Wholesome grain-based snacks — especially those in the form of granola and nutrition bars — appear to be back in the good graces of consumers.

According to data from SymphonyIRI Group, a Chicago-based market research firm, dollar sales of granola bars totaled $968,762,800 in the 52 weeks ended Oct. 31, up 7% from the same period a year earlier. Unit sales also were higher, rising 9% to 373,547,600.

Even stronger growth was noted in the nutritional/intrinsic health value bars category tracked by SymphonyIRI, as dollar sales, at $846,949,500, were up 15% from the previous 52-week period on a 10% increase in unit sales to 398,678,500.

And although the breakfast/cereal/snack bars segment posted a narrow decline in dollar sales during the 52 weeks ended Oct. 31 (down 0.32%), unit sales for the sector were up 3%, illustrating the overall strength of the bar category.

The data from SymphonyIRI provide hope for bar manufacturers after a research report issued earlier this year by Mintel International Group Ltd. noted that although cereal and snack bar sales have risen about 50% over the past five years, most of the growth occurred in 2006-07, and more recently the category has been bogged down by the difficult economic environment. Mintel said momentum is difficult to sustain, and innovation is needed to generate interest and draw shoppers to the aisle.

Even while noting the challenges facing bar makers during 2009, Mintel was quick to point out that future prospects for the sector were not bleak.

“If marketers are successful at re-engaging consumers, there is plenty of upside potential in the market,” Mintel said, adding that bar sales are forecast to reach $2.4 billion by 2014.

It would appear that the major players in the bar category are well on their way to making Mintel’s projections a reality.

The Kellogg Co., Battle Creek, Mich., has received positive response to its FiberPlus antioxidant bars, which were introduced in January 2009. The bars, which contain 7 grams of whole grain, 35% of the daily recommended value of fiber as well as 20% of the D.R.V. of antioxidants vitamin E and zinc, have been a big reason why the company’s wholesome snacks business has turned in solid results.

In the 52 weeks ended Oct. 31, dollar sales of FiberPlus granola bars totaled $57,288,420 on unit sales of 21,051,300, according to SymphonyIRI.

Additionally, the company has benefited from the launch earlier this year of two new products within the Special K line: Special K Low-Fat Granola and Special K Fruit Crisps.

Special K Low-Fat Granola is made of whole grain granola clusters sweetened with honey and has 3 grams of fat per 52-gram serving, which Kellogg said is 50% less fat than other leading granolas. In addition, the low-fat granola has 190 calories, 6 grams of protein, and 5 grams of fiber.

Special K Fruit Crisps are available in two flavors — strawberry and blueberry — and come in two bar packs with a combined 100 calories. According to SymphonyIRI, Special K Fruit Crisps already have generated $36,112,880 in sales since their launch, making it the fifth-largest breakfast/cereal/snack bar brand.

“Our wholesome snacks business continued to deliver solid results in the quarter, led by the strengths of Nutri-Grain bars, FiberPlus bars, and Special K Fruit Crisps, we delivered mid-single-digit internal net sales growth and gained 0.4 share points,” said John Bryant, chief operating officer of Kellogg Co., in a Nov. 2 conference call with financial analysts to discuss third-quarter results. “We are actively working to add capacity across our wholesome snacks portfolio to improve service levels, better supply the market, and further accelerate our top-line growth.”

For General Mills, which has the No. 1 nutritional/intrinsic health value bar as tracked by SymphonyIRI in Fiber One, bars have provided a boost to the company’s overall grain snacks business. In the 52 weeks ended Oct. 31, dollar sales of category-leading Fiber One bars were $149,375,100, up 7% from the same period a year earlier on a 7% gain in unit sales to 48,722,570.

Helping drive the gain for Fiber One was the January 2010 launch of Fiber One 90-Calorie chewy bars. Each bar contains 90 calories, 5 grams of fiber and 2.5 grams of fat. The bars are available in two varieties: chocolate and chocolate peanut butter.

Ian Friendly, executive vice-president and chief operating officer of U.S. retail at General Mills, expanded on the company’s bar business at the Morgan Stanley Consumer & Retail Conference held Nov. 17 in New York.

“In the first half we could not fully keep up with the demand for our grain snacks, and that limited our volume growth,” he said. “We just brought some new capacity on line, so we expect to see accelerated sales growth on our grain snacks business in the second half.”

Another company providing innovation in the category is McKee Foods Corp., Collegedale, Tenn. The company recently added to its Sunbelt brand with the launch of Blueberry Harvest and Banana Harvest chewy granola bars. The bars combine real fruit with 7 grams of whole grain oats.

“Both the Blueberry Harvest and Banana Harvest chewy granola bars are a good source of antioxidant vitamin E,” said Jeff Badger, brand manager for Sunbelt. “And with only 120 and 130 calories, respectively, they’re the perfect choice for on-the-go consumers looking for a low calorie, wholesome snack that’s filling and affordable.”

In addition to the new Harvest chewy granola bars, Sunbelt also introduced three new single-serve options. Sunbelt’s sweet and salty almond and sweet and salty peanut chewy granola bars and its strawberry fruit and grain bars are now available in a single-serve size in convenience stores nationwide.