Having been around in one form or another for more than 50 years, snack bars certainly aren’t new to store shelves. Yet despite their marketplace longevity, consumers have typically viewed them as more of a side item than a meal.

But over the past few years, bars’ grocery cart status has slowly morphed into one of more prominence. As on-the-go lifestyles ramp up and shoppers become more health-conscious, snack bars — granola, cereal, energy and protein — have become the favorite traveling companion of many consumers. In the US alone, the category has more than doubled to almost $6 billion over the past decade. With snack bars consistently rated in the Top 10 of various 2014 food trends lists, sales are expected to continue climbing. 

“Consumers’ eating patterns have changed,” noted Michelle Ferguson, chief marketing officer, Clif Bar & Co., Emeryville, CA. “We have moved away from eating three square meals and now tend to eat lighter, smaller meals and snacks throughout the day. It’s no wonder energy and nutrition bars are one of the fastest growing categories in the industry.”        

In the early years, demand for convenient between-meal snack foods or instant breakfast options drove the category. Now, consumer expectations have raised the bar, so to speak. People still crave convenience, but increasingly they want their bars to provide much more. They now look for those with substantial nutritional value that offer sustained sustenance, simple ingredients and creative flavors and textures.

Popular protein

According to a recent study conducted by market research firm Mintel International, Chicago, 60% of men and 67% of women actively seek protein-packed foods, making it clear that protein is the “it” ingredient right now. Because of its ability to heighten satiety and provide a long-lasting feeling of fullness after eating, more consumers are turning to high-protein diets as a weight-loss strategy. Protein also boosts energy, adds lean muscle mass and can improve bone and skin health.

Once considered the go-to food for serious athletes, bars promoting protein are now desired items for shoppers across the board, and snack-bar manufacturers quickly realized they held the perfect added-protein platform in their hands.

“Specifically, consumers continue to look for alternative sources of protein beyond dairy and meat,” said Kerry DeLaney, marketing manager, General Mills, Minneapolis. To answer this demand, the company’s Nature Valley and Fiber One brands expanded their product lines to incorporate more protein offerings. “These products filled the void between low-protein snacks and high-protein performance-centric snacks. Both launches have been highly successful in terms of sales and incremental contribution to the grain snacks category.”

Clif Bar offers several protein bars to meet the needs of various consumers. “We like to provide our consumers with a range to help them customize their intake depending on their needs and activity level,” Ms. Ferguson said. The company’s Clif Builder’s line features bars with 10, 20 or 30 g protein, while its gluten-free Luna Protein bar is designed specifically to meet women’s nutrition needs in 200 Cal per serving or less. For younger consumers, Clif Bar recently launched its Clif Kid Zbar Protein bar made with organic whole grains and formulated for growing bodies.

Within the added-protein trend is the emerging use of pea protein as a food ingredient. Because peas are a plant-based source of protein, foods produced with it are well-suited for consumers following a vegan diet. Earlier this year, Cascadian Farm, a General Mills brand, launched organic pea protein bars in Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip and Honey Roasted Nut. These products not only tap into the desire for added protein, but they also meet the growing demand for organically-produced foods.

“For our protein bars, we knew the product would be very on-trend,” said Scott Lee, Cascadian Farm’s marketing director. “There are many reasons consumers are looking for a bar with added protein. We wanted to make sure there was a delicious-tasting organic version out there for them. We also believe the use of pea protein sets us apart for consumers seeking alternative protein sources.”

Energy efficient

In addition to snacks with added protein, consumers also are looking for tasty, healthy and convenient ways to hike their energy levels as they go about their packed-schedule days. According to a recent report from the Natural Marketing Institute, Harleysville, PA, people rated their desire for more energy in the 60 to 70% range, with the expectation they will get that boost from the foods and drinks they consume. This finding pushes the door wide open for snack bar manufacturers. Yet shoppers are no longer as interested in the short-lived burst of energy that sugar- and caffeine-laden foods offer. Instead, they want products that provide sustainable energy. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they are looking for low-calorie options, either.

