Nutrition Bar Update

Once staples of the low-carbohydrate dieter and high performance athlete, nutrition bars have evolved into a product category fueled by consumer demand for portable meal options that combine balanced nutrition and a wider variety of flavors to suit every palate.

Low-carbohydrate food bars accounted for a majority of food bar sales between 1999 and 2004. While low-carbohydrate bars remain a big part of the category, consumers are now seeking bars with a complete nutritional balance of calories, fat carbohydrates and protein. Other trends making an impact on this category include whole grains, fiber, low sugar and glycemic index.

Market Trends and Growth Drivers
According to a report published by Market Research, a division of Packaged Facts, New York, NY, consumer demand for nutrition bars remains high, with the market projected to climb over $3 billion in sales for 2005. Considering the fact that the low-carb trend has waned quite a bit, what are the main growth drivers these days? “Health and variety are the two major growth factors that should continue to drive this industry forward,” said Don Montuori, publisher of Packaged Facts. “Just about every new food bar recently introduced touted either health benefits or nutritional content, while continuing to allure consumers with provocative ingredients and flavors that blur the lines between health food and confectionery. We’re also seeing innovation in packaging and delivery—such as ‘bite sized’ versions—that will continue to provide a novelty appeal, which hits home with consumers.”

Continued market growth for nutrition bars hinges on four factors, according to another report from the Mintel Research Group, Chicago, IL. These include: (1) aggressive product development to improve taste and broaden flavor choices; (2) consumer desire for products that can be eaten on the go; (3) food bars that contribute to weight loss efforts; and (4) increased sampling due to increased competition and broader distribution. And it is possible to bring these factors together in one comprehensive products like a nutrition bar.

“Bars are a superb platform to deliver healthy, life changing nutrition while on the go,” said David Jenkins, president and CEO of NEXT Proteins, Carlsbad, CA. “Bars are a perfect portable food to help people who embrace new dietary regimes to address their health, energy, longevity and wellbeing.”

Many food bar manufacturers and formulators have responded to consumer demand with bars that taste almost candy-like, while still providing a balanced amount of protein, carbohydrates and fats, in addition to healthy ingredients like vitamins and minerals.

It is important to remember that above all else, taste is the gatekeeper to repeat purchase of nutrition bars. Jay Jacobsen, brand manager at Aurora, IL-based Optimum Nutrition, Inc., agrees. “Although the nutritional attributes of a product are important, taste and texture have made a strong comeback. In fact, for most consumers taste is king,” he said. “In other words, it doesn’t really matter what a bar is supposed to do for you if you can’t get past the taste.”

Simply put, consumers want nutrition bars that taste like food, not cardboard, claims Jonathan Gutwein, marketing coordinator, Universal Nutrition, New Brunswick, NJ. “Consumers are tolerating poor tasting bars less and less due to newer, much better tasting offerings,” he said.

While taste is important, Beth Neumann, vice president and chief marketing officer for New York, NY-based Atkins Nutritionals believes it isn’t the only factor consumers consider when purchasing a nutrition bar. “People are searching for convenient, great-tasting products that meet their individual health needs,” she offered. But above all, she said, consumers are becoming more savvy about their nutrition needs and searching for products that provide them a nutrition advantage.”

The release of the updated U.S. Dietary Guidelines last year led to increased focus on the use of whole grains and all-natural ingredients, monitoring of saturated fat and cholesterol levels, and renewed attention on fiber, according to Eric Zaltas, MS, nutritionist at PowerBar, Berkeley, CA. “This in turn has led to a concentration on ingredients and product formulations that align with a heart healthy diet,” Mr. Zaltas commented. “Heart Health is a trend we’ve seen in the cereal category, however PowerBar is one of first energy bar companies to bring ‘heart healthy’ bars to market with our new PowerBar Nut Naturals and PowerBar Harvest Whole Grain lines.”

Steve Grossman, vice president of Clif Brands, Clif Bar & Co. in Berkeley, CA, says the use of organic ingredients is the next big step for food bars. “The use of organic ingredients is growing,” he said. “In terms of organics, our Mojo Bar will soon be 70% organic, and Clif Nectar is a new 100% organic bar with two servings of fruit in each bar.”

Several bar manufacturers are also working hard to eliminate trans fats from their products, noted Mr. Gutwein. This is a result of the new trans fats labeling law, which makes its debut this month.

