Perhaps as long as a decade from now, snack and bakery professionals will still be reckoning with the pandemic’s effects on consumer preferences and—subsequently—their own product development. And when they do, our current focus on wellness will continue to loom large.

This is as true in the bar space as it is elsewhere—if not even truer. After all, says Courtney LeDrew, senior marketing manager, Cargill, Minneapolis, “Consumers now recognize nutrition and diet’s role in overall health—a trend that the pandemic emphasized. So as they take a more proactive and holistic approach to health, we see heightened interest in bars with health-related benefits.”

But that’s only half the story. As LeDrew continues, “There’s a dichotomy in the marketplace: On one hand, you have this heightened interest in health; but there’s also a desire for indulgence.”

And that’s where bars close the gap. A uniquely flexible format that accommodates fun and functionality in equal measure, they give consumers the best of both—if formulated right.


Ups and downs

As it did with other categories, the pandemic had its way with bars.

“For some segments of the space, COVID-19 put a temporary damper on things,” LeDrew recalls. “While bars at grocery sold well, sales for some sports-nutrition bars lagged—especially those sold through gyms.” And that, she says, stymied innovation. “But as gyms reopen and consumers attempt a return to normal, many of these brands are kick-starting product development.”

Shavon Jackson-Michel, naturopathic doctor and director of medical and scientific affairs, DolCas Biotech LLC, Landing, NJ, agrees. “Because bars offer a unique opportunity to blend macronutrients, micronutrients and functional ingredients in a shelf-stable, portable, neatly packaged format, the category will continue to grow—especially as away-from-home activities regain traction,” she believes.

The data already support those premonitions, with Euromonitor forecasting a CAGR of 6 percent between 2021 and 2025 for the protein-bar sector alone, says Joe Katterfield, sales development manager, health and performance nutrition, Arla Foods Ingredients, Basking Ridge, NJ. “And it’s an incredibly robust market,” he asserts, “with drivers that long predate the pandemic,” including demand for convenience and protein, disdain for excess sugars and carbohydrates and “the blurring of boundaries between functional foods and everyday products,” he adds.


Planet protein

The push for protein is particularly striking.

Mordor Intelligence dubbed the macronutrient the top ingredient in the wellness-bar category, notes Laura Gerhard, vice president, Blue Diamond Global Ingredients Division, Sacramento, CA. “So adding extra protein to your next bar creation is a major plus for health-conscious consumers.”

And though dairy-derived milk and whey proteins have set the gold standard for protein function and nutrition, plant-based options are developing a shine of their own.

Notes Jeff Casper, director of research and applications, Merit Functional Foods, Winnipeg, Manitoba, “Demand for plant-based bars is increasing, and formulators are searching for functional plant proteins comparable to whey protein isolates and milk protein isolates in taste, texture, and nutrition.”

Creating such ingredients has taken work. One reason, Casper notes, is that even in concentrate form, plant proteins pack less protein per gram than do dairy proteins—which makes meeting, let alone exceeding, the protein levels achievable with dairy that much harder.

But it’s not impossible.

“We’re well aware that protein content is critical in this market, and that bars that don’t hit that 20-grams-of-protein level can struggle to stand out,” Casper says. “So we’re proud to have developed one of the only plant-based protein-bar concepts that achieves a PDCAAS of 1.0 using a blend of our Peazazz pea protein and Puratein C canola protein.”

Delivering 90 percent minimum protein, the ingredients have complementary amino acid profiles and, when combined, allow not only for high protein levels but a “complete protein” claim, Casper says.

They also help combat a common defect in protein bars: hardening over time. As Casper explains, “Puratein C’s unique combination of high solubility, low water-binding capacity, and high oil-binding capacity softens bars and significantly reduces their rate of firming.”

Finally, Casper notes that the two proteins are taste-neutral, giving formulators “a blank slate” for concept creation. “Exploring flavor possibilities is a lot easier when you aren’t trying to cover up your protein’s vegetal notes,” he points out.

Jacqui Finegan, business development manager, proteins, North America, Kerry, Tralee, Ireland, adds that her company’s ProDiem Complete combines pea and rice protein in “a complete protein that rivals the nutritional quality of dairy and egg,” making it “an excellent option for producing snack bars that deliver the protein content and quality consumers worldwide say they’ll pay a premium for.”

