Perched in the pocket, clasped in the hand or packed in the lunchbox, the ubiquitous nutrition and snack bar is firmly entrenched in consumer eating habits. A walk down the exhibit halls of many recent trade shows proves there’s a bar to fit every market and then some. Gluten-free, vegan, allergen-free, whole food or baked, these niches serve as the building blocks of innovation for bars.

In its heyday from 2006 to 2007, nutrition and snack bar sales experienced some of their strongest growth, but momentum in the category stalled under the difficult economic conditions of 2008-09, according to Mintel, a Chicago, IL-based researcher provider. Yet, the $1.7 billion category remains viable through a focus on health and wellness, attention to wholesome and natural ingredients and new taste experiences. But in what some are calling an oversaturated market, innovative manufacturers are setting themselves up to grow by creating bars that meet consumer desires for clean labels, natural ingredients and sizes that complement busy, on-the-go lifestyles.

Back when General Mills introduced its Nature Valley crunchy granola bars in 1975, consumers were looking for simple, next-to-homemade options. After 35 years of category innovation, these twin-pack wafer-style bars remain relatively unchanged and a steady success for the company.
Relatively nutritious and infinitely portable, bars were deemed a perfect match for the sports nutrition category. Long-distance runners were the earliest bar devotees, followed by bodybuilders who willingly consumed protein-packed, chalky-tasting bars in order to bulk up. Soon athletes and recreational weekend warriors followed suit, discovering the quick fuel and portability of the nutrient-dense bars.
Recently, Datamonitor, a New York, NY-based information provider, heralded lifestyle users as the latest devotees of sport nutrition bars. The not-necessarily-athletic group of consumes the products as building blocks to a healthier lifestyle. Datamonitor suggested the trend among lifestyle users is representative of changing consumer patterns.

“Formulating products that cater to their needs is crucial,” said Richard Parker, senior consumer analyst, Datamonitor. “They want to feel they are engaging in healthy practices through consumption, so products must be positioned as a great-tasting, healthy indulgence.”

In times of stress and uncertainty, reverting back to the familiar and beloved can be beneficial. For companies such as 18 Rabbits, San Francisco, CA, the re-creation of childhood happiness, with resplendent memories of its flavors and smells, is proving a successful hook for consumers. 18 Rabbits builds its granola and bar products around a revamped recipe from founder Alison Bailey Vercruysse’s childhood. Sweetened with honey and maple syrup, the granola and dried fruit bars contain a third of the sugar of other bars on the market. The company highlights the simplicity of its products though its wheat- and dairy-free ingredients and a streamlined packaging design that features a clear window to view what’s inside.

“Our product is as clean and simple as possible. I don’t want to muck it up,” said Ms. Bailey Vercruysse. “I believe that consumers want to understand the ingredients on a label and look for bars that don’t have ingredient lists that read like a candy bar.”

Rather than sourcing exotic fruits such as goji berries, Ms. Bailey Vercruysse chose to include familiar fruits such as coconuts, bananas and raisins to provide both a familiarity and comfort to 18 Rabbits’ products. “I have to know these ingredients will continue to be available and are not just a flash in the pan,” she said. “There are many quality kinds of fruit available here in the US.” Its newest granola bar introduction is Belle Bananas Foster.

Old school and tried-and-true varieties have been a model of success for General Mills’ Nature Valley brand. The Minneapolis, MN-based company’s Crunchy Granola bar retains its appeal among consumers with its 100% natural ingredients and clean-label status. Granola Thins, Nature Valley’s newest introduction, capitalizes on the popular longevity of the original bar with an indulgent twist. The thin granola squares contain whole-grain rolled oats, roasted peanuts and honey and feature a coating of dark chocolate or peanut butter on one side.

“People are looking for smart snack options that still satisfy those sweet cravings they might otherwise find in something heavier and less wholesome,” said David Wilson, associate marketing manager, Nature Valley.

A desire to create tastier, higher-quality gluten-free options for celiacs motivated Michael Smulders, founder of Bakery on Main, Glastonbury, CT, to make products that “are good for you but taste like they aren’t.” The result was Bakery on Main’s gluten-free granola and granola snack bars, which grew out of Mr. Smulders’ retail health food business. The Peanut Butter Chocolate, Extreme Trail Mix and Cranberry Maple Nut bars include nuts and seeds to create balanced nutrition.

Mr. Smulders described the bar market as “trended out” but cited strong growth in the gluten-free, raw and high-fiber categories. The company stays in contact with consumers through its Web site, newsletters and an online club. Its customers also serve as test and focus groups and help inform the company about what is going on in the celiac and gluten-free communities.

Mr. Smulders said a desire among consumers for non-GMO ingredients is one of the biggest trends in the bar market. Bakery on Main uses a third-party certifier to assure non-GMO purity, which is not covered by organic certification.

