KANSAS CITY — Looking at the sales of granola, breakfast and snack bars since 2019, it’s been a bit of a mixed bag. While dollar sales have been up every year except 2020 — when consumers spent most of the year stuck at home — unit sales have dipped every year except 2021, according to Circana. But bars are still a popular staple for many, with consumers gobbling up $8 billion of them in 2023.

“Bars have had a little bit of a struggle. It started a few years back when we were in COVID and the need for on-the-go waned,” said Sally Lyons Wyatt, global executive vice president and chief advisor consumer goods and foodservice insights, Circana. “Now we’re back in the need for on-the-go and convenience. But during the course of the last four years, we’ve seen more on-the-go options that include functional benefits. That’s just opened up the universe.”

The category is expected to continue expanding into the future, with sales projected to reach $10.7 billion by 2028, according to Mintel. In addition to a broader range of portable options for consumers, snack prices are 30% higher than they were five years ago, Lyons Wyatt said, and many are finding ways to meet nutritional needs with cheaper versions or alternatives to their favorite snacks.

“Bars are definitely important to consumers, but we haven’t seen the units rebound,” she said.

A focus on health

Bars are a source of healthy snacking but are also seen as a convenient and sometimes indulgent treat for busyhouseholds.

“Bars are seeing a bit of a split in two directions: ultra-indulgence and nature-forward minimalism,” said Adriana Chychula, analyst, food, drink and nutrition, Mintel. “Bars’ outlook is positive, based on consumers’ hectic lifestyles and need for quick solutions that hold them over.”

She went on to define better-for-you (BFY) bars in two ways: as products that prioritize nutrient panels and those that prioritize natural, whole ingredients.

“When it comes to protein, anything that is filling and can prevent less-healthy bingeing can be viewed as a ‘better’ option, and protein plays a big role in this,” Chychula said. “Consumers also generally associate it with health and seek it out when making more healthful food and drink choices. All options that fall under the BFY and protein bar umbrellas can offer quick, convenient nutrition, though the two BFY camps will have somewhat separate audiences. That said, even more indulgent-leaning options, BFY or not, fit within wellness definitions that afford space for enjoyment.”

Kate’s Real Food, Jackson, Wyo., has positioned itself as a healthy snack option that is organic, gluten-free and free from artificial additives, preservatives and GMOs.

“We craft each recipe with organic, wholesome ingredients, carefully selected for their nutritional value and quality,” said Michelle McAndrews, vice president of marketing and ecommerce at Kate’s Real Food. “From nutrient-rich nuts and seeds to True Source Certified honey, every ingredient is thoughtfully selected to provide essential nutrients and energy to fuel our customers’ adventures, big and small.”

But the brand also prides itself on being a tasty treat for consumers.

“We understand that cravings for something indulgent can strike at any moment, so we’ve infused our bars with decadent flavors and textures that rival traditional treats,” McAndrews said.

Larger brands have wide-ranging portfolios that offer a variety of options for consumers, from healthy bars to the truly indulgent.

“In an effort to reach different audiences’ desires, our Cap’n Crunch Treat Bars have transformed the delicious taste and flavors of the beloved breakfast cereal into an on-the-go format, while our Health Warrior Chia Seed and Pumpkin Seed Bars are strategically positioned as a nutrition-first snack that has limited ingredients but functional benefits — serving a different role in consumer preferences and consumption occasions,” said Leslie Vesper, vice president of marketing at Frito-Lay North America, Plano, Texas.

She said that taste, versatility and nutrition are a priority for the company’s bars, which include Quaker Chewy, made with 100% whole grains. She also cited a Mintel statistic that more than 80% of consumers feel that snack bars are a healthy substitute for sweets and junk food. The Quaker Chewy portfolio includes a line that has 25% less sugar, and most bars are 100 calories or fewer.

“We take the time needed to test formulas to make sure we are meeting consumer expectations on many factors, including ingredients, appearance, taste and texture,” Vesper said. “We pride ourselves on creating a convenient snack that parents can feel good about giving their kids.”