“Demand for low-calorie products is leveling off,” said E.G. Fishburne, marketing director, The Quaker Oats Co., Chicago. “Consumers are still mindful of their calories, but they are willing to trade off low, empty calories for wholesome, tasty nutrition.”

Quaker’s bar offerings include products geared toward busy consumers who either need a snack to tide them over between meals or a convenient on-the-go meal replacement. “Our Big Chewy Granola Bars are 60% bigger than regular Quaker Chewy bars,” Mr. Fishburne said. “They are designed to satisfy bigger appetites or give people more of what they love for the time when they want a more substantial snack.”

Category leader the Kellogg Company, Battle Creek, MI, answered the call for convenient, energy-boosting foods by expanding its popular Special K cereal brand with Special K Protein Meal Bars. According to the company, the bars provide 10 g protein and 5 g fiber in flavors such as Strawberry, Caramel Peanut, Chocolate Peanut Butter, Chocolate Caramel and Double Chocolate. Marketed with the tagline, “Satisfies hunger longer,” the bars can be used as a meal replacement alternative while on the go. Kellogg also offers portable snack bar versions of its other well-recognized breakfast brands, including Kashi, Rice Krispies and Nutri-Grain.

Real flavor

Not surprisingly, trends in the snack bar category mimic those found in other areas of food manufacturing, and leading the pack is the surge in real ingredients and clean labels. Now more than ever, consumers are spending more time deciphering food labels, with a fierce curiosity to know — and understand — what is in the foods they eat.

“I’d say people are less interested in snacks that do not have an apparent or inherent health attribute,” Mr. ­DeLaney noted. “Instead, they are increasingly appreciating products that contain ingredients they recognize and understand. Simple ingredients.”

Last year, Cascadian Farm released a line of crunchy granola bars with nine wholesome ingredients or fewer per bar in Oats & Honey, Peanut Butter and Oats & Cocoa flavors. “Our entire bar portfolio has always been USDA Certified Organic,” Mr. Lee said. “Additionally, we have enrolled our products in the Non-GMO Project and are currently undergoing the verification process.”

According to Mr. Fishburne, Quaker’s Real Medleys Multigrain Fruit and Nut Bars reflect the trend toward real ingredients and cleaner ingredient listings. “Our Real Medleys Bars include visible real chunks of fruit and nuts blended with multigrains,” Mr. Fishburne ­noted. Bar flavors include Cherry Pistachio, Apple Nut Harvest and Peach Almond.

While consumers may want their bars handy, healthy and hardy, they also want them full-flavored, and the category offers manufacturers the perfect stage to test-drive palate-pleasing combinations.

“Consumers are increasingly looking for simple foods with just a handful of ingredients, such as fruit and nuts, but they also crave interesting flavor and texture combinations that excite the palate,” Ms. Ferguson explained. “Many of the tasty and nutritious ingredients consumers are gravitating toward include chia seeds, berries, coconuts and almonds.”

Texture variety also is trending in the bar category. According to Mr. DeLaney, General Mills’ Fiber One and Nature Valley brands expanded beyond the traditional bar format with Fiber One Brownies and Nature Valley Soft-baked Oatmeal Squares, offering consumers the different textures they were seeking.

“Flavor and texture combinations are driven by consumers seeking variety in their snacks,” Quaker’s Mr. Fishburne added. “Big Chewy Sweet & Salty Granola Bars combine great tasting flavors and textures like chocolate, salted caramel, pretzels and popcorn.

How do manufacturers plan to keep the momentum rolling? “I think you will begin to see more of a variety of forms, flavors and ingredients that expands the current definition of the category,” Mr. DeLaney predicted.

Bars crafted for specific demographics will also help manufacturers grow the category. Clif Bar’s Ms. Ferguson said she is seeing an emerging interest in bars and snacks tailored in size and nutrition profile to the unique needs of different consumer segments such as women and children.

Finally, snack bars are expected to continue following the trends currently driving the rest of the grain-based food industry, namely health and nutrition. “The nutrition that was once only found in functional or performance bars will continue to expand into the snack bar category,” Mr. Fishburne said. This category will ­continue to raise the bar on tasty nutrition.