KANSAS CITY — The bar category, impacted negatively by COVID-19, recovered nicely in 2021, judging by sales data from IRI, a Chicago-based market research firm. Industry may succeed in keeping sales moving higher in 2022 by choosing ingredients that promote healthy aging, protein content and sugar reduction.

The pandemic kept consumers from being on the go, which cut into sales of convenience products like bars. The sales decline was evident in IRI data for the 52-week period ended July 11, 2021. When compared to the previous 52-week period, US retail sales of snack bars/granola bars were down 1.6% at $5.53 billion. Unit volume sales declined 9% to 1.49 billion.

Recovery was seen in IRI data for the 52-week period ended Jan. 23 of this year. When compared to the previous 52-week period, US retail sales of snack bars/granola bars/clusters were up 11% at $6.77 billion. Unit volume sales increased 2.7% to 1.92 billion.

Healthy aging and digestion

Dairy protein long has been a popular ingredient choice for bars, and plant protein has made inroads in the category, too.

FrieslandCampina Ingredients, Amersfoort, The Netherlands, in January listed five trends for 2022 in its “Shaping the future of nutrition” report. Innovation in bars could hit on three of the trends: celebrating healthy aging, holistic health starts in the gut and the future is flexitarian.

The report cited findings from a 2021 FMCG Gurus top 10 trends report showing 90% of aging consumers said they were choosing food and drink over traditional supplements. Dairy contains calcium, protein and vitamins A, D and B12, all of which support healthy aging, said Vicky Davies, global marketing director, performance, active and medical nutrition for FrieslandCampina.

“As we age, we need more protein to stay healthy, but some older people can find it difficult to consume enough protein, whether due to loss of appetite, teeth problems or illness,” Ms. Davies said. “For manufacturers, this means making protein easy and pleasurable to consume is critical. Research also recommends spreading protein consumption throughout the day. This is why easy-to-consume protein bars that can supplement existing protein at mealtimes can help people stay healthy and active as they age.”

High protein bars may harden over time, making them difficult to chew, especially for older consumers, she said. FrieslandCampina developed Excellion Textpro based on patent-pending technology that contributes to a softer mouthfeel in high-protein bars, which reduces hardening throughout the shelf life of the bars.

Two in three consumers said they recognize gut health as key to achieving overall well-being, according to the 2022 top 10 trends report from Innova Market Insights, Arnhem, The Netherlands. To help with digestion, FrieslandCampina offers the Biotis brand of galacto-oligosaccharides (GOS), which are dairy-derived prebiotics. They are a mixture of 100 oligosaccharides derived from an enzymatic conversion of lactose from cow’s milk. Scientific studies on Biotis brand GOS show it influences the balance of the gut microbiota by producing beneficial effects on gut health.

Dairy proteins could team up with plant-based protein sources as well. Consumers increasingly are incorporating plant-based ingredients alongside traditional protein sources, according to the Innova report, which found about 25% of consumers saying they consider themselves flexitarians. They, however, don’t want to miss out on taste, texture and nutrition, which could lead to formulators combining multiple plant and dairy protein sources, according to FrieslandCampina.

“This is a relatively new area as demand for nutritious and flexitarian-friendly products continues its stratospheric rise in popularity,” Ms. Davies said. “We expect to see more plant protein sources like pulses combined with dairy proteins like whey and casein in future applications.”

What about allergens?

While protein remains a big driver for bar sales, food formulators increasingly are looking for plant-based protein sources that are not major food allergens, said Chad Rieschl, senior research food technologist for Cargill, Minneapolis.

“That has some brands experimenting with options like pea, beans or lentils,” he said. “We’re also seeing lots of innovation around protein formats as ingredient suppliers go beyond traditional powders, adding hydrolyzed and inclusion crisps to their product lines. These advances give formulators more options as they look to boost protein levels in bars.”

Protein in bar applications potentially may lead to texture problems.

Protein Bars

“Proteins absorb water, and bars don’t have much free water to begin with,” Mr. Rieschl said. “Especially at higher inclusions levels, it’s easy to end up with a bar that has a crisp, hard texture. However, an experienced ingredient supplier can help brands achieve their product development goals through careful protein selection, and when needed, adjusting other ingredients in the formula.”

Protein levels in bars range from 5 grams in 20-gram bars to 20 grams or more in 60-gram bars.

“It’s also worth noting that the protein can come from a variety of sources, including nut butters, nuts and seeds, as well as plant protein crisps and powders,” Mr. Rieschl said. “A single bar might tap all of these sources to reach its protein goals.”

The 2021 Food and Health Survey from the International Food Information Council, Washington, found more than 60% of respondents said they were trying to consume more protein. The number of protein ingredients available for bar applications continues to increase.

Finnish food technology company Gold&Green Foods offers protein granules and protein flakes that contain three ingredients: oat bran, pea and fava bean proteins. They contain 52 grams of protein per 100 grams and add fiber, potassium and iron to formulations. The granules and flakes have a mild neutral flavor, according to the company. The ingredients are shelf-stable, which means they may be used in dry snacks like protein bars.