Consumers looking for more wide-ranging benefits from their snacks, such as focus, energy or mood stabilization, are turning to adaptogens, which are herbs or mushrooms thought to have health benefits, including helping the body adjust to physical, chemical or biological stress, according to WebMD. Many of these plants have been used in traditional Eastern medicine for centuries, but the website said more research is needed on these claims.

Wise Bars have 3,000 mgs of adaptogens in its retail bars, including 1,000 mgs each of the mushrooms lion’s mane and reishi, 750 mg of turkey tail mushroom and 250 mg of ashwagandha. The bars available in retail stores all have the same formulation but come in six flavors.

“This is the powerhouse formulation we’ve developed that hits all of the main things: immunity, focus, energy, mood stabilization,” said Josh Dominick, who founded Wise Bar, Carbondale, Colo., with his friend Ryan Nuccio. “We know this is going to give you that well-rounded benefit that a mushroom powder is going to give you. That was our focus. Let’s get the best of each and put it into one bar and then just differentiate on shelf with flavor.”

He acknowledged that making a good-tasting bar with so much mushroom powder can be challenging, but the company prides itself on using high-quality ingredients to create great flavors that don’t taste like mushrooms but complement the earthiness of the powders, like lemon ginger and peanut banana, the company’s best-sellers.

“These really poignant flavor profiles help work with the earthiness of the mushrooms instead of trying to mask it,” Dominick added.

The bars are organic, non-GMO and free of syrups, preservatives and artificial flavors.

They’ve got to be tasty

A lot of indulgent flavor innovation is happening even in BFY bars, Chychula has noticed.

“Lots of flavors are inspired by baked goods, like cakes and donuts,” she explained. “As far as formats, refrigerated options are expanding what’s possible in terms of textures and ingredients, pushing products closer to ‘freshness.’ ”

Lyons Wyatt said she saw some interesting innovation at Natural Products Expo West in March.

“There were some different types of bars that were out there, and they were a little more health-minded,” she noted. “There was some innovation there, but then there’s been some more mainstream innovation. I haven’t seen everything I’ve heard was coming, but if we do get half of what I’ve heard is coming, it will be a better year.”

The most popular flavors at Kate’s Real Food are Peanut Butter Dark Chocolate and Dark Chocolate Cherry & Almond bars.

“These best-selling bars tap into timeless flavor combinations that resonate with a wide audience,” McAndrews said. “Peanut butter and chocolate is a classic pairing that has stood the test of time, appealing to both adults and children with its nostalgic appeal and irresistible taste. Likewise, the combination of dark chocolate, cherries and almonds offers a sophisticated twist on traditional flavors, appealing to health-conscious consumers seeking a more indulgent yet nutritious snack option.”

When weighing new flavors and formats, the company strives to stay at the forefront of category trends and nutritional research, she said.

“We explore emerging ingredients, flavor profiles and dietary preferences to create unique and exciting options that resonate with our health-conscious consumers,” McAndrews said. “We seek feedback through surveys and social media engagement to understand what flavors and formats our customers are craving. Whether it’s a desire for more indulgent varieties like our White Chocolate Macadamia bar or a need for convenient on-the-go formats like our mini snack bars, we take our customers’ preferences and suggestions into account when developing new offerings.”

Quaker also talks with parents as part of the company’s R&D process, Vesper said.

“We speak with real parents and consider their needs and wants when developing new products,” she said.

Bobo’s, Loveland, Colo., which offers a variety of bars and bites, focuses on taste and simplicity in its portfolio, said Henry Hughes, vice president of marketing.

“We have worked tirelessly to scale our manufacturing processes without sacrificing the quality and taste of the product that Beryl Stafford, company founder, baked in her kitchen 21 years ago,” he said. “Bobo’s sets itself apart in highly processed, highly functional categories with its unique bakery process.”

Hughes also said the company believes taste and health can go hand-in-hand with innovation.

“We keep it as simple as we can and ensure that Bobo’s can be consumed by everyone, so we’re using purity protocol oats that are also gluten-free, and our products are gluten-free, vegan, non-GMO and free of top allergens,” he said.

