KANSAS CITY — Bars are a staple of convenient, on-the-go snacking, and as a result, saw a sharp decline in sales in 2020 as the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic restricted activities and forced many to stay home. The bar category saw a strong rebound in 2021, however, as restrictions lifted and people returned to their normal activities.

“What we started to see, especially around the second quarter when vaccinations took an uptick and mobility followed suit, is that the bar category saw great growth,” said Sally Lyons Wyatt, executive vice president for client insights, IRI. “Bars are in a winning situation since 2020 was a down year. The momentum is there, and they’re bringing innovation that’s refreshing the shelf.”

The category reported $6.5 billion in sales, with the nutritional, cereal and other snack bar segments posting growth, according to IRI data for the 52 weeks ending Oct. 31, 2021. In health bars, El Segundo, Calif.-based Quest Nutrition rose 14.5%, while Clif Bar & Co., Emeryville, Calif., and Kind, New York, also reported gains.

Not all snack bar subcategories have rebounded at the same pace.

“When you look at granola bars, those have had a little bit of a struggle,” Ms. Lyons Wyatt said. “We don’t see a lot of growth in granola specifically; it’s more in the nutrition and breakfast bar segments.”

Ms. Lyons Wyatt said she’s confident bar sales will grow but emphasized that the category will have to adapt to evolving consumer tastes and habits.

“Bars have been the ‘darling’ of the snacking industry, and snacking is pervasive throughout the day as research has shown, but manufacturers and retailers are going to have to remind consumers about the benefits; they’re going to need to do some targeted marketing,” Ms. Lyons Wyatt said. “People consume bars in different ways, and the messaging needs to align to what the consumers’ needs are. If they do those things and keep the innovation pipeline coming, then bars are poised to have strong growth going into 2022 and then 2023.”

An explosion of functional benefits

The bar market is thriving with consumers’ desire for products that provide functional health benefits, said Bart Child, chief commercial officer, Nellson, Anaheim, Calif.

“Since the pandemic, interest in this category has soared,” Mr. Child said. “The rise in concern over health and wellness has helped to expedite the emerging trend of products with functionally specific health benefits.”

According to Innova Market Insights, 94% of the cereal bars launched in the United States from January 2016 to July 2021 made a health claim.

“No added sugar” is the fastest growing claim within cereal and energy bar launches, with a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 28% over the past five years, Innova reported. A growing focus on healthier diets has increased consumer awareness of the negative effects of too much sugar.

“Desire for products with a reduced-sugar claim remained in the spotlight pre-, during and post-pandemic,” Mr. Child said. “These concerns are driving creative approaches to sugar reduction strategies.”

For example, some brands are simply reducing sugar content, or using natural sweeteners or sweetener alternatives to achieve sugar-free and no-sugar claims.

“Natural sweeteners not only help deliver on the desired low- to no-sugar claims but also provide a lower calorie count than sugar,” Mr. Child said.

B.T.R. Bars

When lowering sugar content, bar makers must be careful they aren’t sacrificing taste in the process or filling their bars with artificial ingredients to make up for it, said Ashley Nickelsen, founder of B.T.R. Bar, San Francisco.

“There are really two different types of bars that exist in the category: bars with natural ingredients but high sugar or low-sugar bars that are very processed,” Ms. Nickelsen said. “We’re trying to sit at the intersection between functionality and flavor.”

B.T.R. bar, a protein bar made with functional mushrooms, does this by using a cashew and almond butter base to give the bar a cookie-dough-like texture. The bars are free of natural flavors, stevia and emulsifiers and have 90% less sugar than the average protein bar.

“All our bars are lightly sweetened with monk fruit, and that’s how we’re really able to hit that blend consumers are looking for,” Ms. Nickelsen said.

Quest Nutrition is promoting low-sugar content in its bars as well. Quest’s protein bars contain only 1 gram of sugar and 4 grams of net carbs while offering 21 grams of protein.

“Our benefit of protein while being lower in net carbs and sugar makes us unique and promotes dietary health and wellness,” said Linda Zink, chief marketing officer, Quest. “Consumers don’t have to trade in taste and cravings for better-for-you foods; they have all of the benefits together.”

Protein and fiber are the main functional ingredients in cereal and energy bar launches, according to Innova Market data. Other popular ingredients include prebiotics and probiotics, flaxseed, calcium and antioxidants, as well as allergen-free and allergen-friendly bars.

One example is Blake’s Seed Based, Chicago, a bar made with seeds as the primary ingredient that’s free of the top eight food allergens, including peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, soy, eggs, dairy, fish and shellfish.

“I have a nut allergy, and I was frustrated with all the bars in the market that had nuts in them,” said Blake Sorenson, the company’s founder. “I solved my own problem and realized a lot of other people had the same dietary restrictions as well.”

The bars come in Raspberry, S’mores and Blueberry Lemon and have less than 10 grams of sugar per bar.

Blake’s Seed Based is the only seed bar in most categories and retailers, Mr. Sorenson said, so the bar’s emphasis is on the health benefits a seed-based bar can provide.

“Right now, you’re seeing the explosion of functional benefits,” Mr. Sorensen said. “There are a lot of benefits with seeds as far as the protein amount and antioxidants. Being allergen-friendly is a huge component to a lot of people. Even if they don’t have a food allergy, they may be trying to remove ingredients like gluten or milk. We’re gaining a lot of trial and traction there.”

