Sales of nutrition, energy and other snack bars in the U.S. reached approximately $7 billion in 2018, which represents 17% growth since 2013, according to the February Mintel Group report “Snack, Nutrition and Performance Bars—U.S.”
Portable and often highly nutritious, bars allow contemporary consumers to check off many boxes on their wish lists for healthful, tasty, adventuresome food:
- Simple. Many bar brands are made with just a few familiar ingredients.
- Clean label. Numerous bar launches tout “all natural” ingredients and feature organic and non-GMO claims.
- Convenient. It takes just a couple of seconds to unwrap a bar, which can be eaten so easily as a snack on the go or placed in a pocket, purse, gym bag or lunchbox for later consumption. More and more retailers of all types display nutrition bars at the checkout area, so they can be purchased quickly or as an impulse item as a better-for-you alternative to candy bars.
- High in protein. Whether plant-based or including animal-derived ingredients, many bars are high enough in protein to be a meal replacement or a performance-enhancing snack for athletes.
- Flavorful. In the past, nutrition bars (especially those aimed at athletes or dieters) tended to be monotonous and not necessarily delicious. Now, with the explosion of new SKUs, there is a bar to satisfy anyone’s discriminating palate.
- Personalized. Similarly, with so much variety in bars, consumers can find the one that best meets their dietary preferences, whether paleo, gluten-free, vegan or caffeinated.
- Innovative. Given the relatively low barrier to entry in terms of capital investment, the bar category is attractive to emerging entrepreneurs willing to take risks and experiment with unique flavor and ingredient combinations.
- Functional. Besides protein, bars can contain any number of functional ingredients to promote well-being; the possibilities are limitless.
- Transparent and responsible. In addition to being transparent in terms of ingredient labeling, a number of bar manufacturers are committed to socially responsible causes.
Available online. Although consumers can find a wide range of bars in brick-and-mortar stores, many startups are selling their bars directly to consumers from their websites, sometimes through subscription plans.
"We are seeing snacking grow as people have less time in their schedules for meals,” says Damon Levy, senior director-digital marketing for Caveman Foods, Walnut Creek, Calif., which makes grain-free, soy-free and dairy-free Paleo Foundation-certified and “paleo friendly” bars. “There aren’t many tasty and healthy snacking options out there. That’s why Caveman makes delicious snacks from real paleo foods.”
As Caveman Foods explains on its website, following a paleo diet means avoiding grains, dairy products and highly processed foods and limiting starchy produce and sugar.
Adherents try to restrict themselves to meat, eggs, nuts, seeds, fruits and vegetables; it’s a way of eating “inspired by foods that were plentiful to our pre-agricultural ancestors,” as the company puts it.
Accordingly, Caveman produces a line of Paleo Foundation-certified meat bars in three trending flavors: Maple Pork (uncured bacon), Sriracha Chicken and Sweet and Smoky Turkey. The company makes other protein bars that feature almonds and sometimes also cashews or walnuts, egg whites, various seeds (such as sunflower, pumpkin and sesame), and dried fruit, as well as a new line that contains collagen, a functional ingredient said to help combat age-related skin and muscle deterioration.
“There has been a lot of innovation for us this year,” Levy says, noting that the Caveman has rolled out seven new bar SKUs so far in 2019: Grain Free Raisin Cinnamon, Blueberry Almond, and Coconut Cashew Granola Bars; Collagen Chocolate Chip and Chocolate Walnut Bars; and Protein Chocolate Almond Butter and Double Dark Chocolate Bars.
Likewise lifestyle-focused but taking a different approach, Chicago-headquartered Zenb US recently debuted its Zenb Veggie Sticks, which are plant-based nutrition bars. The company’s name comes from the Japanese word “zenbu,” meaning “whole.” Zenb has a sustainability and wellness mission and is dedicated to reducing food waste.
Zenb uses whole vegetables in its bars, including parts that are normally thrown away—such as corn with the cob, beets with the peel and red bell peppers with the stem and seeds. The company emphasizes that its products contain all-organic ingredients and are gluten-free, non-GMO and devoid of artificial flavors, colors and preservatives.
“We are committed to reclaiming the real flavor of food and creating sustainably sourced products,” said Christiane Paul, chief marketing officer of Zenb US. Consumers can buy the Corn Stick, Red Bell Pepper Stick and Beet Stick SKUs online in 100% recyclable boxes of six, nine or 18 bars. Whether a variety pack or containing just one type of bar, these boxes can be purchased individually or as part of a subscription.
“Consumers around the world are making a conscious effort to live cleaner, healthier lifestyles and are incorporating more natural plant-based ingredients into their diet,” notes Jeff Smith, director of marketing for Blue Diamond Almonds Global Ingredients Division, Sacramento, Calif. Globally, products making plant-based claims increased 62% from 2013 to 2017, he says, citing data from Innova Market Insights. In the U.S., 30% of adults are attempting to switch to a more plant-based diet.
Fruits, nuts and seeds
“Almonds continue to be the leading nut used in global product introductions, with significant growth in the bar category,” Smith emphasizes.
Indeed, according to research commissioned from Innova by the Almond Board of California, 26% of bars produced in North America contain almonds, making almonds food processors’ top-selected bar ingredient. “At Blue Diamond, we certainly see this trend playing out with our own manufacturing partners, who are formulating bars with almonds in a variety of forms, including with our Almond Protein Powder.”
