Through the years, an overall shift toward clean eating has generally benefited the snack and granola bars market, encouraging consumers to reach for bars instead of candy, cake, cookies, and other snacks.

“Our increasingly busy lifestyles over the last few years have led to a reduction in sit-down meals and an increase in snacking,” says Mindy Leveille, global strategic marketing manager, proteins, Kerry, Beloit, WI. “Consumers now snack almost constantly, blurring the line between what constitutes a snack versus what is a meal.”

This “snackification” of our eating habits is driving growth in the protein bar sector, as consumers look for ways to get their functional needs for protein met in a tasty, convenient format, says Leveille. “The number of protein bars featuring ‘high’ or ‘added’ protein is rising in a category already estimated to be worth $6 billion in 2019. What’s exciting is that this is only the beginning for this category. The product possibilities in terms of flavor are endless. The emergence of exciting new tastes in savory, as well as in sweet and salty, is just the beginning.”

If you ask Joe Katterfield, business development manager, sports nutrition and health foods, Arla Foods Ingredients, Viby, Denmark, the boundaries between functional foods and mainstream products are as blurry as ever. “In other words,” he says, “bars with functional benefits are increasingly being picked up by non-athletes who just want a healthier snack.”

The widespread appeal makes sense. “Nutrition bars are the perfect, healthy, quick snack that can be used as either a meal replacement or a ‘less guilty’ indulgent alternative to snacks such as cookies and candy,” says Bob DiNunzio, director of category strategy, Daymon, Stamford, CT.

The snack and granola bar market has long seen steady growth. But then COVID-19 arrived. With pandemic restrictions in place, many people are no longer commuting to work, significantly impacting on-the-go snacking, which has hit the bar market hard.


Category update

The snack and granola bars market saw a decline of 5.2 percent to $6.1 billion for the 52 weeks ending October 4, 2020, per IRI, Chicago. While some brands fared better than others, activity was down in most segments of the category. Nutritional and intrinsic health value bars dropped 8.0 percent to $3.1 billion, and granola bars dropped 6.5 percent to $1.4 billion.

Breakfast, cereal, and snack bars was a bright spot though. IRI reports that segment rose 2.0 percent in sales to reach $1.5 billion. IRI’s “all other” catch-all snack and granola bar segment—consisting of formats that don’t clearly fall into the other snack and granola bar segments—also saw growth, up 37.6 percent to $24.8 million.

Every company in the top five for nutritional and intrinsic value bars saw drops for the year. However, some individual brands in the segment saw growth:

  • KIND grew 74.4 percent to $120.6 million

  • CLIF Kid Zbar grew 12.8 percent to $86.7 million

  • Slim Fast Keto grew 69.0 percent to $84.6 million

  • Nature’s Bakery grew 15.0 percent to $79.7 million

In breakfast, cereal, and snack bars, KIND was again a standout, with its KIND Minis growing 119.3 percent to $47.8 million, KIND Breakfast growing 10.2 percent to $33.1 million, and KIND Breakfast Protein growing 3.9 percent to $27.0 million. An investment by Mars, Inc. a few years ago has helped KIND grow its reach, providing a notable payoff that led to Mars completely acquiring KIND in November.

Over in the granola bars segment, one of the only bright spots was McKee Foods, which grew its Sunbelt Bakery bars by 4.9 percent to $100.6 million.


Health shifts

The ongoing focus on protein has some bar brands looking beyond traditional whey and soy protein and experimenting with options like pea, beans, or lentils,” says Chad Rieschl, senior research food technologist, Cargill, Minneapolis.

According to a new report from Kerry, more than half of American snack bar consumers recognize protein content as one of the category’s most-important attributes. That said, the popularity of protein sources has shifted over the years away from dairy—Kerry says that over 50 percent of protein users report dairy-free as their most-important consideration—and toward other options.

“Plant protein is the ingredient trending most in the protein bar space,” says Leveille. “Consumers motivated by sustainability and health goals are demanding more plant-based options in their diets, and product developers are responding with innovative new products. Pea and rice protein are very popular in the space, and the great thing is that these can be combined in clever ways to deliver quality protein options.” She notes Kerry’s pea-rice combination, ProDiem Complete, delivers a “complete protein” that is equivalent to meat, eggs, dairy, and soy.

“The growing ‘flexitarian’ consumer, who is willing to try plant proteins, is opening up opportunities to develop hybrid snack bars that incorporate both plant and animal proteins,” says Leveille. “Blending these two sources can provide a better nutritional profile in bars while helping to improve their taste and texture versus using only plant protein.”

The nutrition and snack bar market is incredibly competitive, and desirable product claims can sometimes sway purchase decisions. “There are many development options evolving in the protein bar space, but these come with important rules and regulations that must be followed,” says Leveille. “This makes it vital for product developers to work with an ingredient partner that can bring comprehensive knowledge and expertise to the process.”

While Kerry research shows that sports nutrition consumers still seek out bars with over 20 grams of protein per serving, general wellness bars will do just fine with 5 to 10 grams, which won’t have the taste and texture challenges of higher counts. Leveille notes Kerry recently developed a white paper related to key decision-making during bar R&D (see “Choosing the right protein for your snack bar”).