Challenges and opportunities

The cost of food along with other inflationary pressures are forcing consumers to change their buying habits. There is no question that prices have impacted consumers, Lyons Wyatt pointed out but added that value means different things to different people.

“Getting the value proposition right is the key,” she said. “To appeal to consumers looking for health benefits, CPGs should zero in on the channels consumers are shopping and the packaging and price points they need to hit in those channels.”

She acknowledged that bars are facing a few obstacles looking ahead, so it’s important for brands to offer customers what they want where and when they are looking for a snack. Effective messaging behind their products on social media channels can create excitement.

“If they have products and options out in the marketplace at a variety of sizes and with the right flavors consumers are looking for, then they have a tailwind behind them,” Lyons Wyatt said. “But they have to be able to be agile enough to have the right packaging and size in the different channels, so they maximize their incrementality and get back into growth in unit sales.”

She noted that online bar sales at brick-and-mortar retailers offering grocery delivery and pickup are doing well.

“Online is a favored channel for them right now where there is growth,” Lyons Wyatt said. “I think there will continue to be growth. It is one of those categories that is suited for online, whether delivery or pickup. We are seeing delivery especially with brick-and-mortar retailers winning.”

Bar makers interested in expanding their customer base should find ways to differentiate their products, especially since consumers are turning to cheaper retail brands.

“There’s some great room and opportunity for bars to do more limited-time offers,” Lyons Wyatt said. “They have done some and they need to do more of those. Those generate excitement and retailers love them. It would almost be a safe bet to say they would get on the shelf.”

Bar manufacturers should also stick close to the benefits of their bars, she said.

“Help consumers on their journey,” Lyons Wyatt said. “There are different diets that bars have been a huge part of, whether it’s keto, whether it’s low-fat, whether it’s high protein, they’ve been able to pivot and do that. They need to make sure there are offerings across the different diet types where it makes sense.”

Chychula said consumers are making choices based on tighter budgets.

“The category as a whole is still growing steadily — 6.4% from 2022-23 — speaking to consumers’ lifestyle needs,” she said. “However, private labels also grew 15.3% over the last year, pointing to some value recalculations. That said, those who can afford to maintain their premium preferences will do so.”

McAndrews said Kate’s Real Food has navigated the ups and downs of the market by adapting the business as needed while sticking to the company’s core values.

“Looking ahead, we remain optimistic about the future of the bar market and our role within it,” she said. “As consumer demand for nutritious, convenient snacks continues to grow, we’re confident that our organic snack brand will continue to thrive by staying true to our values, listening to our customers and embracing change as an opportunity for growth.”

She added she anticipates a growing demand for functional ingredients and targeted nutritional benefits and an emphasis on clean label foods, sustainability and transparent, ethical sourcing.

“Consumers are becoming increasingly aware of the impact of their food choices on their overall health and well-being,” McAndrews said. “As a result, we foresee a rise in bars formulated with specific health benefits, such as immune support and gut health. By incorporating ingredients like adaptogens, probiotics and superfoods, manufacturers can offer bars that not only taste great but also address specific health concerns.”

Nutritional needs based on fitness and performance will fuel bar sales as well, she said.

“A prominent trajectory we see is the rising demand for functional protein bars,” McAndrews said. “With an increasing focus on health and fitness, consumers are seeking convenient and nutritious options to support their active lifestyles. This trend isn’t just about building muscle; it’s about fueling the body with the right nutrients for optimal performance and recovery.”

Hughes said he expects consumers to continue to prioritize real food over health trends.

“We’ve seen trends come and go for quite some time, but Bobo’s has maintained its own space in the category by sticking to who we are at our core,” he said.

Consumers turn to bars for convenience, indulgence and to fulfill nutritional needs. Bar manufacturers that provide healthful benefits and great taste can grab the interest of consumers and keep them if they reach consumers with the right messaging in the right channels.

“Limited-time offers, frame up their proposition from a dieting standpoint for what it means for the different types of diets, zero in on those functional benefits where it makes sense,” Lyons Wyatt advised. “Bars have all the makings to continue to have success on a unit and dollar perspective, but it’s going to take an integrated approach.”