Great nutritional value with an allergen-free focus remains the calling card for Enjoy Life Foods, Schiller Park, IL. Enjoy Life’s chewy snack bars in Caramel Apple, Cocoa Loco, Sunbutter Crunch and Very Berry varieties provide a good source of fiber and vitamins. But that doesn’t mean that its consumers are willing to give up on great taste, according to Joel Warady, marketing director, Enjoy Life Foods. The company produces the only nutritionally fortified snack bar that is gluten-free and free of the eight common allergens (dairy, egg, wheat, soy, peanut, tree nut, fish and shellfish.)

Enjoy Life prides itself on the relationships it has formed with its fans and influencers. As a result, new product introductions and a recent reformulation reflect requests for unique flavors and great value. Because of economic challenges, the company has received more requests for bars that serve as a meal replacement, rather than just a snack.

“With people living an on-the-go lifestyle, we feel the market for nutritional snack bars will continue to grow significantly due to consumers’ desire to have great-tasting, nutritionally sound products in a convenient form,” Mr. Warady said.

In an age where manufacturers are expected to establish relationships with consumers based on communication and transparency, some are employing a more literal use of transparency in the form of packaging. KIND Healthy Snacks, New York, NY, uses transparent packaging to establish an immediate visual and emotional communication with its consumers. Consumers who want more from their food want to know exactly what’s in the bars they are eating. Kind’s bars contain pieces of real fruit and whole nuts, ingredients that the company keeps as close as possible to their natural state.

“Consumers are demanding more in terms of taste,” said Erica Bliss Pattni, director of marketing, KIND Healthy Snacks. “They have learned that real food and ingredients that are close to nature taste great, and they are less interested in the chalky slab bars that used to dominate the space.”

In August, KIND introduced six new bars in recognition of the continued sophistication of consumers’ palates. The introductions included two fruit-and-nut bars and four KIND PLUS bars supplemented with fiber, antioxidants or protein. Designed in response to demand for smaller, portable portions, 100 Cal KIND Minis also hit the shelves in August. The smaller bars can be eaten alone or paired with other foods such as Greek yogurt or fruit for a more substantial snack or light meal.

“People are snacking more often and making planned snacks an established component of their daily diet and overall lifestyles,” Ms. Bliss Pattni said. “The increased frequency of deliberate and thoughtful snacking is leading more consumers to try and buy more often.”

Clif Bar & Co., Berkeley, CA, is known for catering to athletes and on-the-go consumers, and that means offering a variety of flavors, textures and sizes. At Natural Products Expo West in March, Clif Bar launched its athlete-focused Clif Bar Mini energy bars and Luna Minis for women in response to consumer feedback.
The company’s new Clif C is an all-natural double-layered fruit-and-nut bar made with organic ingredients. Its transparent packaging highlights the texture of the fruit and nuts. Clif Crunch, another new item, is marketed as the first crunchy granola bar with whole chocolate chips.

“People’s lives are busier than ever, so we continue to look for ways to make their lives easier by developing healthy, portable options,” said Michelle Ferguson, senior vice-president marketing, Clif Bar & Co. “As we mix it up in the kitchen, we make sure Clif is bringing a unique offering the satisfies our consumers’ needs.”

The question remains, just how much of a niche should bars become to suit consumer needs? Companies such as Earnest Eats, Solana Beach, CA, are observing the current bar market to include everything from golf-focused bars to manufacturers who strive to enhance the perception of nutrition through the use of additives.

Earnest Eats eschews spray-on vitamins and protein powders in favor of natural whole grains, almond butter, fruit and nuts. Available in Almond Trail Mix, Cran Lemon Zest, Apple Ginger and Choco Peanut Butter varieties, the bars are packaged in transparent wrappings to showcase their ingredients.
“We believe consumers are looking for simpler nutrition bars that are real food,” said Andrew Aussie, founder, Earnest Eats. “This is almost a 180-degree turn from where the market is now, back to where it started with simple granola bars in the US or muesli and ‘flapjack’ bars in Europe and the UK.”
The company, formerly known as Honest Foods, used its rebranding as Earnest Eats as an opportunity to remove wheat from its formulations and create a softer, chewier baked vegan bar. The company was happily surprised by an overwhelmingly positive response from the vegan community.
“We like that consumers are looking for higher and higher quality in their food choices, and it is giving us the license and encouragement to build even greater levels of premiumness and nourishment in the whole food ingredients we use.” Mr. Aussie said.

Bar manufacturers who know their consumers can assert and differentiate their products in the overcrowded bar market. They need to take the time to learn the tastes, usage patterns and nutritional needs of this audience and build a partnership that successfully combines consumer desire with manufacturer know-how.