Additionally, whole-food sources like almonds are on the rise, since they offer 6 grams of protein in every ounce and are available in bar-friendly formats like powders and butters, says Laura Gerhard, director of strategy and marketing, Blue Diamond Almonds Global Ingredients Division, Sacramento, CA. “Many consumers are attempting to incorporate more plant-based foods into their diet, while others are making the switch to fully plant-based, vegetarian or vegan lifestyles. As a result, we are seeing significant innovation with plant-based protein ingredients in snack and nutrition bars, which can be a valuable source of energy and nutrients for plant-based consumers, replacing a meal like breakfast or lunch, or serving as a healthy snack.”

Baked inclusions can also help product developers deliver enhanced flavor, texture, and visual appeal in healthier snack bar offerings, says Angela Lofthouse, global sales and R&D director, Chaucer Foods, Calabasas, CA. “Freeze-dried fruit and vegetables are also perfectly aligned with the trend toward functional ingredients and a simpler label.”

Whether the format is pieces, slices, or powders, freeze-dried inclusions check all the boxes: flavor, color, and nutrition. According to the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council, Folsom, CA, 1 cup of blueberries provides 24 percent of daily-recommended vitamin K, 25 percent of the daily-recommended manganese, and 3.5 grams of fiber.

Formulators can also differentiate products by what their bars don’t offer: loads of sugar. Research from ADM, Chicago, shows that eight in 10 consumers are reducing their sugar intake, with 79 percent cutting back on sugar in their bars and snacks specifically, notes Paula Labine, marketing director, milling and starch. Further, sugar reduction becomes 56 percent more important to consumers when they’re seeking functional foods with added health benefits like protein and fiber—two nutrients very common to bars.

Bars pose the challenge of balancing taste and off-notes associated with the variety of functional ingredients, says Katharina Pueller, senior director of business development, North America, Sweegen, Rancho Santa Margarita, CA. “Sugar acts as a natural flavor masker, and when the sugar is reduced, the bars often exhibit astringency, dryness, and bitterness.” For some brands, adding fruit like blueberries or strawberries can bring back some sweetness and moisture. For others, adding natural sweeteners is the solution. Sweegen meets demand with its Bestevia Taste Modulation portfolio, which supports up to 50 percent sugar reduction with “natural flavor” labeling.

After all, carbs are back in the spotlight. Most consumers put dieting on the back burner during the pandemic, with one big exception—those on lifestyle diets like keto, gluten-free, or clean eating.

Personalization is a key trend in the food industry, and Leveille notes more new protein bars with specific dietary claims, such as keto, gluten-free, plant-based, healthy aging, immunity-boosting, and low glycaemic index.

According to The NPD Group, Port Washington, NY, U.S. adult participation in diet and nutrition programs overall dropped from 48.3 percent in April 2019 to 43.8 percent in April 2020. However, keto and specialty dieters stayed the course, with no change since April 2019 (see “Most diets were put on hold while sheltering at home except for keto and other lifestyle diets”).

What these dieters did report, though, was a disruption in routine that made it difficult for them to maintain their goals. Specialty diets like keto require a total lifestyle shift. The NPD Group found that stress eating contributed to 4 percent of increases in in-home snack occasions and 8 percent of increases in overall snack food consumption.

“Brands have opportunities to cater to these specialty audiences by making their lifestyles more attainable, and boosting their confidence that they can indeed maintain the compliance they need to achieve the results they want,” says Philip Caputo, marketing and consumer insights manager, Virginia Dare, Brooklyn.


Flavors that comfort

COVID-19 has also influenced consumer flavor preferences. “In the indulgent flavor space, childhood-inspired adult flavor hybrids are very promising, as these profiles are associated with happiness, positive taste memories, and childhood bliss,” says Caputo. Virginia Dare’s Forever Young flavor theme includes flavors inspired by candy classics, lemonade, mocktails, and cereal mixes, as well as carnival and upscale dessert profiles. “The positive emotions associated with these flavors can positively affect mood, therefore increasing motivation, energy, and confidence, which makes them particularly intriguing opportunities for bars.”

Classic flavors such as chocolate and strawberry are always in style, but there are many new variations becoming attractive to consumers, says Leveille. “We’re seeing new flavors such as apple cinnamon, birthday cake, carrot cake, brownie, banana bread, and even churros gain favor.”

Savory is another emerging flavor segment in protein bars, reports Leveille. “Kerry has developed a tomato and basil concept protein bar that showcases the possibilities in this important area. In reality, almost any flavor one can think of—say, in potato chips—becomes a possibility in a protein bar.” Consumers want variety.

“Beyond taste, new texture and mouthfeel are also important trends and key elements of differentiation in the protein bar market,” says Leveille. “The assembly of the different building blocks in these snack/meal bars is now considered an art and a science, with manufacturers innovating relentlessly to create multi-layer products that deliver a complete sensory experience.”

