Producers of snack and nutrition bars are busy choreographing a scene where added health benefits and improved nutritional value dance seamlessly with other consumer desires like versatility, cleaner and fewer

ingredients, and appealing taste and texture.

The market for bars is growing thanks to the public’s demand for healthy foods. Nutritional bars (and to an increasing degree snack and cereal bars) delivering whole grains, more protein, fiber and natural ingredients with less sugar and fat are leading the way, according to Mintel, Chicago, in a research report on snack and nutrition bars published in March 2014.

Overall, US bar sales are expected to increase from $5.5 billion to $6.2 billion between 2013 and 2018, according to Mintel. Driving this rise are consumers who are ever more aware of the link between smart food choices and improved health.

The bar crowd

Health-savvy millennials, baby boomers and exercise devotees are influencing the growth of the functional foods market, according to “Functional Foods: Key Trends & Developments in Ingredients for 2015,” a recent report from Packaged Facts, a Rockville, MD-based research firm.

Millennials interested in preventive health and maximum nutrition desire more calcium, fiber, vitamins and minerals. They eat more frequently and choose healthier snacks. Boomers select foods containing

increased antioxidants and heart-friendly fiber, whole grains and good fats to prevent aging or avoid chronic or life-threatening illnesses. Bar producers, also savvy, are tailoring products to these needs and more.

“At Clif Bar & Co., our food is crafted to deliver great-tasting nutrition to help feed athletes and adventurers before, during and after activity,” said Alfred Torres III, public relations coordinator for the Emeryville, CA-based company. “We listen to feedback from our fans, athletes and nutritionists and use ingredients that meet consumer needs, including a variety of tastes and textures.”

When fueling for physical activities, consumers ages 18 to 34 choose snacks made with high protein and vitamins to boost energy. However, Mintel’s research noted, better-for-you claims and calorie-controlled packaging appeal more to health-conscious women.

“When it comes to snacking, we know that women are looking for light, yet satisfying, options that make a positive contribution to their lifestyle without sacrificing taste,” said Jim Sell, senior marketing director, Kellogg Wholesome Snacks, a division of the Kellogg Company, Battle Creek, MI. “With that in mind, Special K developed new Chewy Snack Bars made with delicious wholesome ingredients you can see, including rich chocolaty chunks, crunchy salted pretzels, real fruit pieces and chewy rolled oats.”

In addition, households with kids and higher incomes are more likely to buy snack and nutrition bars. Kids remain an important target market as parents choose healthy snacks to fit active family lifestyles.

“KIND’s breadth of products lets consumers feel good about enjoying a snack that satisfies cravings and fits into their busy day,” said Josh Nafman, senior director of brand and digital at KIND Snacks, New York. “We are continually pushing ourselves to ­broaden the way consumers think about snacking without sacrificing what’s at the core of our brand — taste and nutrition.”

One for every occasion

In addition to added health benefits, the growing trend toward increased snacking is a significant driver for the bar industry, as Mintel indicated that nearly two-thirds of consumers often eat snacks between meals.

“KIND is a convenient way to satiate hunger between meals or while on the go,” Mr. Nafman said. “We are not positioned as a meal replacement bar, and the health benefits our snacks deliver are meant to be part of a balanced diet that can help meet the nutritional and energy needs of a variety of consumers.”

Formal mealtimes continue to decline, and some consumers are looking for quick, nutritious foods to replace traditional meal occasions, according to “Food & Beverage Top 10 Trends for 2015” from Innova Market Insights,  a research firm based in The Netherlands.

Kellogg Company offers consumers its popular Special K Protein Meal bars in addition to the Special K Protein Granola Bars containing 4 g protein per bar.

Traditionally, nutrition and energy bars were narrowly marketed to serious athletes and more physically active consumers. However, usage occasions and differing motivations for snacking have compelled producers to create bars with specialized nutritional ingredients and make them more widely available for a broader category of consumers.

“Clif Bar & Co. recognizes that people have varying nutritional needs, and we want to offer food that allows each athlete to feed their adventure appropriately, whether during a hike, triathlon or a busy day at the office,” Mr. Torres said. “We are foodies and athletes with a passion for making nutritious foods that are good for people and respectful of the planet, including CLIF Bar, LUNA Bar and CLIF Kid products.”

