Whether as the new version of fast food or as meal replacements, the nutrition/energy bar and drink have become firmly established in modern, busy lives. And with good reason. Even if energy and staving off hunger are the immediate goals, most bars are formulated with a good nutritional foundation, and they go a long ways in fighting obesity.
Nutrition bars have been struggling through a simultaneous crowding and muddying of the field. A scan across the bar section of any supermarket shelf shows how everyone with a dream and a certified kitchen has managed to get their version of a sports/health/energy bar out.
Products typically are either grain-based or nougat-cored, typically representing, respectively, "breakfast" or … whatever meal is missed. All tout, alone or in combination, protein, vitamins, minerals, stimulants … and usually chocolate. Candy bars and cookies for busy (and guilt-ridden) grown-ups. But there's been an effort to shift at least slightly away from that paradigm.
For the population aiming for health food, the trend is definitely toward healthier products such as nutritional bars, protein bars and power bars.
A nuttier approach
One of the biggest ingredient shifts in helping effect such change is a much more liberal use of nuts. Nuts once were seen as too high-calorie/high-fat an ingredient. But today's consumer is a little better informed about the health benefits of nuts, as sources of both energy and healthy fats. So bar makers have started to pack them in.
One sterling example of the trend is Kind Healthy Snacks LLC, New York. The company makes what it describes as "all natural whole nut and fruit bars made from ingredients you can see and pronounce." See an example of a Kind Health Snack Bar on FoodProcessing.com. Combining marketing savvy with a pure and simple bar product that delivers exactly as advertised, its freshness of approach and rapid success is made all the more ironic by the fact its product is so completely atavistic.
Another addition to bars has been more exotic flavorings. In addition to the customary fruits, nuts and protein, Lärabar adds natural spices, such as ginger or cocoa, plus essential fatty acids, complex carbohydrates and many phytochemicals.
"Instead of carrying around a bag of nuts and a bruised banana, you can have a Lärabar — a delicious whole food that is a perfect healthy and convenient on-the-go snack," says Lara Merriken, founder of the Denver company.
Clif Bar, Emeryville, Calif. recently introduced Clif C, a lightly baked combination of fruits, nuts and sea salt. It joins a stable of whole-grain bars that includes Clif Kid and Clif Crunch.
One way to pack meal-sized protein into a bar is to make innovative use of naturally protein-rich foods, such as soy. Builder's Bar, another Clif Bar product, packs in 20g of protein from soy and nuts into each bar.
"Nutrition bars are a great vehicle for many reasons," says David Hart, business development and marketing manager for Herbamed Ltd., Rehovot, Israel. "They're considered ‘healthy' in the minds of the consumer, and of course are very convenient." Herbamed, an ingredient company, recently stepped out to develop its own nutrition bar — one clinically proven to reduce cholesterol.
"This is our first foray into the world of consumer packaged goods and it also is part of the next generation in functional food," says Hart. "In contrast to functional foods as we currently know them, the next generation of functional food is characterized by products with clinical evidence, innovative ingredients and a substantiated and easy-to-understand health benefit."
The Herbamed bar provides energy, while being fairly low in calories and high in fiber, yet it also provides a unique combination of phytosterols plus a unique citrus-based ingredient to reduce cholesterol. Phytosterols, also known as plant sterols, are the plant counterparts of cholesterol, which occurs only in animals. Phytosterols naturally reduce the amount of dietary cholesterol absorbed.
"The nutrition bar format allows us to bring a clear and necessary health benefit in a product that is very accessible to consumers, giving them multiple quick consumption options," adds Hart.
General health benefits from phytochemicals are also a growing niche for bar ingredients. "Previously energy bars were considered only for replacing a meal for dieters or as a low-calorie, pre/post workout snack," says Karina Bedrack, sales manager for LycoRed, Orange, N.J. "Carotenoids can be added to nutritional energy bars and provide important health benefits such as important antioxidant, cardiovascular, UV-light protection for outdoor activities and others."
Who wants to wash down a healthy bar with a sugary soft drink? There are lots of alternatives, from naturally flavored waters to pure fruit and vegetable juice combinations to virtual meals in a glass.
The trend in waters is to bring low- to no-calorie formulations to a new level by dispensing with as much artificial flavor as possible while bringing in the exotic. Seltzers flavored naturally to taste like white chocolate and antioxidant-rich teas with a hint of lemongrass are filtering rapidly into the mainstream.
Herbal Waters, Narberth, Pa., is one such successful product line. Developed by Ayala Laufer-Cahana, the pure water infused with a variety of exotic herbs --- but no calories or artificial ingredients -- was designed to take the place of high-calorie soft drinks. Herbal Waters relies instead on natural concentrated extracts carrying such diverse flavors as lavender mint and lemon verbena geranium. The line also offers a choice of still or sparkling water.
