Nutrition Bars: Muscling into the Mainstream

January 19, 2005

Fueled by the low-carb craze and the high-energy needs of serious athletes, a new wave of nutrition bars is packing in protein from a variety of ingredient sources, in a multitude of combinations. Consumers are also raising the bar on the level of good taste and indulgence they expect, but many are clearly looking for a protein source when they reach for a nutrition bar these days.

 

If young Benjamin Braddock of The Graduate were starting out in business today, nutrition bar insiders would have just one word for him: protein.

Fueled by the low-carb craze and the high-energy needs of serious athletes, a new wave of nutrition bars is packing in protein from a variety of ingredient sources, in a multitude of combinations. Consumers are also raising the bar on the level of good taste and indulgence they expect, but many are clearly looking for a protein source when they reach for a nutrition bar these days.

“From our primary research, we found that 60% of consumers consider high protein the most important attribute in energy bar purchases,” says Karen Holliday, marketing manager for sweet ingredients at Kerry Americas (New Century, KS).

There’s some carryover in nutrition bar protein preferences from the sports nutrition area, where a lot of this started, adds Diane Carnell, R&D director for sweet ingredients at Kerry Americas. “But I think the protein path is twofold. There’s also the fact that when you take carbs out, you have to put something in there,” Carnell says. “There’s a lot of exciting protein work being done within Kerry.”

In fact, even as diet trends come and go, protein is here to stay in nutrition bars, according to Dave Ramirez, vice president of R&D at Labrada Nutrition (Houston). “Protein is the fulcrum on the seesaw between low-fat and low-carb diets,” he says. “And more and more people are realizing the value of protein in their daily diets. Not everyone has time to make a steak or a chicken breast or a filet of fish, so nutrition bars make it convenient for people to get extra protein.”

One of the newest entrants in the mainstream market for protein bars is the Clif Builder’s bar from Clif Bar Inc. (Berkeley, CA), launched in retail stores last summer. With 20 g of protein per serving, the bars come in three flavors-chocolate, peanut butter, and cookies ‘n cream. The chocolate-dipped bars contain a soft layer of soy protein and a crunchy layer of organic rolled oats, soy, and either almonds or peanuts.

“Protein bars were once the domain of bodybuilders, but Clif Builder’s recognizes that workouts don’t only take place in the gym,” says Steve Grossman, senior director of brands for Clif Bar. “Work and play can be just as physical.”

PROTEIN WITH PIZZAZZ

Nutrition bars with customized combinations of different proteins are a growing way for companies to make their mark in the $680 million nutritional/health bar market.

“People used to just throw it [i.e., protein] in there, but now they’ve started putting protein blends together,” says Starla Paulsen, research scientist at Glanbia Nutritionals (Twin Falls, ID). “All the bar manufacturers are creating their own unique blends of proteins to make themselves stand out-some whey protein, some soy protein. Each company seems to have put together its own little special blend over the last couple of years.”

Some of these blends are driven by the need to create nutrition bars for ever-narrower consumer niches. “Bars are being differentiated toward different consumer groups . . . and each bar has a patented blend where they try to get protein from several different sources,” says Jessica Jones-Dille, market insights coordinator at Wild Flavors (Erlanger, KY).

“Nutrition bars are very niche oriented,” agrees Paulsen. “There are bars for women, for kids, for preworkout, for postworkout, for high-end sports nutrition-even bars for pets.”

One of the newest protein ingredients for bars is the first patented textured whey product, WPCrisp, made by Grande Custom Ingredients Group (Lomira, WI). Introduced at the Institute of Food Technologists show in Las Vegas in July, the whey protein crisps can be manufactured with 40–70% protein in four basic sizes, according to Stephen Dott, vice president of Grande Custom Ingredients Group.

“The crisp doesn’t have a strong flavor of its own, so [nutrition bar makers] don’t have to mask anything, and they can use less flavor since it’s so mild,” Dott says. “We already have a number of major companies doing testing, and the feedback has been very good.” Dott adds that the earliest a product might be on the market using WPCrisp would be during the first quarter of 2005.

GOING GLYCEMIC

It’s undeniable that low-carbohydrate diet trends are hot right now, but some nutrition bar makers are already looking ahead to what they see as the next phase of the diet phenomenon: managing carbohydrates rather than eliminating them.

“Instead of just a straight low-carb diet, consumers will go to a managed-carb diet, which includes whole grains and complex carbohydrates,” says Kerry’s Carnell. These kinds of better-for-you carbs also tend to score low on the glycemic index, a scientific ranking of carbohydrates based on their impact on blood sugar. Lower-glycemic carbs are absorbed more slowly by the body, so sugar is released into the bloodstream gradually. This helps consumers feel full longer and prevents a rapid increase in blood sugar, followed by a “crash” and food cravings.