Blue Diamond’s Almond Protein Powder, a new ingredient, is most often used as part of a protein blend, which may be incorporated as part of a filling or binder in a bar formulation, according to Smith. “The ingredient has been shown to be compatible with other complementary proteins, including both plant-based and dairy sources, to create products with complete amino acid profiles for optimal product development,” he says.
In addition, Almond Protein Powder can be combined with other almond ingredients, such as whole and split almonds, in nutrition or snack bars in which satiety and texture play a significant role in consumer consumers’ purchase decisions, Smith says.
Seeds also are rising in popularity. At the recent School Nutrition Assn. annual meeting in St. Louis, Boston “urban bakery” 88 Acres showcased Blueberry Muffin Seed & Grain Bar, identified as “free from the top eight allergens” plus non-GMO. The label claims 32g of whole grains and includes some interesting trivia: “Blueberries were originally called ‘star berries’ because of the five points on their blossoms.”
Blueberries have landed in an array of innovative bar concepts, including in ways that may not have been considered possible a few years ago. The U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council noted they come in such formats as infused (fruit juice or sugar), non-infused dried, micro dried, freeze dried, powder, fiber, concentrate (65 brix), single strength puree and/or puree concentrate. Highbush blueberries are available whole, in small pieces, flakes and powders.
Formula for success
“Much of the recent growth in the bar category has been driven by consumer interest in protein-enhanced and functional nutrition bars,” Smith points out. He notes that the market research firm Research and Markets predicts the global protein bar market will grow by 8% annually through 2021.
The enormous investment potential of this category was made evident when Kellogg Co. purchased Chicago-based RXBar in 2018 for $600 million. Founded in 2013 by young entrepreneurs Peter Rahal and Jared Smith, RXBar has earned tremendous success with its clean label, high-protein performance bar, known by the clever list of ingredients on its packaging: “3 egg whites, 6 almonds, 4 cashews, 2 dates, No B.S.”
Like any number of snack food startups today, RXBar began with experimentation in a home kitchen. With production operations in the basement of Rahal’s parents’ suburban home, the founders tried different combinations of ingredients before deciding on the winning formula.
“They would make hundreds of bars at a time and then hit the streets and start giving them to people,” explains Victor Lee, RXBar’s chief marketing officer. “They were using the traditional method of gleaning consumer insights: Put the product in consumers’ hands and get their feedback, make tweaks, redo [the production of the product] and hit the streets again. It was a classic entrepreneurial story.”
The company initially focused on selling the performance bars through CrossFit gyms around the country, as the founders were involved in that fitness craze, while also selling the bars via the RXBar website and promoting them through social media.
Serendipitously, RXBar launched at a time when the paleo diet was gaining momentum. In addition, Melissa Hartwig, creator of the popular Whole30 diet, deemed the bars Whole30-compliant. “This really helped push our brand and our product into the mainstream,” Lee says.
RXBar currently has 17 bar flavors, but the core ingredients are the same. “We use eggs for protein, dates to bind and a level of nuts, whether tree nuts or legumes [peanuts] as texture,” Lee explains.
The brand recently added three new flavors: lemon, banana walnut, and chocolate cherry. “The flavors are based on what consumers told us they wanted,” Lee says, noting that the chocolate cherry bar, in particular, was developed as an indulgent bar rather than a typical protein bar to be consumed before or after workouts.
Caffeinated energy bars that are also healthful constitute another category segment with considerable growth potential, according to recent Yale University graduate Bennett Byerley. He co-founded Verb Energy Co. with Matt Czarnecki and André Monteiro while the three were undergraduates at Yale. Now based in Boston, the company takes its name from the part of speech that signifies action.
“We want to give people the energy to do whatever it is that makes them who they are; we want to give them the energy for whatever verb they do,” Byerley explains.
Verb Energy currently makes one product, Caffeinated Energy Bites, in three flavors: Maple Blueberry, Salted Peanut Butter and Simply Cocoa. “We wanted to craft flavors that were twists on classic bar flavors but more nuanced,” Byerley says.
The small bars have as much caffeine as an espresso (65mg) and only 90 calories. They're gluten-free, dairy-free and vegan and contain mostly organic ingredients, including the caffeine source: organic green tea.
The inspiration occurred when Czarnecki walked out of a coffee shop one evening having paid too much for coffee and a granola bar. “He thought, ‘Why can’t we make something that is healthier and delicious and gives you an energy boost?’ ” Byerley relates.
The three friends got together to brainstorm and experiment with recipes. They decided on a bar because it’s convenient and green tea for the caffeine. “Green tea has an amino acid called L-theanine, which helps to calm the body and reduce the jittery effects of caffeine,” Byerley notes.
The bars are sold entirely from the company’s website. Customers can order a three-bar trial, one of each flavor, or purchase a bag of 12 bars in a single flavor. Verb Energy offers a 10% discount to customers who pay for a monthly subscription service.
“Customers will receive a reminder text from us two days before their order is renewed each month, and they can text us back to change flavors or change quantities,” Byerley says. This texting helps give Verb Energy “a personal connection” with its customers, he adds.
“We can talk with them a lot. We learn how they’re using the bars, and they tell us about their lives,” Byerley says. “It’s quite a fun personal experience in addition to being customer-friendly.”