-natural bar is bound with rice malt, lightly sweetened with cane juice and flavored with a small amount of sea salt. It’s also free of GMOs, cholesterol, dairy, wheat, gluten and artificial flavors and colors. "The bars are a way for busy people to easily enjoy a healthy snack that provides energy and substance," said Augustine Kim, c.e.o., Mrs. May’s Naturals.

In July, Mrs. May’s Naturals will release a nut-, seedand fruit-based kid’s snack. In developing the snack, Mrs. May’s worked with the local unified school district to develop the snack with the district’s requirements for amounts of fat, calories and sugar. "I think in the future the health-conscious consumer population will increase, and the natural benefits of nuts, seeds and fruits are a healthy combination that tastes great," said James Kim, vice-president of sales, Mrs. May’s Naturals.

Often, necessity is the mother of invention. Amelia Kirchoff and Jolanta Sonkin, makers of GoMacro, Viola, WI, turned to a macrobiotic diet with the intention of improving their health and reversing a disease diagnosis. In a search for delicious macrobiotic treats, Ms. Kirchoff experimented with natural and unrefined sweeteners derived from the grains and fruits she grew on her Wisconsin farm. This experimentation led to the creation of GoMacro’s vegan and non-GMO energy and protein bars. All follow the macrobiotic eating pattern — a diet based on the Chinese cosmological principles on yin and yang. The diet consists of whole cereals and grains supplemented with beans and vegetables.

GoMacro energy bars are available in Sesame Berry, Granola Delight, Carob Almond and Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip varieties. The brown-rice-sweetened products are free of egg, dairy, hydrogenated fats, refined sugars and are made with organic ingredients whenever possible. Prompted by customer and consumer requests, this year, the company introduced a gluten-free version of MacroBars in Cashew Butter, Peanut Protein and Tahini Date flavors.

"We’ve found that customers see macrobiotics as a healthy bar that can cater to specific health needs, and as a result, we received many requests for bars that address other health-related conditions," Ms. Kirchoff said. Requests include a bar with a low glycemic index for diabetics; heart-healthy bars; bars using rosehip extract, which is high in vitamin C; and a men’s bar containing ginseng. Because the bars do not contain preservatives, the company encourages customers to buy in smaller amounts, so the product remains at ultimate freshness. GoMacro does not keep any inventory, and its product is made and shipped each week to retailers.

Fuel to go was the catalyst for Lizanne Falsetto, former international model and now c.e.o. and co-founder of thinkproducts, Ventura, CA. Ms. Falsetto’s on-the-go lifestyle left her looking for easily attainable food that could be carried anywhere for yourself or your family. The portability idea was coupled with her observation that models who ate well and nourished their bodies from the inside out were able to withstand and flourish under the demands of long hours and last-minute international travel.

Flash forward a couple of years, and the model who carried pots and pans in her luggage went on to produce thinkproducts. The company’s 17-SKU umbrella includes thinkThin, a high-protein, sugar-free bar with 2 net carbs; thinkOrganic, a vegan bar with nuts containing two servings of fruit; and thinkGreen, which Ms. Falsetto describes as a "salad bar on the go," containing fruits, green tea, antioxidants, broccoli, spirulina, chlorella and alfalfa. All thinkproducts are all natural, gluten free and free of artificial sweeteners. In June, the company will also release a 5-Cup bar containing five cups of fruits and vegetables (based upon Food and Drug Administration’s serving standards) with more than a tablespoon of greens.

While the idea of eating healthy on-the-go is more acceptable today, when Ms. Falsetto created her products, she initially encountered a dubious audience. She laughingly described her venture from the world of modeling into the food manufacturing as a challenge to convince people that, although she was making a nutrition bar, she wasn’t a hippie. "I wear Gucci, not Birkenstocks," Ms. Falsetto said.

As natural and organic products become mainstream and people learn more about their food, Ms. Falsetto found a need to educate consumers on the concept of health and green foods. Separate from the environmental connotations associated with the word green, thinkproducts strives to educate consumers about the connection between proper nutrition, prevention of disease and creation of vitality. "Beauty is an inside job, and proper nutrition is so important and key to longevity," she said. "The mainstream is embracing this with expanding sugar-free and gluten-free categories, and I think the greenfood concept will have a fast effect on the mainstream marketplace."

On Mother’s Day this year, thinkproducts released a thinkPink nutrition bar. It is designed to provide the nutrients needed for patients going through chemotherapy or radiation or as a nutritious option for those looking to maintain health, and a portion of proceeds will benefit the Susan G. Komen for the Cure fund. The bar will also be sold during Breast Cancer Awareness month in October. Available in White Chocolate Raspberry and Peanut Butter Caramel varieties, thinkproducts will donate 10c to the Komen fund for every bar sold. The company will also work with Cedars Sinai Medical Center Women’s Cancer Institute, Los Angeles, CA, to educate women on eating well to prevent disease as well as offer nutrition advice for cancer patients.

"I think that people are always looking for new things, and bars targeted to specific groups of people as opposed to a general energy bars are just the beginning of this trend," said Ms. Kirchoff of GoMacro.

Today, it would be hard to find a nutrition or snack bar that fails to meet the convenience standard. Thankfully, innovation, consumer requests, an increasing thirst for nutritional education and a drive for health and wellness have created a market where there’s a bar for every individual. Whether your customer requires fortification, a tasty snack or products free of gluten, sugar or preservatives, there’s always a convenient opportunity for them to find their bar and eat it too.

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