Snack occasions will continue to evolve and be influenced by consumers’ varying reasons for snacking based on factors like hunger, calorie-intake, energy need, time of day and type of activity.

“At EFFi Foods, our mission is to create a unique product applicable to any diet. However, we are always looking for ways to generate more mass appeal without detracting from our vision. Our products will always be made with the cleanest possible nutrition in mind,” said Carina Ayden, founder, EFFi Foods, Los Angeles.

Snack, energy and nutrition bars offer a portable, convenient and often healthier choice for a quick, on-the-go meal or an immediate consumption choice to stave off hunger. Producers continue to develop bars with functional claims such as high protein and fiber to help consumers feel fuller longer between meals. Empty calories are also a concern due to increased obesity in the US.

“Consumer demand for healthy foods will help grow the nutritional bar market,” said Marla Commons, vice-president of research, Mintel Reports from Mintel. “But that could hurt sales of the leading cereal and snack bars if these products continue to be perceived as less than healthy due to high sugar content.”

Kellogg’s Nutri-Grain line steps up to provide a wide range of options made with whole grains and real fruit.

“We offer three lines of bars with different taste and nutrition profiles, including Nutri-Grain Soft Baked Bars, Nutri-Grain Crunch Bars, and Nutri-Grain Fruit and Oat Harvest Bars,” Mr. Sell said.

Signature ingredients still in vogue

The desire for protein-rich foods remains a significant influencer for food choices, since consumers perceive that protein addresses hunger control and weight management, improves energy, provides fitness benefits, and improves and maintains muscle mass. Higher protein in bars delivers these benefits and makes them a more substantial go-to snack for a variety of usage needs.

“The STRONG & KIND line challenges consumers to rethink how they are snacking later in the day, whether it is at work or on-the-go,” Mr. Nafman added. “Chock-full of bold, spicy flavors, STRONG & KIND doesn’t sacrifice taste for nutrition, and each of the line’s five flavors has natural protein from a mix of whole almonds, seeds and legumes.”

Clif Bar & Co. responded to demand for protein by creating CLIF Builder’s, a high-protein bar developed to help active people achieve total body fitness. CLIF Builder’s has an optimal blend of high-quality protein, carbohydrates and fat to energize a workout, help promote muscle performance and assist with recovery after a workout.

There is greater interest in plant protein, as more attention is paid to sustainability, known allergens and the needs of vegetarians and vegans, perhaps contributing to the 54% of consumers who indicate they want more protein in their diets, Packaged Facts reported.

Bar producers are exploring new sources of lean protein using more plant-based protein sources such as nuts, seeds, oats, brown rice and ancient grains like quinoa. The use of alternative protein sources— dairy, pea and insect proteins — is growing, according to Innova.

Nutrition on the main stage

In a 2014 survey from Mintel, some 63% of consumers reported buying cereal/breakfast bars, 36% chose energy bars, and less than a third reported buying nutritional bars. Despite these numbers, the nutritional and health bar markets are actually growing rapidly.

The types of consumers choosing sports nutrition products are evolving to include not only athletes but also those who participate in recreational sports and weekend competitions, as well as the general consumer desiring a healthier lifestyle.

Nutrition bars have found popularity among a broad audience desiring the higher protein and other functional ingredients of a traditional sports performance bar. However, producers must consider that core group of serious athletes who compete in various sports require diverse needs for energy, performance and recovery.

“Clif Bar & Co. recognizes every athlete is different,” Mr. Torres said. “We want to give athletes a variety of options, made with organic ingredients, so they can customize their nutrition plan and ensure they are consuming the right food at the right time.”

Natural, straight-up

A natural or “functionally natural” product claim is one of the most highly sought-after attributes when purchasing snacks. Consumers want to know about the ingredients in their foods, especially products with reduced claims and added health benefits.

“People are definitely looking for snacks that provide positive nutrition — fiber, whole grains and protein,” Mr. Sell said. Consumers also want ingredients they can recognize, and they want great taste. Kellogg’s new Special K Chewy Granola Bars reflect consumer preference and include recognizable ingredients like real fruit pieces and rolled oats.

