Natural Foods Merchandiser

Niche Markets Drive Bar Sales

Consumers' appetites for nutrition bars are still growing. Overall, estimated annual sales exceeded $1 billion for the second year in a row, according to Nutrition Business Journal. The challenge most retailers face today is managing the category—there are dozens of different products on store shelves.

There is a nutrition bar for every consumer's whim—weight-loss bars, energy bars, brain-function bars and women's health bars. Until recently, it was fairly easy to separate the category into five general subcategories: energy/endurance, meal replacement/snack, diet/weight loss, functional/nutritional and high-protein/body building.

"Of those categories, we're in the first four, all day long," says Kerry Sweeney, a partner at Healthco Canada in Kelowna, British Columbia. And manufacturers can create a new category with just one new product. "If there was a vegan category, we'd be in that one, too," Sweeney says, referring to the company's Rebar, an all-organic fruit-and-vegetable bar.

One manufacturer that has definitely created a market niche is Clif Bar Inc., based in Berkeley, Calif. The company caters to women's specific nutritional needs and interests with its Luna Bar line. "We've got soy protein and folic acid, and we're high in calcium, and those [nutrients] are really appealing to women," says Rochelle Ballard, associate brand manager. When asked to categorize Luna, she quickly replies, "It's a women's nutritional bar."

Women are the consumers driving the nutritional bar category's overall growth. Last November, Clif announced that sales of each Luna Bar flavor had increased by 25 percent in the grocery channel. The company also for the first time topped PowerBar, owned by Nestlé, in the grocery channel.

If women's nutrition bars are hot today, then organic nutrition bars could be tomorrow's big thing. "More natural foods consumers are looking to purchase bars made with certified-organic ingredients," says John Roulac, founder and president of Sebastopol, Calif.-based Nutiva Inc. "That's one thing that makes our bars stand out," he says.

Roulac sees a demand for organic alternatives to the mostly milk-isolate and soy-based protein bars on shelves today. "We're focusing on hemp bars and flax bars," he says. "The proteins in these bars are easier to digest for some people."

To increase sales, Roulac encourages retailers to spread nutrition bars around the store. "When our bars are next to the juice bar, they just fly off the shelf. If they were next to 48 other bars in the grocery section, people might not even see them," he says.

Whether they're organic, vegan or made especially for grandmothers who surf, new nutrition bars will need at least one element to succeed—flavor. "We were one of the first companies to really nail the taste factor down for energy/nutrition bars," says Ballard about Luna Bars. "And we deliver it in a great package."

Here is a look at the characteristics that make up the more traditional subcategories of nutrition bars.

Energy bars contain between 70 percent and 85 percent carbohydrates, up to 12 percent fat and between 8 percent and 26 percent protein. They weigh in at about 60 grams and contain approximately 25 grams of carbohydrates (half from sugar, half from starch), up to 15 grams of protein and about 5 grams of fat (including approximately 3 grams of saturated fat), according to a product review by, a White Plains, N.Y.-based independent testing laboratory. To provide energy to the runners, bikers, hikers and other athletes who typically eat these bars, most contain a mix of simple carbohydrates (such as high-fructose corn syrup or brown rice sugar), which provide quick energy, and complex carbohydrates (such as maltodextrin), which provide more sustained energy.

Meal Replacement
Ideally, meal-replacement bars provide 100 percent of the U.S. RDI for at least 12 essential vitamins and minerals, including the antioxidant vitamins A, C and E. They should also provide at least 10 grams of protein per serving (50 grams/day is the recommended standard for a 2,000-calorie diet) and some fiber. Many of these bars contain approximately 300 calories and a 1:2 ratio of protein to carbohydrate. Others have a more balanced ratio of carbohydrate, protein and fat, such as the popular 40-30-30 combination. Essential fatty acids would be a beneficial addition to any meal-replacement bar, Roulac says. As expected, busy, on-the-go people are the typical consumers of these bars.

Diet/Weight Loss
Low carbohydrate, low fat and high protein defines the typical profile for a diet or weight-loss bar. Many 40-30-30 combination bars are marketed in this category. Typically, these bars contain small amounts of sugar; however, some bars contain glycerin. Manufacturers may not count glycerin as a carbohydrate, defying the FDA's position that glycerin qualifies as such. This difference can mislead dieting consumers into thinking they are eating a low-carb bar when in fact they are not. Manufacturers commonly use glycerin in nutrition bars to add a sweet taste and moist texture.

Since most bars can be considered nutritional, it's the additives that determine whether or not a bar is functional. Functional bars are marketed to people for specific purposes, such as studying or playing golf.

Functional bars usually contain added essential vitamins, minerals and amino acids, and recipes often include an herb or synergistic combination of herbs. "Brain bars," marketed for mental clarity, typically tout Ginkgo biloba and phosphatidylserine.

"Heart-healthy bars" should have 25 grams or more of soy protein, to meet the FDA's guideline for the health claim; they may also feature hawthorn. Most nutritional bars contain very little cholesterol and salt; a typical bar has less than 10 mg of cholesterol and about 150 mg of sodium.

High Protein/Body Building
Manufacturers typically have special blends for their protein and body-building bars. Often the first ingredient is a mix of whey (from dairy), casein (from dairy), soy protein and other milk-isolate proteins. To qualify as a high-protein bar, it should have more than 20 grams of protein; many pure-protein or body-building bars have 30 grams or more. In addition, these bars usually have less than 20 grams of carbohydrates. They can contain more calories (approximately 250 or more), and many protein bars come in larger sizes (around 3 ounces). People eating these bars typically want to build muscle.

Steve Taormina is a writer and Web site designer.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIII/number 3/p. 62, 65

Bar Category Breakdown

Energy /Endurance Bars

Meal Replacement

Diet /Weight-Loss Bars

Functional /Nutritional Bars

High-Protein /Body-Building Bars


70%-85%; 20 g or more

40%, or a 2:1 ratio with protein

>30% or less


35% or less; 20 g or less


8%-26%; 15 g or less

30%, or a 1:2 ratio with carbs

30% or more; 12 g or more


20 g or more; at least 30%-50%


0%-12%; 0-6 g

Up to 30%

0%-30%; low saturated fat


10% or less

Size /Calories

50 g-80 g; 220-290 calories

50 g-80 g; 220-300 calories

40 g-70 g; 130-250 calories

50 g-80 g; 150-270 calories

60 g-80 g; 250-350 calories

Herbs/Vitamins /Amino Acids

May be fortified with vitamins and minerals

100% of the RDI for essential vitamins and minerals; some fiber

Should be fortified with vitamins and minerals; low cholesterol

Rich in antioxidants; herbs added for specific functions, such as ginkgo for mental clarity

Rich in amino acids (protein)

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIII/number 3/p. 65

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