Bars have long been an ideal vehicle for protein, combining convenience and functionality. The protein space continues to diversify with more plant-based options and innovations that optimize bar taste and texture.
“The nutritional bar market is dominated by protein-rich bars and is expected to see continued growth with the use of both animal- and plant-based proteins,” says Dina Fernandez, plant protein R&D manager, ADM Nutrition, Archer Daniels Midland Co. (ADM; Chicago, IL).
Plant proteins have received a great share of the attention. “The use of plant-based proteins has increased in the last decade, opening innovative opportunities for all types of food applications, especially in the vegan, vegetarian, and flexitarian markets,” says Fernandez. “Plant-based proteins are often preferred for their nutritional benefits, sustainability considerations, and dietary diversity.”
While plant proteins have been trending, dairy proteins and isolates remain competitive within the protein bar space, specifically within sports nutrition. “Although the plant-based protein market continues to thrive, recent figures show that food and beverage launches featuring dairy proteins are seeing steady growth, with a compound annual growth rate of 7% (globally, 2014-2018),” says Sarah O’Neil of Carbery (Wauconda, IL), citing Innova Market Insights data. She continues: “Sports nutrition is the leading market category featuring dairy proteins. With innovative launches seen in the seniors and infant categories, it is clear that dairy proteins hold strong potential for targeting different consumer groups.”
Sports nutrition has become an interesting space in and of itself, no longer just catering to athletes. “The traditional, single, core protein bar still has its place targeting athletes and fitness enthusiasts; however, we have seen a move toward multilayer bars that incorporate other textures such as protein crisps, and layers,” says O’Neil. “Additionally, there has been an increase in the number of bites and snack sizes being launched, along with products targeted at the paleo, vegan, and ketogenic diets.”
Refrigerated bars are very popular at the moment, points out Leda Strand, manager of snacks, bakery, and confections, applications science and technology, for ADM. Consumers perceive refrigerated bars as healthier because, by virtue of them being in the refrigerated section, they seem fresher, more natural, and less processed.
“These bars are often formulated with a high amount of nut butter and rice syrup, maple syrup, or honey to differentiate them from shelf-stable bars,” explains Strand. “Typically, they are found in the refrigerated section at retail but can be held at room temperature for up to a week. The bars soften once removed from refrigeration and are ideal for athletes, kids, and the whole family.”
A theme that emerges when talking about bars is texture, which is key to the success of a bar. Consumer preference varies when it comes to texture, with some preferring crunch and others preferring softness. Suppliers and protein bar manufacturers are constantly innovating to improve the taste and texture of bar formulations. One common challenge with bars is maintaining a consistent texture during shelf life.
“As a plant-based protein bar ages, the texture typically becomes harder, with a dry mouthfeel. ADM offers a full line of soy proteins that provide functionality to maintain a soft and moist bar texture. These proteins have low-water-binding and -holding capacity and delay moisture absorption, therefore delaying bar hardening,” explains Strand. “In many cases, we also recommend that our customers combine the use of protein isolates or concentrates with soy crisps or textured soy protein such as [ADM’s soy protein concentrate] Arcon T, to reach the targeted protein level. In addition, we use soy protein isolates to differentiate the texture of a bar to achieve varying sensory attributes, from a short, cookie-like texture to a chewy, brownie-like texture. This allows for increased flexibility in the finished bar characteristics.”
The same goes for dairy-protein bars. After surveying manufacturers from Europe, North America, and Australia, Carbery learned that 50% of those surveyed experience hardening as early as three months into a product’s shelf life. Carbery is trying to solve this with its Optipep 4Bars whey protein ingredients, sourced from milk from grass-fed cows, which also offers something for vegetarians and is said to maintain a soft texture.
“Many bar manufacturers are faced with using non-vegetarian protein sources to deliver a soft texture in their bars over shelf life. Increasingly, this can be unappealing to many consumers who are looking for vegetarian and natural claims,” says O’Neil. “Our studies have revealed that using Optipep 4Bars in your bar formulation delivers a 53% reduction in hardness at 12 months versus a protein bar that does not contain Optipep 4Bars.”