Product Developer for a Day

December 4, 2008



As an editor who covers the natural products industry, I've tried more bad-tasting nutrition bars than I care to remember. Recently, I bit into a bar that a company sent me as a sample and thought that I could do better. How difficult could it be, I wondered.

To find out, I attempted to create my own bar using the Los Angeles–based do-it-yourself Web site www.youbars.com. After my experience as product developer for a day, I learned that designing a good bar is not impossible-but it's not as easy as it sounds.

Before I began, I set some goals. Specifically, I wanted to create an appetizing bar that was relatively high in protein, fiber, and vitamins, but low in sugar, calories, and fat.

The site was simple and easy to navigate. Once of the most helpful aspects of the site is a Nutrition Facts panel that updates in real time after each ingredient is selected.

After prompting me to select one of three bar sizes, the Web site asked me to choose one or two bases. I clicked on cashew macadamia and watched in dismay as the bar's total fat content immediately jumped from 0 g to 22 g. By adding organic dates as my second base, however, total fat dropped down to 11 g. At this point, each bar contained 3 g of protein, 18 g of carbohydrates, and 2 g of fiber. Not bad.

NUTRITION BAR WRAPPERS: FROM REFUSE TO REUSE

AMERICANS GOBBLED UP AN ASTOUNDING $900 MILLION worth of nutrition bars in 2006, according to Mintel (London). A key part of the category's success has been its vibrant packaging. Nutrition bar wrappers, however, are also a growing source of concern for consumers worried about the environment.

In September, TerraCycle (Trenton, NJ), a company that converts used packaging into useful items like bags, tents, and umbrellas, announced that two major nutrition bar manufacturers, Clif Bar (Berkeley, CA) and Kraft (Northfield, IL), had joined its Wrapper Brigade Program.

Consumers sign up for the program for free at TerraCycle's Web site, www.terracycle.net/brigades. Within two weeks of signing up, the consumers receive four collection bags that each hold about 200 wrappers. Consumers mail the bags back to TerraCycle, which covers the shipping fees and donates 2 cents per wrapper to a charity designated by the consumer.

"Balance Bar was founded by entrepreneurs focused on trying to make a difference in the way people eat," says Brian Sullivan, brand manager for Kraft's Balance Bar line. "In that same spirit, we are thrilled to be partnering with TerraCycle in their entrepreneurial endeavors to help make a difference in how we treat our environment."

"We're very excited to take our sustainability efforts to a new level with the Wrapper Brigade program," adds Carly Lutz, brand manager at Clif Bar. "From using organic ingredients in our bars to selling them in recycled paperboard caddies on store shelves, we are mindful of the importance of trying to reduce our footprint on the planet."

"Our main goal is to make reuse, rather than disposal, the standard," explains TerraCycle spokesman Dan Quintero. He adds that the company, which has similar programs for cookie wrappers, drink pouches, and corks, is always looking for additional partners.

Next, the site asked me to select up to three different protein sources. The site also asked me to select one of three protein amounts: less, normal, or extra. I chose whey protein and asked for the highest amount available: 10 g. Adding the whey protein shrank the bar's total fat and carbs to 9 g and 13 g, respectively, while boosting its calcium content by 40%.

The site then gave me a chance to choose several varieties of nuts and seeds. I selected sesame and went to the next section, which displayed an array of fruits and berries. Here, the trade-off between taste and nutrition became obvious. As long as the size of the bar remained constant, nearly any ingredient I added diluted the amount of the other ingredients, potentially causing some nutrient levels to drop. None of the fruits seemed to add a significant amount of fiber. In keeping with my Hawaiian macadamia theme, I clicked on pineapple, which caused fat and protein to each plunge 2 g, to 7 g and 8 g, respectively. Meanwhile, calcium dwindled to a still-respectable 34%.

Next came the sweeteners. As I toggled back and forth between the low-GI organic agave nectar and the organic clover honey, I noticed that both had roughly the same impact on fiber, sugar, and carbs. Because the site recommended honey, I avoided the agave nectar. Carbs inched up 2 g, from 14, to 16 g.

From the grains section, I selected oat bran, which added another gram of fiber, bringing the grand total to 3 g. The site also permits consumers to add an optional "infusion" of nutrients. I was torn between the vitamin and fiber infusions. Clicking on the fiber button produced only a barely perceptible change in the Nutritional Facts panel, but clicking on the vitamin option made the bar's vitamin C content rocket from 1 to 53% of the DV, so I stuck with the vitamins.

Finally, it was time for the good stuff-seasonings, chocolate, and other tasty additions. Adding unsweetened cocoa powder pushed the fiber content up 2 g, and including Ghirardelli semisweet chocolate chips had virtually no impact on anything, rendering the bars surprisingly guilt-free. Fearing the bars would be too bland, I also added coffee crystals and peppermint oil.

At this point, I reviewed my handiwork. It looked like I met some of my goals-the bars were low in fat and had some fiber, but the protein content was now down to a meager 6 g. On the other hand, the bars had more vitamins and minerals than I expected. In honor of our magazine, I dubbed the bar "Nut Out."

I hit the submit button and immediately received a confirmation e-mail for my order. With shipping and handling, the total came to just over $45 for a box of 13.

The process seemed easy and painless, except for the $45 price tag. To find out what kind of effect this type of business could have on the industry, I asked Jeff Hilton, marketing expert and founder of Integrated Marketing Group (Salt Lake City), for his opinion.

"I guess we all knew that customization would eventually come to the nutrition bar world," Hilton said. "It's definitely a novel idea. The question is whether after the novelty has worn off, will consumers still find it compelling enough to stay with it?"

Hilton added that while the site does tap into the needs for control and individuality prominent among younger Internet consumers, the custom bars are $3 each, which may weigh heavily on their limited incomes.

"Also, if you look historically at other 'customization' plays such as GNC and its custom supplement packs, they never really took off and eventually folded," he added. "So is it a fun fad or does it have legs? Time will tell. I am guessing that this too shall pass."

Exactly one week later, the box arrived. Each bar came wrapped in a You Bar label emblazoned with the name Nut Out (see photo below). It was time for the moment of truth, the Nut Out taste test.

I bit into the bar: Not good. Too much coffee and peppermint! Also, the unsweetened cocoa combined with the coffee to create an overwhelmingly bitter flavor. After distributing the bars to several coworkers at our office, I received these comments (emphasis added):

"It's different. Interesting. At first, the peppermint tasted weird with the coffee flavor and the dates. After I was done eating, the peppermint flavor was the aftertaste-not bad, like I had brushed my teeth."

"The first bite of the bar tasted a little chalky but a few bites into it I grew to like it."

"A sweet and sour concoction of chewiness."

"It can only be described with a metaphor about soil. Each layer, from the topsoil to the subsoil layer, serves its individual, amazing, self-serving function. Yet cohesively, I feel increasingly confused with each bite. Like watching vaudeville. Or eating grandma's fruitcake (made of soil)."

So, if there's one thing I learned from the experience, it's that I probably shouldn't try to be a product developer ever again. The bars themselves weren't bad; it was my haphazard selection of the ingredients that was the problem.

While I'd like to think that product design can be as simple as it was depicted in the old Reese's Peanut Butter Cup commercial-the one in which an accidental collision created a culinary masterpiece ("You put your chocolate in my peanut butter. No, you put your peanut butter in my chocolate!")-reality is much more complicated. Even this simple experiment gave me a new appreciation for the difficult choices that R&D specialists go through every day. Next time, I'll leave it to the experts.