But why pick sides? In a repudiation of the plant-dairy debate, Finegan puts her chips on “hybrid” bars that deliver proteins from both. Describing such products as “a great way to introduce plant proteins to flexitarian consumers while improving the sustainability profile of the finished bar,” she points to results of Kerry’s 2021 global consumer protein study showing that 65 percent of respondents found hybrid dairy-plant protein products appealing.


Beyond protein

Finegan is also bullish on building “cross-functionality” into bars, as formulations that incorporate multiple actives also enjoy enhanced appeal.

“Adding protein plus ingredients like probiotics, for example, is totally aligned with consumers’ growing focus on health and proactive nutrition,” she says. And now that process-resilient, spore-forming probiotics like Kerry’s BC30 (Bacillus coagulans GBI-30, 6086) are on offer, brands can bring the bacteria to a wider range of products than previously possible—including shelf-stable bars.

Jackson-Michel has also noticed rising interest in pro- and prebiotics—largely for their immune support—as well as in stress-soothing actives like ashwagandha, maca, and functional mushrooms. And for inflammation relief, she’s seen turmeric, ginger and CBD gain traction.

Interestingly, Wouter Stomph, head of product development and innovation, North America, Olam Food Ingredients (ofi), Chicago, has watched as customers have mixed those same ingredients—namely, turmeric and ginger—with cocoa to create especially powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory combinations.

“Another example of a unique blend of health benefits,” he continues, “is the pairing of powdered chaga mushroom—which is earthy in flavor and known for inflammation and blood-sugar control—with a chai-chocolate spice. But when experimenting with new concepts like turmeric, rose, or gin-infused chocolate, the most important step is finding the right cocoa liquor to complement it.”

Similarly, Jackson-Michel emphasizes the importance of using functional ingredients that ease bar formulation. For example, DolCas’s dispersible Curcugen turmeric not only disperses thoroughly in bar matrices; it backs up the health benefits of its 50 percent curcuminoids, 1.5 percent essential oils, and native turmeric polysaccharides with research, she says.


Sweetener swaps

Yet even as brands add functionality to bars, they’re bowing to demands to eliminate—or at least trim—sugar.

“From breakfast-bar fruit fillings to chocolate- and yogurt-based coatings, formulators are trying to remove as much added sugar as possible,” says Sheri O’Brien, vice president, sales and marketing, BioNeutra North America Inc., Edmonton, Alberta. “However, getting the taste and texture right when replacing sugar can be challenging.”

That’s because sugar doesn’t just make bars sweet; it binds, browns, bulks, and builds body, too—functions that high-intensity sweeteners like stevia and monk fruit can’t perform.

The trick, O’Brien says, “is to replace sugar’s sensory and functional characteristics, but with fewer calories, binders and bulking agents.”

BioNeutra’s VitaFiber IMO and VitaFiber PLUS, for example, are both low-calorie sweeteners that replicate many of sugar’s key roles. O’Brien adds that both ingredients are prebiotic sources, and that VitaFiber Plus contributes dietary fiber, too.

“As the gut-health trend continues, adding prebiotics and fiber can help brands align with the good-for-your-gut benefits consumers want,” she says. “Sugar reduction and digestive health are generational opportunities; bars are a perfect format for tapping into both.”

Chad Rieschl, senior research food technologist at Cargill, notes his team’s success in recreating corn syrup’s humectancy and binding using ingredients like sorbitol, soluble fibers, maltodextrins and Cargill’s SimPure soluble rice flour.

“Traditional rice flours aren’t very soluble,” he says, “certainly nowhere near the fully soluble nature of maltodextrin. But we overcame this by creating the first highly soluble rice flour that provides viscosity, bulking and sensory qualities similar to 10 DE maltodextrin, enabling simple one-to-one replacement.”

The ingredient tastes, feels and functions much like maltodextrin but labels simply as soluble rice flour. Rieschl and company even used it in their apple-pie nutrition bar, which clocks in at 4 grams of added sugars per 40-gram bar—90 percent less than the full-sugar control—and 7 grams of fiber, plus enough plant protein at 6 grams to merit a good-source claim.


Health or hedonism?