Labine notes consumers are granting themselves permission to enjoy indulgent foods that have familiar comfort flavors, such as vanilla, chocolate, peanut butter, and birthday cake to help alleviate stress during the pandemic. COVID is also driving consumers to seek out health-signaling flavors like citrus and mint, she adds, as well as functional flavors.

“Characterizing taste profiles from, or inspired by, highly functional ingredients such as botanicals, spices, and healing herbs like turmeric, ginger, cinnamon, lavender, and honey, will grow in popularity alongside increased emphasis on emerging health trends,” adds Caputo.

Gary Augustine, director of marketing, Van Drunen Farms, Momence, IL, suggests superfoods like dragon fruit, açaí, maqui berry, dark berries, leafy greens, ginger, garlic, pomegranate, mushrooms, and sweet potato might hit intriguing notes with health-conscious consumers.

Texture is also an area poised for exploration. Lofthouse notes that at Chaucer Foods, ingredients derived from baked mini pitas, tortillas, focaccia, and naan can add a surprising new texture element to savory snack bars, while sweet baked ingredients like waffle, gingerbread, and brioche can up the ante for sweeter varieties.


Formats of the future

Bars will continue to challenge the category’s norms—including where shoppers find the products and how they eat them.

First, opportunity exists in the refrigerator case. “Already, there are some unexpected crossovers, including products that combine protein-rich yogurt in a bar format, all encased in chocolatey goodness,” says Rieschl. “The cooler space inherently conveys healthy and fresh, and given the shorter shelf life, it lends itself to a more diverse array of flavors.”

Specific claims will also continue to drive sales. One area where bar brands can potentially capitalize is with energy-boosting claims, says DiNunzio, featuring ingredients like coffee that appeal to morning and mid-morning snackers.

Additionally, formulators shouldn’t limit bars to the shapes and sizes of the past. According to Caputo, consumers are interested in cubes, bites, balls, bombs, cookies, and more that displace the standard format of the nutrition bar. “There’s no doubt that consumers are intrigued by the new taste experiences these products have to offer,” says DiNunzio, noting that these varied formats can make great product line extension opportunities for traditional bar brands.

There are many exciting innovations to come, suggests Leveille. “Some of the possibilities include new sources of protein, such as sunflower, beans and—believe it or not—insects (and maybe even algae, eventually). Cleaner labeling with reduced ingredients will remain in demand. The new sensory experiences coming in protein bar offerings will shine a light on how taste and texture affect consumers’ perceptions. In this important, fast-changing market, innovation in product development will lead the way.” 


Combining great taste and functionality

Consumers have a choice—in fact, more choices than ever when deciding which bar is going to satisfy whatever need of the moment. There are more reasons than ever to grab a bar. They are convenient and portable, and provide safety through individually wrapped packaging. They provide a variety of services: wellness, functionality, energy, and comfort. They are, perhaps, the quintessential snack.

Choosing bars with the right criteria can be an overwhelming task for shoppers. Functional bars in subcategories such as snacking, meal replacement, nutrition, performance, and weight loss are gaining popularity in this highly competitive category. Those that can deliver on taste, texture, and all-natural ingredients have a key advantage, and the featured sweetener can influence consumers as they consider their choices.

Why honey? In nut- and seed-dense bars, it can be a great binding agent to hold other ingredients together for a grab-and-go bar. It tastes great, and it’s an all-natural sweetener that manufacturers can feel good about including—and consumers can feel even better about eating. Especially in the case of mid-day snacking, honey contains 17 grams of carbohydrates per tablespoon, which is a natural energy boost.

Additionally, as a nod to the food bar competitive spirit, honey is a great marketing tool. Iconographic packaging helps bars stand out on supermarket shelves: Who doesn’t love a cute bee or bear, or recognize the honey dipper as a key focal point?

Some great new made-with-honey products have hit the market with unique qualities that include functionality, plant-based nutrition, convenience, and the No. 1 item that consumers seek, great taste.

Undressed Salad Bars are plant-based offerings that take “ingredients you would find in a salad” and formulated them into bar forms equivalent to one serving of vegetables each. The Honey Mustard variety includes amber honey, toasted almonds, white balsamic vinegar, apples, sea salt, mustard extract, and lemon oil—a unique way to take “salad” on the go safely.

Justin’s added to its lineup in the fall with a Honey Almond Butter Protein Bar, which is a refrigerated delight packed with delicious flavors, starting with honey as the main sweetener. There are 10 grams of plant-based protein, 50 mg calcium and 1.4 mg of iron in each serving. They are free from GMOs, gluten, soy, and dairy. 

Launched last summer, RXBAR’s new Layers line features bars with 14 to 15 grams of protein per bar. Gluten-free, these creamy, crunchy, chewy Chocolate Almond bars are layered with honey and include chocolate, dates, egg whites, and nuts.

Just in time for fall, Perfect Snacks offers its Pumpkin Pie variety as part of a limited-edition series of bars sweetened with honey. The seasonal bar also includes peanut butter, along with dried pumpkin and spices. It contains 3 grams of dietary fiber and 14 grams of protein per bar.

Catherine Barry, Director of Marketing, National Honey Board