“Low glycemic represents the next wave in the evolution of the low-carb life-style,” says Saul Katz, president and CEO of Solo GI Nutrition Inc. (Edmonton, AB, Canada), which launched its new low-glycemic carb bars at Natural Products Expo East in Washington, DC, in October.Available in four flavors-peanut power, berry bliss, chocolate charger, and mint mania-the Solo GI bars incorporate a proprietary protein blend that includes whey protein concentrate, soy protein isolate, calcium caseinate, soy, and isolated soy protein. The berry bliss bar is coated with yogurt, while the other bars feature a chocolate coating designed to appeal to mainstream consumers.

“Our products are supplemented with 24 vitamins and minerals, and they offer 10–12 g of protein and are a good source of fiber,” Katz says.

“We want to bring the benefits of low-glycemic nutrition to the mass market,” he adds. “Because the bars are a controlled serving, they’re very suitable for helping to control glycemic load. Instead of the consumer having to become educated right away about following a low-glycemic life-style, it’s all in one package.”

Carnell also sees bright possibilities ahead for low-glycemic nutrition bars.

“The glycemic index is very much getting a foothold in the Australian and European markets,” she says. “The United States is watching to see what those markets are going to make of it.” The company is also being asked to incorporate more glycemic index figures into the work it does.

ENERGY BOOST

Within the U.S. market, at least one nutrition bar maker is tapping into another strong food and beverage segment for ingredient ideas: energy drinks. Promax Nutrition Inc. (Concord, CA) recently rolled out its new caramel peanut butter Rampage bar with 28 g of protein and caffeine, tyrosine (a building block for important brain chemicals), phenylalanine (a free-form amino acid), and taurine.

“We took the energy drink market and looked at products like Red Bull and AMP, and then we took their key active ingredients and put them in a high-protein bar,” says Mike Walls, president and CEO of Promax. “Caffeine and taurine are ingredients that energy drink consumers are looking for.”

“The market for Rampage is anybody who’s looking for that high-energy pick-me-up-the extreme sports individuals who tend to gravitate toward energy drinks,” he adds. “If we’re successful in crossing the gap between energy drink and nutrition bar, other companies will follow suit.”

PUSHING FOR TASTE

As nutrition bars expand their reach further into the mainstream market, good taste is becoming an issue as it rarely was among hard-core athlete consumers, say industry experts.

Taste is now becoming more and more of a factor, says Larry Zoeller, vice president of marketing at Maxim America (Downers Grove, IL). “It’s moving more toward confectionery. And most of the new technology is finding ways to add ingredients like protein without affecting taste. The flavors just get broader and broader-there’s going to be a flavor for everybody’s taste.”

In October, Maxim America introduced the Maxim line of top-selling European nutritional bars at the InterBike show in Las Vegas. Made by the Netherlands-based Prinsen Food Group, the bars come in nine flavors: recovery bars in apricot/orange, caramel/hazelnut, and banana; and energy bars in chocolate banana, banana yogurt, mango/raspberry yogurt, caramel chocolate, caramel, and chocolate vanilla.

Also catering to mainstream consumers’ evolving tastes is Promax Nutrition’s high-protein Promax bar, which added two new triple-layer varieties in October-caramel, coconut, and chocolate; and caramel, almond, and chocolate.

Kerry’s Holliday and Carnell agree that nutrition bar consumers of every stripe are no longer prepared to settle for the same old flavors and textures. Holliday says that Kerry research shows “seven out of 10 bar consumers prefer a multitextured, layered product to a single-layer bar. They like a crisp on the bottom or an extruded bottom, then a layer of cookies or a fudgey-soft layer, then a coating.”

Glanbia’s Paulsen contends that while some nutrition bars-especially those with high protein levels-fall short on delivering good taste, more bar manufacturers are exploring indulgent options today, such as “layers, inclusions, peanuts, cookie pieces, and caramel.”Holliday adds, “Even in the sports nutrition market, many of the brand leaders are taking some cues from other areas and beginning to make more-indulgent products with multiple layers and textures.”

And protein’s popularity plays right into that trend, says Carnell. As nutrition bars have gone more mainstream, “people have cared more about taste, and that’s also filtering back to the hard-core protein stuff,” she says. “We’ve done protein research that actually shows you can get a high-protein core and a good taste and texture.”

LOOKING AHEAD

Where will new technology and ingredients take nutrition bars in the future? A tighter focus on fiber is one strong possibility, suggests Kerry’s Carnell.

“It’s starting already, and it’s going to get bigger,” she says. “Polydextrose, FOS (fructo-oligosaccharides), natural fibers, inulin, the prebiotics-I think you will see more and more being used.”

Satiety, or a food’s ability to make the consumer feel full, is another hot research topic that may end up affecting nutrition bars one day, says Carnell.

“Everybody knows that as soon as you’re on a diet, you spend 24 hours a day thinking about what you can and can’t eat,” she says. “Anything that will provide satiety will be very important.”

As nutrition bars stray ever further from their original roles as specialized snacks for athletes, their ability to adapt to changing diet and nutrition trends will help them remain viable players in the marketplace-as long as they taste good.

“Taste is paramount. If you’re not enjoying eating it, why bother?” says Carnell.