Focusing on digestive health

Ingredients like gluten and milk are known to cause digestive issues, and bars that emphasize digestive health are another burgeoning trend in the category.

“When we look at sales, we see pre- and probiotics having healthy growth,” Ms. Lyons Wyatt said. “Digestive claims have done quite well also.”

Digestive issues are far more common than people realize, said Katie Wilson, co-founder of BelliWelli, Los Angeles, but they often aren’t talked about due to embarrassment or perceived stigma around the topic.

“One in five people have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and 70% of Americans have daily gut issues,” Ms. Wilson said. “It’s time to reclaim this and destigmatize this.”

Belliwelli bars

Inspired by this belief and her own digestive struggles, Ms. Wilson launched BelliWelli, a bar made for the millions of Americans with IBS or gut issues. BelliWelli bars are made with probiotics, which aid gut health, and are also low-FODMAP, meaning they’re low in short chain carbohydrates that are difficult to digest.

While many consumers may assume they don’t have IBS or digestive issues, Ms. Wilson said their introduction to BelliWelli can often be a big “a-ha” moment.

“We’ve got people who see our brand and say, ‘You know, now that you say that, my stomach is never really great,’” Ms. Wilson said. “They have this realization that ‘Yes, that’s so me. I don’t feel amazing every time I eat that.’ ”

Other bars promoting digestive health include Waltham, Mass.-based Truth Bar’s gut health bar made with prebiotics and probiotics, as well as FODY Food’s low-FODMAP bars. Ms. Wilson said this trend will only grow in the coming years.

“Heads are swiveled toward the space; people understand that this is huge,” she said. “We have a new chief operating officer, and each day that he spends more time in the space, he cannot believe how huge it is; he cannot believe how many people are impacted.”

Savory bars emerge

Snack bars have historically leaned on the sweet side with flavors like chocolate and peanut butter. These are the top two flavors for cereal and energy bar launches over the past five years, alongside dark chocolate and almond, according to Innova Market Insights. Superfoods like spinach and kale don’t often come up in new product development for bars, but these are some of the ingredients in Undressed salad bars, one of a growing number of savory bars aiming to carve out a space in a sweet-dominated category.

“We’re so used to eating sugar-laden, brown bars that sometimes even have a sheen of oil on them, and no one even thinks twice about it,” said Anne Klassman, founder of Eat Undressed, Chicago.

Undressed bar

Instead of chocolate and peanut butter, Undressed bar flavors include Berry Balsamic, Spicy Southwest and Miso Ginger. One bar has as much fiber as six cups of spinach and more than a serving of vegetables.

Undressed’s green-colored bars can be a bit of a shock to the consumer, Ms. Klassman acknowledged, but she said the savory bars have been well received.

“Those who are enjoying Undressed are asking ‘Why hasn’t someone tried this before?’ ” Ms. Klassman said. “And, of course, people have tried it before; it’s just that the savory space isn’t fully baked out just yet.”

But this is starting to change, with bar makers like PFC and Sheffa releasing savory bars of their own. Minong, Wis.-based Jack Link’s entered the savory bar space as well, launching beef snack bars in late 2019.

Savory bars are one of the more interesting innovations in the category that could continue to build up traction, Ms. Lyons Wyatt said.

“We’ve seen meat snacks and salads get bars, so one of the areas to watch are the other categories putting bar forms in the marketplace,” Ms. Lyons Wyatt said. “Will they end up substituting for the other bars? Time will tell, but it’s something manufacturers and retailers need to keep an eye on.”

The bar category bounced back last year and is poised to see strong growth in 2022. The pandemic has made consumers more health-conscious than ever, and bar makers are successfully capitalizing on the popularity of functional benefits. This, coupled with exciting innovations, show the category is keeping things fresh and building on its momentum.

Bar producers use new strategies to boost online sales

The pandemic dramatically impacted shopping behaviors, with stay-at-home orders and social distancing protocols pushing some consumers away from traditional brick-and-mortar shopping. As a result, e-commerce has seen significant growth, and online bar sales are no exception.

“Online has been a growth driver for bars; it’s continuing to be a double-digit growth driver whether you’re looking at dollar sales or unit sales,” said Sally Lyons Wyatt, executive vice president for client insights, IRI.

The growth in e-commerce has also led bar brands to employ new strategies to reach consumers.

“The online channel of distribution has impacted how brands approach new product development with considerations around ingredients and temperature tolerance, shelf life, integrity of product throughout the shipping process, and packaging,” said Bart Child, chief commercial officer, Nellson, Anaheim, Calif.

Eat Undressed Founder Anne Klassman, whose Undressed Bars are sold on Amazon and eatundressed.com in addition to select Whole Foods markets, said bar companies need to pivot toward the e-commerce space if they haven’t and meet consumers where they are.

“I think consumers will continue to shop for necessities online in many cases,” Ms. Klassman said. “I think there’s been a shift, and consumers have realized the benefits and ease of shopping online.”

While online bar sales have risen, bar manufacturers and retailers need to find the right balance between online and in-store sales to maximize growth. Specifically, bar makers need to make sure online sales aren’t eating up in-person sales, or vice versa.

“A lot of what’s available online is exactly the same mix that’s offered in store,” Ms. Lyons Wyatt said. “We need to work as an industry to make sure that potentially you can serve some different occasions, whether you’re shopping online or in-store so that you get incremental sales, so that we’re driving incremental sales across the category, not cannibalizing one way of purchasing versus another.”