In a report released last year, market research firm Euromonitor International examined the meal replacement segment, including snack and nutritional bars. What they found was that the space is in a state of transformation. Once focused almost exclusively on weight-loss products, today’s market is shifting to include products that optimize consumer nutritional needs and help them achieve their health goals.

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Why? Consumers are bombarded with different diet fads and, frankly, they’re sick of it. Today’s shoppers want something a bit more holistic: a fresher and healthier meal replacement or snack that is based on whole food nutrition and natural ingredients.


Market data

According to IRI, Chicago, dollar sales of snack and granola bars grew 1.61 percent in the 52 weeks ending March 19, 2017. While sales of breakfast, cereal and snack bars remained relatively flat, and dollar sales of granola bars dipped 2.06 percent, bars positioned as nutritional or carrying some intrinsic health value were on the rise to the tune of 3.55 percent. Within this segment, big players included offerings from Clif Bar, which grew 11.04 percent in sales to reach $758.5 million, as well as bars from Quest Nutrition, which grew 23.83 percent. Also on the rise was the KIND Nuts & Spices line, up 20.06 percent, and thinkThin bars, up about 23.45 percent.

Breakfast, cereal, and snack bars that are marketed with a health positioning seem to be carrying this portion of the bars market, according to IRI. KIND’s products buoyed the segment, growing a whopping 535.67 percent in dollar sales.

According to Holly Hansen, marketing communications manager at PROBAR, Salt Lake City, UT, “nearly half of all sales come from three brands—Clif, KIND, Atkins—with remaining dollars splintered across a multitude of smaller brands” as consumers seek out options that are meal replacements, nutritious snacks between meals and foods to optimize athletic performance.

“We see the market as preferring quick, on-the-go convenient snacks or meal replacements that also have functional nutritional value,” says Brett J. Cutler, PE, application sales engineer. Baker Perkins Inc., Grand Rapids, MI.

That’s the good news.

Granola bars aren’t experiencing as much explosive growth, likely because they don’t enjoy the specific healthy positioning as nutritional bars. Look no further than the fact that brands experiencing notable growth in the nutritional segment were actually on the decline when it came to their granola offerings. For instance, KIND’s granola bars fell in sales, down 7.90 percent, while diet-positioned bars like Atkins Harvest Granola Bars grew 112.17 percent in sales, indicating that this segment may appeal to shoppers focused on weight loss.

“Traditionally, the category has grown because bars are portable and portion controlled,” says Tim Williams, director of sales and technical service, Lawrence Foods, Elk Grove Village, IL, but this doesn’t cut it anymore. “Currently, growth is coming because of the healthy halo in the formulation, be it fortification, nutritional composition or clean ingredients.”


Looking back

Trends causing the most positive impact in bars continue to revolve around health. The thing is, different consumers have very different definitions of what constitutes healthy. Gluten-free, organic, low-sugar, high protein or fiber, clean ingredients, natural—these all constitute healthy attributes for some portion of the consumer base. “This is tied to the millennials and their desire for authenticity and wanting to know more about the foods they eat,” explains Jeannie Swedberg, director of business development, Tree Top, Selah, WA.

As a result, says Swedberg, driving health trends include everything from specific ingredients like nuts, seeds and legumes, to formulation trends like lowering sugar content with ingredients like fruit purées and dried fruits.

To meet these trends, KIND’s new line of Pressed By KIND bars were released in May 2016, which feature a “no sugar added” claim right on the label, and contain five ingredients or less in fruit-centric flavors like Mango Apple Chia, Pineapple Coconut Chia and Strawberry Apple Chia. Each contains two full servings of fruit.

“Fruit purée and dried fruits do not count as added sugar, yet provide some of the same function sugar does,” adds Swedberg.

Because consumers seek out less processing overall, in addition to whole ingredients on the label, cold-pressed bars are also gaining steam. Simply Eight LLC, maker of JUNKLESS Chewy Granola Bars, launched two new flavors of bars in January 2017—Cinnamon Roll and 100% REAL Strawberries—each made with minimal processing and no more than eight familiar kitchen pantry ingredients. To meet this raw trend while maintaining peak food safety, Healthy Food Ingredients, Fargo, ND offers a micro-reduction process for flax that helps formulators achieve a less-processed clean label.

Nut butters were also a big trend over the past year, with Kashi, Clif and Perfect Bar all launching new varieties filled, coated, or drizzled with nut butters. The challenge? Adding such ingredients “leaves manufacturers exploring methodologies to make these new products on existing equipment,” says Cutler. Enter Baker Perkins’ new full-width encapsulation equipment—in both new and retrofit options—which pumps nut butters and other similar ingredients into the center of baked goods.

According to Molly Spence, director, North America, Almond Board of California, Modesto, CA, nuts like almonds are perfect for bar applications because they’re so flexible: butters can be a filling, flours make sense for gluten-free offerings and slivers can be used in layered bars to create visual appeal and add a different texture.


Looking forward

Bar consumers will continue to demand more from the market, as the public has less time to prepare meals. “Consumers are looking for more than just a snack,” explains Kelly Meer, product manager, Bosch Packaging Technology, Inc., New Richmond, WI. “Providing a healthier option over fast-food meals, a single meal-supplement bar provides the right amount of nutrition in an easy-to-carry format.”

Bosch recently launched a range of new equipment, including a new Pack 403 model of flow wrappers ideal for small products (capable of wrapping up to 800 per minute), a new Integrated Topload Cartoner (Kliklok ITC) that can erect, load and close cartons, an advanced version of its bar-production system that can output up to 1,500 bars per minute in primary and secondary packaging, and the WRF 600 Flex roller former that eliminates waste with tool-free adjustments for precise-edge cutting for different sizes.

With meal replacements at the forefront of the bars market going forward, many experts believe that flavor profiles will shift from sweet to savory. PROBAR, for example, launched a line of innovative flavors last year like Sriracha Peanut Butter to meet this demand. And Williams predicts that the market will only continue to offer more along these lines, featuring ingredients like pulse flours, vegetables and health-forward spices like turmeric.

That being said, indulgent bars may also make waves going forward, as manufacturers look to capture the elusive nighttime snacker. “Mid-afternoon and evening snacking has not been a large market for bar consumption,” says Williams. “We believe that with innovative formulation, the indulgence factor for bars can be upped to allow them to compete with other more indulgent snacks during those dayparts.”

Recently, LÄRABAR launched a Mint Chocolate Chip Brownie variety to undoubtedly appeal to the late-night treat-seeker. Williams sees opportunity here for manufacturers that can offer a sweet and indulgent bar with added health benefits. “After all,” he says, “balance is what this category is all about.” 

State of the Industry: Bakery Report
Overview | Bread | Tortillas | Sweet Goods | Snack Cakes | Pizza | Desserts | Cookies | Buns & Rolls | Bars | Breakfast Products