Such bars make good on brands’ promise to deliver healthy actives in a handy format. But to make good on consumers’ wish lists, bars need to balance all that health with hedonism, too.

“Yes, brands will continue positioning bars as a benefits-based way to capture the macro trends of self-care, wellness and clean, functional ingredients,” says Eleanor Miller, product strategy manager, healthy snacking, Glanbia Nutritionals, Chicago.

But, Miller continues, “Bars need to win on taste. Building bars that deliver on taste requirements and have the cleanest, most nutritious fundamentals will enable brands to succeed.”

As far as Katterfield can tell, there’s still a market need here. Pointing to HealthFocus International’s 2020 Global Trend Study, he notes that 55 percent of respondents claimed it’s hard to find indulgent snacks they believe are healthy. “So meeting the dual—and sometimes conflicting—demands for health and indulgence can be something of a balancing act.”

Fortunately, brands are striking the balance, and in creative ways.

“People want to indulge without feeling guilty for it,” says Kathy De La Bastide, group R&D manager, Chaucer Foods, Bristol, England. “This means building bars with flavors that excite, colors that catch the eye, and ingredients that give consumers a little more than they’re used to. It can be fruity, nutty, oversized, or flashy, but it also needs to be nutritious and natural.”


Going nuts

John Martin, vice president of innovation at ofi, agrees, praising nuts for their “air of indulgence with a ‘health halo.’” Even better, he continues, nuts can perform functions that less label-friendly ingredients might otherwise take on. Case in point: “Nut pastes can replace additives such as artificial thickeners or binders,” he says, “and nuts offer extra flavor depth without the need for a surplus of ingredients.”

Gerhard likes the idea of using almond inclusions for their “crunch factor,” while almond flour, protein powder and butter can build texture in bar base. “These ingredients add a crispy, crunchy texture when baked at a slightly higher temperature with a lower moisture content,” she adds. “Bar producers can adjust the fat and oil content in their formulation to create the ideal texture in their almond-based products.”

But nuts aren’t without issues. Katterfield notes that even though peanut butter is beloved for its familiarity, flavor, and “melt-in-the-mouth texture,” it can harden in bars over time. His solution: Arla Foods Ingredients’ Lacprodan SoftBar, a dairy- and whey-protein ingredient that permits protein contents as high as 37 percent without compromising bar texture. “It’s a great pairing for peanut butter,” he notes. “Bars that use this combination deliver an indulgent eating experience and let manufacturers make claims such as high protein and high fiber.”


The flavor factor

Beyond nuts, De La Bastide notes that her company’s sweet baked waffle, gingerbread and brioche inclusions “add a sense of occasion and indulgence, while sprinkles of cinnamon, ginger, or even bacon catch the taste buds in brand new ways.”

That’s right: bacon. While indulgent profiles like carrot cake, churro, and birthday cake—not to mention vanilla and chocolate—prove that bars still hit many sweet spots, Finegan sees an opportunity to broaden the palette with savory concepts. “Imagine having a savory snack bar around lunchtime or at a coffee break,” she proposes. “Flavor will be a key trend separating bars as they become anytime functional treats.”

Stomph adds that he’s worked with a leading brand on a range of snack-bar products that bring together savory and salty ingredients with sweet cocoa elements. “This gave us a great chance to experiment with new ways of using cocoa ingredients, such as a whipped chocolate peanut butter that adds protein plus a sweet-salty taste. Also, our TrueDark cocoa powder—the first natural, non-alkalized dark cocoa powder—continues to deliver in formulations with simple, natural ingredients but without compromising color or flavor.”


Keep it real

Simple, natural ingredients: Those are just what today’s bar fans are looking for.

As De La Bastide says, “When consumers see ingredients they recognize, it gives them a sense of reassurance, comfort and control.” Yet, she continues, “A problem we see in bars is the belief that you need to add ‘stuff’ to keep flavor in, or throw in preservatives to trick consumers into thinking that what’s not there still is. But the fact is, everything people want in bars—flavor, color, texture, nutritional value, energy—is doable without the ‘stuff’ if you just formulate right.”