Rice protein has a neutral flavor and works well in combination with other plant-based proteins, said Steven Gumeny, product manager for rice ingredients for Beneo, which has a US office in Parsippany, NJ. Rice protein also is gluten-free and non-GMO.

“Formulators should be aware that rice protein is an insoluble protein,” Mr. Gumeny said. “Another consideration is the amino acid composition. If a near ‘perfect’ PDCAAS score is desired, rice protein can be used in conjunction with a lysine-rich protein to reach this target.”

PDCAAS stands for protein digestibility corrected amino acid score, with 1.0 being a perfect score.

Replacing sugar

Consumers in general are seeking to reduce sugar intake. The 2021 Food and Health Survey from IFIC found 72% of respondents said they were trying to limit/avoid sugars.

“While sugar replacers, intense sweeteners and alternative sugars can be used in various applications, each has an individual sweetening profile, taste and technical characteristics, which often makes one better suited for certain applications than others,” said Kyle Krause, product manager, functional fibers and carbohydrates, North America for Beneo.

Beneo offers Palatinose, a low-glycemic carbohydrate that has been shown to replace higher-glycemic carbohydrates, he said.

“It functions much like sugar in food and beverage applications while providing a slow release of glucose in the body,” he said. “Glucose is the main fuel for body and brain.”

Another Beneo sweetener, Isomalt, has half the calories of sugar.

“Isomalt and Palatinose also work well in combination with high-intensity sweeteners, whether natural or artificial,” Mr. Krause said. “As some intense sweeteners can impart unwelcome after-tastes, the sugar-like sweetness profile of these ingredients can function well as masking agents in these instances, providing a synergistic sweetening effect.”

Chicory root

Chicory root fibers, including inulin and oligofructose, support digestive health by improving bowel regularity, and they increase the fiber content in snack foods and bars. Oligofructose may be used in conjunction with high-intensity sweeteners to help mask off-tastes, Mr. Krause said.

Corn syrup, a sweetener once prevalent in bars, has fallen out of favor, Mr. Rieschl said.

“In the past, formulators relied on corn syrup for humectancy and binding, but today, many brands want ingredient solutions that fill those roles without adding a lot of sugar,” he said. “While the best solution varies, depending on a brand’s other requirements, we have had good success using ingredients like liquid and powdered soluble fibers, polyols like maltitol and sorbitol syrups, and maltodextrins.”

When working with most polyols, especially at higher levels, formulators should be aware of possible digestive tolerance issues. High use rates of soluble fiber may lead to digestive problems, too.

“Within the polyol family, erythritol has the greatest digestive tolerance, but it can have a cooling effect,” Mr. Rieschl said.

Erythritol, since it has a high negative heat of solution, creates a cooling sensation when dissolved in the mouth, he added.

“To maximize its usage level, it’s often paired with ingredients like soluble fibers or maltitol, which help reduce its cooling effect as well its tendency to crystalize,” Mr. Rieschl said. “We’re still looking for that single solution to solve all our sugar reduction challenges. Until then, it typically requires a careful blend of several ingredients to create the flavor, texture and nutrient profile a brand is aiming to achieve.”

New bar products feature probiotics, natural sweeteners

Benefits of new bar products are varied, ranging from whey protein from grass-fed cows to low FODMAP certification to 1 gram of sugar.

BodyBar Protein, Driftwood, Texas, in its bars uses whey protein concentrate and bovine collagen (protein blend) from grass-fed cows without the use of hormones or antibodies. The bars also contain almond butter, which adds protein; dates, which are natural sweeteners and high in fiber and antioxidants; and tapioca fiber, a prebiotic fiber that feeds beneficial bacteria in the gut.

BodyBars protein bars

Tekla Back, a former executive at PepsiCo, Inc., Purchase, NY, with a doctorate in physics from Oxford University, founded Keho. The word means “living human body” in Finnish. The company offers four snack bites: Curry in a Hurry, Tex-Mex Moment, Pizza to Go and Thai Me Over. Each bite is a mini-meal, said Ms. Back. The bars feature ingredients such as prebiotic soluble tapioca fiber, spinach flakes, macadamias and rosemary extract.

B.T.R. Nation, San Francisco, draws its name from the slogan “Be bold, tenacious and resilient.” The B.T.R. Bars contain no gluten, dairy, soy, whey, added sugar, corn, rice, GMOs, sugar alcohols (polyols), stevia, gums or emulsifiers. The bars come in the varieties of Energy with cinnamon cookie dough, Bliss with peanut butter and chocolate chips, and Recharge with a dark chocolate brownie. Depending on the variety, protein blends contain pea protein, organic raw hemp protein, almond protein powder or pumpkin seed protein. Other ingredients include cashew butter, almond butter, chicory root fiber, almond flour and monk fruit extract.

The Simply Good Foods Co., Denver, in 2021 launched Quest dipped chocolate chip cookie dough protein bars with 1 gram of sugar per serving. The bars contain sweeteners such as sucralose, stevia and erythritol.

BelliWelli gut-friendly snack bars are certified low FODMAP by Monash University in Australia. They contain Bacillus coagulans GBI-30 6086 probiotic strains and a flour blend of oat flour, sorghum flour, oat bran, tapioca flour, oats and acacia gum. FODMAP stands for fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols.