Amidst a flat overall nutrition-bars market, the raw-bars niche is the one segment experiencing growth. In this exclusive Q&A session, Larabar and Humm Foods CEO/Founder Lara Merriken speaks about the hot trend of creating products using simple whole foods sans syrups, sweeteners and chemical-sounding ingredients that turn consumers off
FF&N: How come raw bars? How come now?
LM: The concept of raw foods is interesting in our society because, first of all, the American consumer is always looking for the next solution in terms of eating. Raw food hearkens to where food naturally is. It's food in its most natural state. You pick it off a plant and there it is. You're not adulterating it. There's something intrinsically interesting to people about that. Our food got so processed through industrialisation. Look at the success of all the natural foods markets out there. It's because people really want to put better food in their body and they're realising that better foods equates to not being as processed.
FF&N: So timing is everything?
LM: We are not successful because it's a raw and unprocessed bar. We are successful because our product is delicious. You can make a baked product or a raw product and if they don't taste good nobody is going to buy them. We're not about manufactured foods. That's not the point of this product. Consumers love that.
FF&N: Your bars are famous for their ingredients being few and simple. Does that resonate with consumers?
LM: How can you argue with an almond and a cherry? How can you argue with nuts and fruit? Trees grow these things. They weren't manufactured in a lab.
FF&N: Bars took off when companies would integrate all manner of functional ingredients into them. And yet you are finding success without taking that approach.
LM: People ask how come there's no protein in the bars. We want you to get the protein naturally from the nuts, we don't want to add anything in there. If you look at our nutrition panels, all of the nutrients in there came from the food used to make the bars. We have 18 vitamins and minerals in our bars. It's not because we added all those vitamins and minerals in there — it's naturally occurring in the food.
FF&N: Other bars positioned as raw foods might contain agave nectar, brown rice syrup or honey as sweeteners. How are you able to avoid all these and still taste good?
LM: The one thing that most companies do is they add sugar, whether it's sweeteners added in the form of syrups or it's the cherries they buy are sweetened. None of our ingredients ever has sugar added to them. You don't need all that extra sugar. Food already has enough natural sugar inherent in it. What's great about that is that there's fibre attached to sugar in fruit. Once you turn it into a syrup or a sweetener, you've lost that. There are certain flavours or fruits that only come coated in sugar or when they're not sweetened they are extremely expensive. It puts us in a different realm because we can't just say, 'Okay I'm going to make a cherry-flavoured bar.' We're not going to just flavour it with cherries, we're going to use the real thing. No added sugar, it's unprocessed and raw, non GMO, gluten free, dairy free, soy free, vegan and Kosher. We've had all those attributes since day one. So it reaches to a really broad consumer — people with special diets, Kosher diets, people with celiac disease that are gluten free. Even people without special diets, they love the product because it tastes good. It's made of things they understand. The main thing we find important is we need high-quality ingredients to start out with, and they need to be nutritious, and what we can blend together has to taste great. That is hands-down our thing. When we came in the market 3-1/2 years ago there was nothing like it in the market. Nothing. What made us stand apart was very simple ingredients — two to six ingredients, things you understood — and no added sugar to any of it.
FF&N: Some formulators might be surprised to hear you can make bars stick together without gums or syrups. Dates seem to be the common ingredient in all the bars — is that the magic binder?
LM: There isn't any one ingredient, it's the combination of ingredients.
FF&N: Are they truly raw, or is there any sort of processing involved?
LM: We're very transparent about our product and what we put into it. We don't heat it or bake it or anything like that. Is there a debate among raw foodists about cashews? Yes, there is a debate. Some say a raw cashew can be steamed to only 108 degrees, some say raw is 118, some say raw is 110 degrees.
FF&N: Are there any other limitations you find with sourcing ingredients and finding the right combinations of ingredients to hit a certain flavour?
LM: We're not going to create a watermelon LaraBar because there's no such thing as a dried watermelon. So there are certain limitations. A lot of people think we should make bars like our competitors and my feeling is our company is about innovation and exciting things and not the same-old, same-old stuff. In the cherry pie bar you're eating cherries, almonds and dates and that's it, that's all. Not everyone is going to love every one of our flavours. My personal favorite is cashew cookie because it tastes like a shortbread cookie to me. It's the one with the least amount of ingredients, only two. We want it to be exciting for our consumer so when you eat a cherry pie bar it tastes like cherry pie. Apple pie tastes like apple pie, not apples and nuts but apple pie. It has a feel of indulgence.
FF&N: Many of your bars are certified organic and fair trade. Are there supply challenges with sourcing these values-based ingredients?
LM: There are challenges with organic and making sure you have a consistent, high-quality supply. Organic doesn't always mean high quality. It means yes it's not treated and all those things that conventional farming is, but it doesn't always mean you'll always get consistent quality. As a food company, we have to have consistent and high-quality ingredients at all times.
FFN: You made your first one million bars in-house before finally finding a contract manufacturer. What were some of the criteria you were looking for in a contract manufacturer?
LM: From the beginning we wanted to find somebody to manufacture so we could focus on branding and marketing and sales because that's how you get your product out there. We manufactured the first year, purchased all the equipment and made it happen. And then we found the right strategic partner. They didn't make bars, they made other products, but they were the right business people and they understood our vision. They were in Colorado, which was also important because I didn't want to move it out of state. Contract manufacturing in the very beginning is hard because they have huge minimums and you're small, so you can't often meet those minimums. We found this company that has grown with us and are just great, 20 minutes from our office. It's almost seamless. When we have ideas or thoughts or improvements, we're always working together to make a great product.