Foods of Our Times: Nutritional Bars & Snacks

By Danielle Winston, Contributing Writer | January 1, 2013

On-the-go consumers seek wholesome, tasty treats with fewer ingredients and greater health benefits.

It’s no secret. Snacking has become an integral part of consumer diets. According to the USDA’s report “Snacking Patterns of U.S. Adults: What We Eat In America,” snacking provides about one-fourth of daily calories.

Nowadays, simple smart-phone apps give shoppers instant access to nutritional knowledge. Accustomed to getting what they want at rocket-speed, these same people possess a growing awareness of the fragility of their environments, which leads them to scrutinize labels and seek out pure ingredients.

Combine the quick-fix mentality with the trend toward green living and you have a white-hot nutritional bar/snack market, even in this strained economy. In the U.S. alone, the snack bar market accelerated at double the rate of conventional snack foods. According to a new research report by Rabobank Group, the market has reached a staggering $6 billion over the last decade. And snack bars are used to remedy a mélange of health concerns.

What sets the nutritional bar market apart from other functional food sectors is an ability to tap into multiple client bases. Traditionally, nutrition bars were eaten for weight loss reasons, and more than one-third of U.S. adults (35.7%) are obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC); yet, not only dieters buy these bars today. A report from market research firm NPD Group showed, surprisingly, consumers viewed snacking as a method to improve healthy eating habits, and concluded that healthy eaters consumed 36% more snack meals per year.

Portable Wellness
While some nutritional snacks promise added health benefits, many bars are virtual medicine chests disguised as desserts; they target celiac disease, low blood sugar, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and much more.

It’s alluring: a bar that tastes like a decadent treat but is actually good for you. Probiotic chocolate bars by Attune Foods, San Francisco, CA, are one such healthy confection. “We see customers interested in getting their probiotics in a way that is different from supplements, yogurt or drinks,” said Annelies Zijderveld, community manager for Attune.  “Many times, the people most informed and interested in probiotics are ones with IBS or IBD.”

The potential for healing is so limitless that the medical field has even gotten in on the act. Scientists at Children’s Hospital Oakland Research Institute (CHORI), recently formulated the CHORI-bar, a fruit-based, mineral- and fiber-rich nutritional bar that improves biological indicators linked to risk of heart disease, cognitive decline and depletion of antioxidant defenses (i.e., increased HDL cholesterol and glutathione, lowered homocysteine). The CHORI-bar is meant to replenish nutritional balances in those with unhealthy diets and also assist with healthier eating habits.

Oftentimes health benefits are derived from the lack of a certain ingredient; the expansive free-from market includes, gluten-, soy- and sugar-free foods. One of the most thriving is gluten-free. According to Packaged Facts, Rockville, MD, the gluten-free food sector reached $4.2 billion in 2012. This may be because Celiac disease affects approximately 3 million Americans, according to the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness, and the only known treatment is a gluten-free diet. Since gluten is found in wheat, it’s contained in immeasurable foods and makes adhering to the diet a great challenge.

One new, inventive gluten-free snack is a chip made from beans; Lentil Chips from Mediterranean Snacks, Boonton, NJ, crafted from lentils, adzuki and garbanzo beans, are low in calories and contain fiber, protein and essential minerals, which make them an ideal snack for gluten-free seekers and health-conscious shoppers alike.

Nurturing Small Bodies
Little ones are notoriously stubborn eaters, tugging at their parent’s knees for sugary snacks. Even while parents may attempt to serve healthy choices, unless those foods are appealing to kids, they won’t be eaten. Considering that childhood obesity rates have almost tripled in the past 30 years, according to the CDC, it would appear that healthy snacks for children with sensory appeal are especially needed in the marketplace.

Two brands have spread their wings to include children. Annie’s Homegrown, Berkeley, CA, makes a range of healthy snacks, including Orchard Fruit Bites, naturally flavored snacks that contain one serving of fruit in every pouch and are targeted at both children and their parents. In addition, Clif Bar & Company, Emeryville, CA, has a line of children’s bars called Clif Kid ZBars, with fruit and chocolate chips that boast proper portion size with 12 vitamins and minerals that are most often missing from kids’ diets.