Take color, for example. As Jeannette O’Brien, vice president, GNT USA, Tarrytown, NY, says, “Color plays an integral role in bars. But one challenge bar manufacturers face is that many of the ingredients they work with—chocolate, fall spices, peanut butter—are brown or dark brown. Using real ingredients that’re vibrantly colored helps overcome this.”

That’s the appeal of the plant-based coloring concentrates in GNT’s Exberry line. “Fruits and vegetables have never been more popular in the bar category,” O’Brien says, “and today’s consumer is looking for recognizable, non-GMO ingredients like carrots, pumpkins, sweet potatoes, and turmeric that are processed without chemicals. All these aspects appeal to a wide range of sophisticated consumers—busy parents, those who live healthy lifestyles and people looking for nutritious meal replacements or on-the-go snacks.”


In production

And when it comes to widening variety in bars, brands need to focus not just on color, flavor, and texture, but on format, too. And that means playing with manufacturing options.

Clextral, Tampa, FL, developed two technologies that let bar manufacturers modify production lines to create more bar options. The first is a co-extrusion clip-on module for making co-filled products that includes the company’s PF500 and PF250 sanitary pinching formers with interchangeable tooling “so manufacturers can quickly switch co-filled shape formats for different bar varieties, flavors and fillings,” explains José Coelho, Clextral’s Americas business director. The module also enables rapid changeover to traditional coextruded pillows, as well as newer shapes like hearts, diamonds, and more.

The second tool in Clextral’s kit is an enrobing module. Summing up, Coelho says, “These modules enhance the twin-screw extruder’s built-in flexibility, giving processors the ability to make a range of products on one extrusion line.” Even better, they sport “hygienic designs” and allow for quick CIP cleaning and product changes.

All the more reason for brands to flex their creative muscle, and take creative risks in the process.

“Not every bar will fit every taste—and that’s okay,” Miller says. “Having a differentiated texture, unique flavor or exciting shape will allow you to focus on what delights your consumers most.” Just make sure bar and brand identity match, she says. “Aligning your vision and mission with your product and packaging will help you stand out as an authentic brand that consumers can rally around.”

Oh, the sweetness of honey. It’s an all-natural ingredient that has happily oozed its way into more bars than ever before on grocery store shelves. Honey may be centuries old, but there are a number of reasons why product developers are picking up their favorite varietal to incorporate into bar formulas.

Less is more. Both consumers and bar manufacturers are looking at ways to reduce sugar, and since honey is up to one-and-a-half times sweeter than sugar, bar developers can use less to achieve the same amount of sweetness.

Nature’s sweetener and clean labels. All-natural is a key phrase here, with honey providing a natural source of carbohydrates—with 17 grams of carbohydrates per tablespoon—a natural energy source perfect for various bars on the market. Honey is just that, honey. There is no manipulation, heating, additives, or preservatives in the honey bee’s product, making it a clean label ingredient that bar developers can feel good about.

The tie that binds. The majority of bars are eaten away from the dinner table. We’re heading home from the gym and need a pick-me-up; we’re heading out the door to work and school; we’re grabbing a functional bar for a quick lunch. Bars that crumble or fall apart need something to bind them together. Nut- and seed-dense bars especially benefit from honey’s sticky capabilities to prevent them from crumbling, a convenience from an ingredient that is unparalleled. A number of recently released bars showcase use of honey. Here are a few that stood out:

  • Honey Mama’s added Pumpkin Spice to its line of made-with-honey bars this fall. Not only is the Limited Edition packaging eye-catching, but the company focused on the fact that this bar includes no refined sugar and is gluten- soy- and dairy free. This clean label bar is also paleo friendly.
  • BeBold bars bring boldness to the table with 18 grams of whole grains per service and protein from plants. They are gluten- and dairy-free, and the bars’ clean label ingredients listing includes wildflower honey, rolled oats, nuts and chia seeds.
  • Honey shines as a binder in Nutty Crunchers’ Honey Nut bars. A combination of sesame seeds, almonds, sunflower seeds and cashew nuts need something to hold them together, and honey does this beautifully as a showcase ingredient.
  • One of the great things about honey is its versatility. G2G Protein Bars take notice with a unique bar line designed for the refrigerator. Thus, there are no preservatives or artificial ingredients in the gluten-free line that contains 18 grams of protein per bar.

Catherine Barry, Director of Marketing, National Honey Board