Many healthy ingredients are either insoluble in water or deliver a less-than-pleasant taste. Wild Flavors, Cincinnati, created its H.I.T.S. Team group of chemists and applications personnel specifically to focus on challenges of stability of functional ingredients. H.I.T.S.—Health Ingredients Technology Solutions—has created water-soluble versions of ingredients such as sterol esters, lutein and lycopene, and co-enzyme Q-10.
Wild's new line of health ingredients includes grape seed extract, theaflavins, omega-3 fatty acids, tea polyphenols and chlorogenic acid (all natural antioxidants). The team also developed its "Resolver Technology" systems designed to improve the taste of healthy foods and beverages through specially designed natural flavors that actually prevent taste receptors from sensing bitterness and astringency, reducing the off-tastes associated with functional ingredients.
But calorie-free isn't in order when a drink has to stand alone as a between-meal pick-me-up. "I coulda had a V8," was the slogan used by Camden, N.J.-based Campbell Soup Co. to encourage us to drink our vegetables — eight of them blended together into one drink. Then the company got the notion to combine veggies with fruit juices and V8 V-Fusion was born. V8 V-Fusion is a mix of fruits and vegetables that taste like a healthy fruit punch, without sugar or preservatives.
Although light on protein (most have 1g per serving, some have zero), they do squeeze one serving of veggies and one serving of fruit into each 8-oz. glass.
Campbell recently took the line to a new level by imbuing its V8 product with yet another persona. "We're giving people a new reason to enjoy our beverages by introducing this juice beverage with a hint of natural green tea -- an increasingly popular light and nutritious beverage choice," says Dale Clemiss, the company's vice president of beverage marketing.
"V8's V-Fusion+Tea juice beverages are still free of artificial colors, flavors and preservatives, and they're available in flavors such as pomegranate green tea and pineapple mango green tea." He adds that each flavor meets American Heart Assn. criteria as a heart-healthy product and so can display the heart-check mark.
To the other extreme of protein, Bolthouse Farms (www.bolthouse.com), Bakersfield Calif., provides a wide variety of fruit and vegetable juices. But the company is upping its game by spinning off a line of smoothies and protein drinks with up to 30g of protein per 15.2-oz. bottle. To match the desired application and flavor, both soy and whey proteins are important nutrition boosters.
After packing protein into its cereals and then bar products, Kellogg Co. in 2006 put protein in a bottle with Special K2O Protein Waters. While the original product has since been discontinued, Kellogg keeps the brand alive with protein mix packets consumers can add to bottled water, as well as Special K Protein Shakes.
As with the new generation of bars, many drinks pack meal-sized protein quantities via cutting-edge solutions. "Solpro 735 is a calcium-fortified soy isolate with highly nutritious protein plus an ideal balance of essential amino acids," says David Kraus, global applications manager at Solbar Oakdale, Minn.
"Demand for specialized proteins will grow as we see an increase in the launch of convenient, protein-enriched products," says Rachel Marshall, category marketing manager for Fonterra, Auckland, New Zealand. "There is emerging science supporting the need to evenly spread protein consumption across the day in order to maximize the benefits and effectively stimulate muscle protein synthesis."
Still, taste is key to the success of food & beverage products. While the nutritional value and health benefits need to be credible and clearly understood by consumers, taste is always the key driver for repeat purchase. This can be a challenge when adding nutritional ingredients to many food and beverage formats. Unfortunately, many healthy bars and beverages do not meet the taste requirements for most consumers. And protein is a foremost example of such formulation challenges.
Fonterra developed a wide range of specialty dairy protein ingredients for formulation into food & beverage applications that do not change the inherent characteristics of the end product. "This allows manufacturers to deliver the nutritional benefits of protein without compromising taste and enjoyment for the consumer," says Marshall.
While protein will always be a safe and popular source of energy, there seems to be a growing consumer backlash toward energy drinks and associated products containing high doses of caffeine. "But ingredients affecting energy metabolism at the cellular level, for example l-carnitine, B-vitamins and CoQ10, are becoming more popular," says Herbamed's Hart.
Ultrasome CoQ10 is a liposomal formulation of CoQ10 from Herbamed. "The unique structure gives Ultrasome exceptional properties, while it is clinically proven to have improved bioavailability and efficacy," says Hart. As a powder, Ultrasome can be used in formulations such as energy bars, and Herbamed also has an emulsion formulation that allows CoQ10 to easily be incorporated into beverages. "Our formulations allow manufacturers to add CoQ10 to their product to bring a clear, yet sophisticated energy positioning," Hart adds.
High nutrient density and natural sources of energy are themes that are growing in popularity as consumers seek something beyond the all too familiar fast food habits of the past. The combination of insight into this trend and investment in the technology of applications by ingredient makers is helping manufacturers hit the ground running as they create the bars and beverages that will fuel not only their consumers but the bottom line as well.