One smaller company focused on children’s nutrition is Can Do Kid, Mill Valley, CA. The brand is co-founded by Deb Luster and Christine Elders, two moms who once sold bars out of the backs of their cars. These days their products are sold in stores across the country, including Whole Foods Market. Ms. Luster and Ms. Elders said they are always on the lookout for alternative snack ideas.

Can Do Kid all-natural, gluten-free nutrition bars are made with 9 grams of protein and 16 essential vitamins and minerals. Available in Chocolate Crunch, Cookies and Cream and CAN-illa Vanilla flavors, bars are packaged in two separate pieces designed for sharing and just-right-size portions. In addition to its other bars for parents, the company is considering developing all-natural salty snacks that contain protein and vitamins.

Fueled by a passionate conviction that children should eat only all-natural foods, Ms. Luster and Ms. Elders said, “We know that kids will eat sugary foods, but finding good sugar sources (brown rice, tapioca, fruit sugars) rather than high fructose corn syrup is important.”  They’re also concerned about adult bars/snacks not being balanced for a child’s body.  “Many adult bars have too much protein for children and a vitamin core too high for kids. Over longer periods, excess protein intake can lead to dehydration, loss of calcium and kidney dysfunction.”

Hold the Sugar
Various reasons motivate consumers to reduce sugar intake. According to the American Diabetes Association, 8.3% of the population has the disease. There are also an estimated 45 million Americans who diet each year, per the Boston Medical Center. Given that the sugar-free market works double-time to serve the needs of dieters and diabetics, it’s perplexing that there aren’t more options available for today’s shopper. Considering some nutritional bars may contain as much as 26 grams of sugar, finding a bar that fits a low-sugar lifestyle isn’t always easy.

One company saw a need and was innovative enough to tap into it: KIND LLC, New York, NY. “KIND attracts people with a heightened consciousness of sugar—whether that should arise from necessity, such as being diabetic, or simply as a result of dietary preference,” said John Leahy, president of KIND.  “Consumers have been looking for lower sugar options and until now the only choices in this category included sugar alcohols and artificial sweeteners.”

The new line from KIND, called Nuts & Spices, took two years to develop. Instead of taking a common route, the company was mindful of health and chose to lower sugar naturally. The company “removed the fruit found in most of our bars and added unique spices such as ginger, sea salt and cinnamon,” Mr. Leahy noted.

No More Empty Calories: Ingredients are Key
Peruse grocery shelves and you’ll find fiber and whole grain being added to chips, pretzels, cookies and bars. It appears a wildly popular trend. However, according to Joseph O’Neill, president and general manager, BENEO Inc., Morris Plains, NJ, “high in whole grain does not necessarily mean high in fiber.”

BENEO supplies ingredients to the health food industry, specifically inulin and oligofructose. These chicory root extracts are “an effective complement to whole grain formulations, allowing for a ‘fiber boost’ without adversely affecting taste or texture,” Mr. O’Neill explained. Since they act as natural humectants, he said they help maintain the integrity of the bars’ texture, taste, consistency and shelf life.

According to Mr. O’Neill, “healthy snack alternatives, no matter which type, must have a nutritionally balanced profile. This includes less sugar and fat, lactose-free and low-glycemic characteristics, as well as fiber enrichment. The recommended level of fiber intake of up to 36 grams/day cannot be achieved with fruits and vegetables alone.”

As for sugar, “Using low-glycemic sugars such as isomaltulose (brand name: Palatinose) in nutrition bars provides fully available energy in the form of glucose in a balanced way over a longer period of time.”

While bars clearly aren’t new to the market, they have evolved, according to Mr. O’Neill. “The major change in bars over the years is that they now have customized nutrition.”

Thought of as mini-meals, consumers expect to feel satisfied afterward. “Protein is still a major driver and the most popular, requested bar ingredient overall,” noted Linda Wilson, business development manager—Bars, Glanbia Nutritionals, Evanston, IL. “Consumers are becoming much more savvy.” Ms. Wilson also said she has noticed increased demand for protein in granola and cereal bars as of late; ingredients run the gamut from dairy and nuts to vegetable derived.