Nutrition bars are also being formulated with the glycemic index in mind. “Low glycemic is becoming another trend in the nutrition bar marketplace, in addition to many other food products,” Mr. Gutwein said. “I am sure there will be increasingly greater entry into this new category in the coming months.”

While the low-carbohydrate diet plan is still popular, many athletes, particularly more serious and competitive athletes, are beginning to add carbohydrates back into their regimens. At the same time, however, they are very conscious of the types of carbohydrates they choose, tending toward complex carbohydrates (in most cases lower glycemic) and fiber.

While those same individuals are beginning to understand and accept the need for some simple sugars each day, particularly post-workout to help speed recovery, in general they are continuing to choose lower sugar products.

Mr. Jacobsen explained. “As an outgrowth of the increased awareness of carbohydrate benefits, we are seeing more and more bar users starting to apply the bars they consume to their needs. For example, athletes are seeking bars that include protein and a combination of complex and simple carbohydrates to consume post-workout to enhance recovery.” He added, “They are also seeking bars that contain additional vitamins and essential minerals, along with fiber, to use in between meals or as mini-meals to support overall well-balanced nutrition. Younger individuals, as well those with very high metabolisms, are seeking high-calorie bars to support their weight loss goals.”

Just a few years ago a consumer would just grab “an energy bar,” according to Mr. Grossman. However, that’s no longer the case. “Now, energy bars are made with more specificity to meet the unique nutritional needs of different consumers,” he said. Clif Bar & Co. offers Luna for women, Clif ZBaR for kids, Clif Bar for use by adults during activity, Clif Builder’s to assist in muscle recovery after exercise and the Mojo Bar as a snack for downtime.

The low-carb phenomenon certainly helped consumers gain a better understanding of the role and differences of carbohydrates in the diet—whether the diet is designed to support a recreational athlete or a more causally active individual. “Forty percent of the population is now conscious of their carbohydrate intake,” Ms. Neumann said. “It is now on their health list, along with protein, fiber, and vitamins and minerals. Brands that provide an optimal mix of nutrients are in a great position.”

There is only one problem: packing a complete nutritional profile into one bar often leads to a bigger bar, which can be difficult for consumers to eat in one sitting. “Many consumers, particularly younger people and women, often report that they can’t eat an entire 50- or 80-gram bar in one sitting,” Mr. Jacobsen commented. “Others are just looking for a little something sweet between or after meals and don’t want to consume the 270-300 calories commonly found in bars this size.”

To address that market niche, Optimum Nutrition has launched a bite-sized nutrition bar product called MOR’SOs, which supplies 10 grams of protein, 1.5 grams of fiber and 19 vitamins and essential minerals in 1.2-oz. serving. Like little nutritional “bonbons,” MOR’SOs are comprised of four distinct layers: a protein core, protein bits, a coating and a toping. MOR’SOs are currently available in Chocolate Brownie, Peanut Butter Supreme, and Cookies & Crème flavors.

“Consumers are voicing a strong interest in more versatile bars—multiple pieces that allow them to share, or eat some now and save some for later without creating a big mess trying to separate the bar into smaller pieces,” Mr. Jacobsen said.

Lots of Choices
The bar market is fueled by an influx of new companies and products offering myriad varieties, from traditional granola and breakfast bars to high-tech, motivational diet bars and nutrient-packed power bars. Typical bar consumers include children, women, ethnic consumers, young adults, health aficionados and time-trapped business executives.

Increased competition, however, from the major multinational food companies and candy purveyors like Mars, as well as broader distribution, have limited price increases and narrowed margins, according to Universal Nutrition’s Mr. Gutwein. “The market is very saturated right now,” he said. “Companies are differentiating based on consumer types—some are going after children, pregnant women or men.”

Universal Nutrition recently introduced the Protria and Proteon Bars. Protria is a sugar-free protein bar for active women, while Proteon is a larger bar that is higher in protein and geared toward men who train hard.

Optimum Nutrition’s Mr. Jacobsen agrees wholeheartedly that the market is saturated, but companies still find ways to differentiate themselves from the pack. “This can be done by providing the bar consumer what they want and not necessarily what the company wants to give them,” he said. “That means introducing new flavors, new shapes, and unique textures through toppings, various core textures, and add-ins such as crunchy protein pieces.”