Clean-label claims are tracked on nearly a quarter of all food and beverage launches at Innova Market Insights, and consumers are demanding fewer ingredients and labels that clearly disclose what is in a product.

“At KIND, all of our products have wholesome ingredients that are easily recognizable — think whole pieces of nuts, fruits and grains,” Mr. Nafman said. “With our range of snacks, consumers are able to enjoy products that allow them to factor in a desired taste profile, functional benefits and snacking occasion.”

Organic is one of the fastest-growing food segments today, and CLIF Bar has responded by using more than 70% organic ingredients in its products.

“There is an increasing demand for certified organic snacks made with just a handful of ingredients,” Mr. Torres added. “We’re very pleased with the reaction to CLIF Kit’s Organic, which is a nutritious snack bar made with 100% organic fruit, nuts and seeds providing coveted functional ingredients like fiber, protein and mono- and polyunsaturated fats.”

On the bar menu

Consumers clamor for functional benefits, clean labels and versatility to satisfy many types of occasions, but is it realistic for bar producers to include all the ingredients people want without sacrificing taste?

“Finding a balance of these ingredients can be challenging, but it is at the core of Clif Bar & Co.’s food philosophy,” Mr. Torres explained. “Our brand team works to constantly innovate and offer consumers new flavors and products that provide nutrition for sustained energy.”

CLIF Bar recently launched two new flavors, Nuts & Seeds and Berry Pomegranate Chia, bringing a sweet and salty flavor profile to the line with popular ingredients.

KIND underscores the “and” philosophy, meaning consumers can have great tasting snacks that are also nutritious. The company believes people shouldn’t have to sacrifice one for the other.

“Our KIND Nuts & Spices line, offering seemingly indulgent flavors like Dark Chocolate Nuts & Sea Salt, is made with nutritionally rich ingredients that are naturally high in fiber, a good source of protein and have 5 g sugar or less per bar,” Mr. Nafman said. “Today, we use spices as flavor to achieve a great-tasting, satisfying product rather than adding sugar or sugar substitutes.”

Currently, the most popular CLIF Bar flavor is Chocolate Chip, followed by White Chocolate Macadamia Nut, but seasonal favorites like Spiced Pumpkin Pie or Iced Gingerbread are eagerly awaited all year long.

Last year, Parade magazine partnered with the NPD Group, Port Washington, NY, to study eating patterns. The resulting article, “What America Eats,” reported that healthier snacks are up 14%, while sweet snacks were down 6%, but savory snacks were chosen more over sweet.

“The current snack bar market has many sweet flavor offerings,” Mr. Nafman suggested. “The introduction of STRONG & KIND in 2014 was a category disrupter and targets consumers looking for a better-for-you alternative.”

The newest STRONG & KIND line of bars is perfect for the savory snacker. It offers unique flavors like Roasted Jalapeño, Honey Smoked BBQ and Thai Sweet Chili with 10 g protein in a bar that is soy- and whey-free.

Outlook for bars

Snack and cereal bars that boost nutritional ingredients such as protein and fiber and lower sugar and fat content while maximizing taste should do well with consumers. “The whole grains in Nutri-Grain make it a very popular option, and Kellogg’s will continue to build that brand’s portfolio and support it with new products, new packaging and marketing support,” Mr. Sell said. 

Kellogg’s newly renovated Special K bar lineup includes chewy granola bars debuting in four flavors: Berry Medley, Blueberry Bliss, Salted Caramel Chocolate and Salted Pretzel Chocolate.

In addition, nutritional and energy bar brands like CLIF and KIND should maintain their health positioning while continuing to package all those natural nutritional benefits with innovative flavors that appeal to the masses, advised Mintel in its March 2014 report.

“After introducing the first whole nuts and fruit bar concept to the market more than a decade ago, we pride ourselves on identifying unmet consumer needs and setting trends,” Mr. Nafman said. “To continue to be successful, KIND plans to anticipate consumer preferences and create solutions to unmet and unarticulated needs.” 

With snacking on the rise to support busy lifestyles, functional foods conveniently packaged with added health benefits and wholesome ingredients remain vitally important to consumers. Snack and nutritional bars offer the perfect vehicle to deliver on these demands.