For the future, Ms. Wilson predicted growth in “better-for-you products aimed at children and your everyday consumer.” Also, she said there is room for expansion in gluten-free, which will continue to flourish in the next several years. Another trend to watch, according to Mr. Wilson, is the actual size and shape of nutritional bars, anticipating “bite-size delivery of the equivalent of a nutrition bar.”

The Next Wave
“In an ideal world, companies would focus more on the quality of their ingredients,” said Catarina Rivera, a holistic health coach who specializes in integrative nutrition. She counsels her clients, saying “it’s important to look for a small number of ingredients you recognize and can identify.” Ms. Rivera also decodes labels with her customers. “When choosing a bar with dried fruit, look at how much fruit is included and how it is dried. This will affect the amount of sugar in the bar.”

Ms. Rivera said she would like to see more whole food options in the nutritional bar/snack industry. “More bars that include greens would be healthier options,” she noted, “for example, some type of kale bar.”

The less-is-more attitude toward ingredients appears to be a growing trend. Tom Vierhile, director of product launch analytics with U.K.-based Datamonitor, noted, “more bars with fewer ingredients are being launched. This seems to be a newer way to indicate that a product is more natural and perhaps less processed.” Further research showed that of the new snack bars launched in the U.S. from Jan. 1, 2011 to Oct. 31, 2012, 37.9% were high fiber, 30.9% high protein and 25.1% no gluten.

Another trend worth watching is, “ancient grains.” For example, Mr. Vierhile said quinoa and amaranth continue to emerge in the market. Additionally, “Dairy ingredients seem to be an ingredient class to watch,” he said. “Greek yogurt and milk are a couple of examples.”

Essential factors to consider when choosing a nutritional snack include: portable, healthy, filling, convenience and flavor, according to “Healthy Snacking in the U.S.,” a report by Mintel, Chicago, IL, that polled nearly 2,000 consumers. The report illustrated that manufacturers planning to attract lower-income consumers should consider creating multipurpose products to allow the financially strapped to stretch their budgets. Meanwhile, well-off snackers (household income of $100,000+) favored healthier snacks. Generally, these consumers understood the link between better eating and improved health. It would appear likely then that taste appealing snacks with health benefits, at reasonable price points, would crossover to both demographics.

Recognizing these dynamics, Good Health Natural Products, Greensboro, NC, created Veggie Stix, a product that contains up to 25% of the daily recommended values of seven important nutrients in a 1-oz. portion. Mark Gillis, CEO, said Good Health searched for a way to create a product that could be healthy, as opposed to less unhealthy. “Our recent innovation utilizing whole foods concentrates that retain the micronutrients from fruits and vegetables was the culmination of this search,” he offered.

Mr. Gillis elaborated, saying, “We perceived a gap in the offerings to consumers for products with real nutrition. We recognized that over 25% of the daily caloric intake for kids was coming from snacks generally devoid of nutritional value. In addition, a majority of consumers do not consume the recommended levels of fruits and vegetables—this being important in large part because of the micronutrient content of fruits and vegetables, which would otherwise be missing from people’s diets.”

A specialized freeze-drying process allows for the extraction and protection of phytonutrients present in fruits and vegetables, he added. “One of the key elements of the technology is that most of the cofactors and enzymes from the fruits and vegetables also survive in the concentrate. Vitamins from actual food sources are more bioavailable and come in vitamin complexes.”

Reflective of consumers’ health consciousness, Hostess Brands recently went bankrupt; meanwhile Whole Foods Market plans to triple its store count to 1,000. As discerning shoppers veer away from processed foods in favor of more streamlined nutritious alternatives, they are embracing a holistic attitude toward sustenance.

Perceived as on-the-go foods, nutritional snacks/bars are expected to match the pace of consumers’ multitasking lifestyles, satisfy savory and sweet cravings and simultaneously provide the nutrients found in wholesome foods. It would then suffice to say those companies that anticipate these timely desires and cater to the evolved consumer will likely see growth in the future.