Even though food bar retail shelves are bursting with options, Clif Bar’s Mr. Grossman is quick to point out that food bar sales continue to rise, which means there is still room for growth. “There certainly are a lot of brands out there,” he said. “Yet industry measures show that the category is actually up slightly—and Clif Bar sales are up significantly. If you have a product that tastes great, provides a benefit that consumers want and fits a need, there’s always room to grow.”

Validating that belief is the fact that Clif Bar recently introduced a number of new products for the food bar market. Its most recent launches include Clif Nectar, a 100% organic fruit and nut bar with two servings of fruit in each bar, and Clif Shot Bloks, which are bite-sized organic electrolyte chews with the same lasting boost as energy gels.

At the height of the low-carb trend, the bar category experienced solid growth, with many new players entering the segment and saturating the market with new offerings. As the low carbohydrate trend leveled off and transitioned into a more balanced nutrition focus, PowerBar’s Mr. Zaltas believes several manufacturers naturally phased out as a result of the new consumer nutritional approach.

“Today there are still many players in the market, all working to deliver convenient, nutrition-packed, great tasting products,” Mr. Zaltas said. “The fierce competition in the marketplace should continue to force manufacturers and the category to increase segmentation into specific, targeted bar categories based on functional ingredients, benefits for the consumer and usage occasions.” He continued, “This would include bars that deliver specific performance-enhancing benefits, bars that align with a heart-healthy or low glycemic index regimen, weight loss bars and organic/all-natural offerings.”

Manufacturers can also set themselves apart by maintaining excellent product freshness, noted Mr. Jacobsen. “How many times have you as a consumer picked up a bar off the shelf that grabbed your attention only to find it was harder than a brick?” These days, he said, manufacturers run in small batches to help ensure freshness.

Maintaining product freshness is an issue primarily for companies that rely on third party manufacturers because minimums are still so large that products are often left in warehouses and on store shelves well beyond their lifespan. “In contrast, a bar manufacturer, such as Optimum Nutrition, who is selling direct to retail can overcome this issue by running product in small batches as needed, helping to ensure that its bars are as fresh as possible at the point of purchase,” Mr. Jacobsen said.

In Spring 2006, Optimum will introduce the Lift Bar in the U.S. Providing whole food nutrition combined with vitamins and essential minerals along with fiber, Mr. Jacobsen said, Lift Bars will fit any market segment ranging from individuals simply seeking to improve their overall nutrition, to students and busy individuals who frequently miss meals, to the most hardcore athletes.”

Optimum Nutrition’s sister company, American Body Building, has responded to the needs of younger individuals and those with fast metabolisms by launching the XXL Bar, which contains more than 500 calories and 40 grams of protein.

Offering an approach for the “entire body’s well-being,” Pittsburgh, PA-based Douglas Laboratories recently introduced T.H.E. Bar, a natural granola raisin bar that provides essential fatty acids, cardio-supportive antioxidant nutrients, vitamins and minerals. More specifically, the bar contains rolled oats, raisins, almonds, honey, pomegranate, agave nectar, coconut, black tea extract, and ultra-refined fish oil. It also omits high-fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated oils, artificial sweeteners and flavors and preservatives.

Atkins Nutritionals’ Ms. Neumann revealed that the company has transitioned into a functional food marketer, offering “great-tasting, nutritionally superior Atkins Advantage bars and ready-to-drink shakes to the broad adult population of active men and women seeking to improve their overall health and wellness.” She called this move a shift from Atkins’ previous strategy of educating consumers about the benefits of a controlled-carbohydrate diet.

“The new Atkins Advantage line represents an uncompromising commitment to quality, nutrition and taste, and will be embraced by consumers making smart food choices,” Ms. Neumann said. “Brands need to show consumers that they meet their individual nutrition needs. Our new line of Advantage Caramel Cookie Dough Bars and Caramel Fudge Brownie Bars are simply the first examples of this new mission.”

To educate the public about its change in strategy, Atkins is investing in new marketing communications to raise awareness that Atkins Advantage products have a taste and nutrition advantage. In October 2005, it released a newly designed website ( to make consumers more aware of how to choose foods more wisely. New Advantage packaging with a fresh, modern look designed to highlight the products’ nutrition and taste benefits will be on retail shelves by January 2006. In addition, a new advertising campaign will launch in the first quarter this year.

About the author: Joseph King is a freelance writer based in Spring Hill, FL. He can be reached at [email protected]
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