Bar None

December 17, 2009
Jennifer Grebow
Jennifer Grebow

Jennifer Grebow is editor-in-chief of Nutritional Outlook.

Many agree that the sales potential for nutrition bars is still relatively untapped. In Mintel International's March assessment of the U.S. nutrition and energy bar market, only 14% of the respondents questioned reported using these products-a limited audience, which leaves much opportunity for growth, noted Mintel.

Many agree that the sales potential for nutrition bars is still relatively untapped. In Mintel International's March assessment of the U.S. nutrition and energy bar market, only 14% of the respondents questioned reported using these products-a limited audience, which leaves much opportunity for growth, noted Mintel.

While sales of nutrition and energy bars lag behind sales of other types of bars for now, many see opportunities to drive sales in the future-particularly, with condition-specific bars. Industry members say that the bars of the future will contain advanced functional-ingredient formulations to address a range of health conditions.

The list of ingredients currently catching bar marketers' attention is lengthy. "They want to have many functional ingredients in one bar, as opposed to just a single 'hot button' ingredient," says Dave Pfefer, category manager for fortification blends for Caravan Ingredients (Lenexa, KS). Some marketers are also looking to include more-potent amounts of functional ingredients in bars.

KID'S STUFF

IN ADDITION to condition-specific bars, marketers are also looking at the possibilities in customer-specific nutrition bars. Children are becoming a target customer, as parents look for healthier snacks for their kids. Formulators are creating bars to provide children with the ingredients they need during development, such as cognitive ingredients, iron, calcium, fat solubles, vitamins, and protein.

Hilmar Ingredients (Hilmar, CA) has developed its Birthday Cake Crispy Bar-a bar that includes Hilmar 9400 Whey Protein Isolate and Hilmar 8370 Whey Protein Hydrolysate, as well as whey crisps. The whey crisps, made with 50 to 70% whey protein, help to boost protein content and are an alternative to traditional crisps and granola, says the company.

Figuring out how to incorporate these ingredients into nutrition bars, and at higher levels, has become challenging. Texture and taste remain crucial considerations for nutrition bars, and the addition of certain functional ingredients, such as potassium salts, ascorbic acid, caffeine, and taurine, can throw either or both off.

"Many nutritional ingredients are associated with 'off' odors and undesirable flavors, particularly when used at the levels required for label claims," notes Kristine Lukasik, manager of food applications and regulatory affairs for Balchem Corp. (New Hampton, NY). "There are many nutrients that are enormously attractive, from the standpoint of product differentiation. In practice, however, a formulator may not be able to deliver therapeutically meaningful amounts of these ingredients in a bar without significant stability and sensory issues. Consumers often use these nutrition bars in lieu of a meal, so it is advantageous to make the eating experience a pleasant one, in the interest of repeat sales."

"Historically, nutrition bars have not been very appetizing," Pfefer adds. "They've gotten much better over recent years, but customers are still asking for better taste. Because so many of the functional ingredients we're putting into bars have specific flavors or 'off' flavors, being able to mask or camouflage them is getting tougher."

Ingredient Interactions

One concern with including an increasing range of functional ingredients in nutrition bars is how those ingredients will interact.

For instance, says Lukasik, ingredients such as omega-3 fatty acids can present added challenges in extruded and compressed bars. "Think of all the particulates that are effectively pressed together in these systems," she says. "There is a lot of accessible surface area in which to accelerate oxidation and other degradative reactions. These cascade into undesirable cross-reactions with other ingredients and subsequent generation of unexpected 'off' flavors."

Minerals and antioxidants such as vitamin A, CoQ10, and alpha-lipoic acid are other examples of ingredients with stability issues, says Ram Chaudhari, senior executive vice president and chief scientific officer for Fortitech Inc. (Schenectady, NY).

Another ingredient becoming more popular in bars that may require flavor masking? Stevia. In particular, Rebaudioside A (Reb A) provides nutrition bar formulators with an exciting opportunity to create lower-calorie bars, says Stephanie Lynch, director of health and wellness business development for Virginia Dare (Brooklyn, NY). However, "Reb A extract does tend to require some help from masking technology to enhance its natural sweetening ability and to minimize the bitter and metallic aftertaste," she says.

THE CORN-BASED BAR

SCIENTISTS ARE BRINGING a new type of energy bar to the Philippines-the corn-based energy bar. As part of research started in 2006 by Leonora Panlasigui, PhD, currently dean of the School of Nutrition at Philippine Women's University, scientists are studying the corn-based bars and the effects of slow-released carbohydrates from corn grits.

"In our first study, we showed that one variety of corn grits contains slow-released carbohydrates," says Panlasigui. "We have shown that slow-released carbohydrates can modulate hormonal responses such as insulin and lower cholesterol and LDL levels, which might be beneficial to health for those with impaired glucose tolerance, hypercholesterolemia, and obesity."

Panlasigui says that slow-released carbohydrates have also shown to prolong athletic endurance-one of the reasons for the interest in incorporating the corn grits into energy bars. "We want to determine the glycemic effect of the corn bars and whether it can help the endurance of some athletes," says Panlasigui. She says that the researchers also worked to determine the optimum amount of corn that can be incorporated in a bar, considering taste and other conditions.

Another reason that corn was of interest? "Corn is our second staple [food] in the Philipppines," says Panlasigui. "In times of rice shortages, we always use corn-with a stigma attached to it as a staple for the poor."

Formulating Techniques

Companies are increasingly using microencapsulation, nanotechnology, and other means of flavor masking to prevent ingredients from interacting, and to improve taste.

"Microencapsulation of a nutrient with a lipid coating is an important mechanism for taste masking," says Lukasik. "In many instances, this market-ready technology is more effective than the use of elaborate flavor systems."

Choosing the right microcapsule material is key, since processing conditions such as heat and mixing can rupture a coating. "With lipid microencapsulation, for example, elevated processing temperatures can cause the fat to soften, thus affecting the integrity of the coating," says Lukasik. "Also, aggressive ingredient blending may fracture the coating."

Simply adding more coating to a particle does not necessarily protect it more effectively, she adds. "It's really how that particle is designed and produced that counts."

Despite its challenges, microencapsulation is a useful tool to many bar formulators. Caravan Ingredients' Pfefer says that his company is more often requiring raw material suppliers to provide ingredients in microencapsulated form to insulate them from other ingredients.

Nanotechnology can also help marketers include more functional ingredients in a nutrition bar, but it presents challenges of its own. For one thing, says Chaudhari, some nanotechnology particles-for instance, those that are hydrophobic-could cause particles to cluster and "glob" together. If this happens, "the ingredients will become a bigger particle, and you'll be able to detect the texture and the taste of the ingredient," he says.

Also, as with microencapsulated particles, nanotechnology particles can interact. Chaudhari says that one way to avoid this is to strategically layer ingredients in a bar's structure, "so that you create a nice envelope with different layers, and active layers aren't touching each other," he says.

If small-sized particles can help to flavor mask, so can large-sized particles. "Larger-particle-size technology would help to prevent the compound from reaching or being easily detected by the taste receptor," says Lynch. Like microcapsules, these large particles can help an ingredient's flavor bypass the taste receptors, she says.

Other ways of "tricking" taste receptors are to develop compounds that compete for the same taste receptors, or to bind another compound to an "off tasting" one to inhibit stimulation of the taste receptor.

Scientists at the Monell Chemical Senses Center (Philadelphia), which studies the science behind taste and smell, have been studying how certain compounds on a molecular level can help to block the bitter taste of a specific compound, without compromising a person's senses to other, "desired" bitter tastes in foods.

Moreover, say the center's scientists, because each person has an individualized palette, it may be possible in the future to design personalized bitter blockers.

Tailored Solutions

Is one method of masking functional ingredient flavors better than another? "There are a variety of mechanisms, but all of them have their pluses and minuses. It all depends on the formula at hand, and what amount of added formulation cost [a company] can bear," says Lukasik.

"It's a good approach to keep solutions simple when possible and try to increase existing flavors to hide other unwanted flavors," says Lynch.

And at the end of the day, marketers need to ensure that they're not providing customers with too much of a good thing in a nutrition bar. "One thing that comes up is over-fortification," says Pfefer. "It hasn't really been an issue with nutrition bars." However, as some nutrition bar brands strive to outdo others by including more functional ingredients, marketers must still remember the value in a well-balanced bar.