The bar category faces competition from other snacks as eating occasions reach upwards of six times a day. According to Mintel, leveraging on-the-go snack appeal should allow the bar category to counter prevailing headwinds from cookie, confectionery and conventional snacks — and even from mobile meal replacement foods. Highlighting their nutritional appeal, which remains the primary draw to the core consumers in this diversified bar segment, will provide an additional critical point of differentiation in the battle for share of stomach.

Operationally, such trends have prompted branded companies and their co-manufacturing partners — as well as incubators testing the creative limits of the category — to rely on experts in cold-formed and baked bar production.

Prior to production, food safety must be carefully considered. Because there is no kill step during a baking process, cold-formed products typically use precooked ingredients, which are incorporated with dry mixes to add vitamins, nutrients and texture. Processing the protein also provides other product attributes.

“In many cases, for instance, protein is processed or transformed to provide a softer texture to mask with natural flavors,” noted Kevin Knott, key account manager, Franz Haas, a part of the Bühler Group.

In other cases, the nutritional composition and visual appeal of bars are critical to their success in the market.

“The main difference in manufacturing candy vs. cold bars is that candy bars are typically enrobed — covering the formed piece — and cold-formed bars are much more nutritious, and the finished bar needs to have a perfect finish,” said Sebastian Clemens, sales account manager, Bühler. “The surface needs to be size-controlled as well as perfectly formed.”

While baked lines require ovens, cold-formed bars may require extensive cooling tunnels and other systems to properly set and chill the bars, especially after enrobing and before they enter the packaging department at rates of often a couple hundred a minute.

“Enrobing the product covers a multitude of sins,” Mr. Knott pointed out. “If you have a nice, coated finish to the product, you’re not as worried about what it looks like inside the bar. The consumer just sees the enrobed finish and not the extruded bar finish.”

From a baked perspective, many similarities exist between cookie and bar manufacturing.

“Both involve portioning a product that retains the characteristics the producer wants to maintain — with great piece identity, weight control and reduced labor,” observed John McIsaac, vice-president of business development, Reiser. “From a product development perspective, cookie and bar producers are among the most creative people we know.”

During the baking process, many manufacturers prefer to maintain the bars’ more natural, “naked” or unprocessed look.

“Typically, you don’t want to pick up any color when baking a bar, especially not a color like you see with a cookie with its nice, golden toast color,” Mr. Knott said. “That’s not the case with an extruded energy bar.”

Additionally, bar formulas and processes often result in vastly different mouthfeel than their other baked counterparts.

“An energy bar is tougher to eat than a cookie,” noted Mr. Knott.

And it’s tougher to make.

“The mixing technology is different,” he said. “It’s more of a blend than an actual mixing of the batch that you get with a cookie.”

Likewise, the motors on extruders used for bars need to be ramped up for proper processing.

“We have to upgrade the side of the drives and the gearbox — the whole extruder is much beefier for a protein or energy bar than it is for a cookie,” Mr. Knott said. “It needs to be substantially so because the dough is much tougher to extrude.”

Because bars incorporate molasses, syrups and other viscous binders, such “blending” of a sticky batch requires greater torque and energy than what’s needed to make a cookie batter. Often a mixer listed at 1,000-lb capacity can turn out 600-lb batches because of the batch’s tacky texture.

Wirecut machines have been used for decades to form products for both the cookie and confectionery markets, and most recently, they have expanded into nutritional, protein and breakfast bars, according to Sam Pallottini, director of cookie, cracker and pet food sales, Reading Bakery Systems (RBS).

He noted the new RBS servo-driven wirecut model offers advanced “game changing” technology, but the operation of it is fairly simple. It comes with a pair of saw-tooth feed rolls that gently push the batter through the filler block and die to form the bar. This new wirecut design enables manufacturers to select a head that best suits forming their products.

Mr. Pallottini added that a standard head for extruding soft bars and cookies comes with the machine. It consists of a 250- or 312-mm-diameter feed roll, filler block and a 125- or 165-mm-wide die plate, depending on the product’s characteristics.

“This head can be interchanged with a specialized design for coextrusion to run two dough cookies, fig bars, breakfast bars and two-color cookies,” he said.

For some high-protein products or stiffer doughs, RBS offers a heavy-duty head design.

“This comes with larger feed rolls, stronger die support rails and larger gearmotors,” Mr. Pallottini explained. “The heads can all be interchanged, enabling the customer to run a wide range of products through a single machine and, therefore, making the line very flexible.”

Mr. McIsaac said bar manufacturing means handling tough products without destroying their components.

“While we handle the product gently, we do have the power available in our small and large output machines to handle the stiffest dough and mixtures,” he said. “Our engineers tailor the cutting systems for speed, accuracy and clean cuts. We use smooth plastics and polished stainless steel. Typically, we do not need or use coatings, rather we use materials geared to the product to avoid sticking.”

Maintaining the integrity of inclusions and particulates ensures not only product quality but also manufacturing flexibility.

“Because co-manufacturers are always searching for the most versatility possible in the equipment they choose, the request we get the most is for a machine that can maintain the integrity of the particulates,” said John Giacoio, national sales director, Rheon USA. “This is not always as easy as it may sound.”

Specifically, he added, production complexity directly correlates to the amount of particulates in the final product and those additional materials such as creams that act as a lubricant to move them through the machine with minimal damage.

“It helps that our co-extruders are known for how gently they handle particulates,” Mr. Giacoio said.

Many co-manufactures also are looking for the ability to run different layers in a single bar.

“Not only can the Rheon co-extruder provide a dual-textured product, but we are able to offer up to four different materials in the same product,” he observed. “This takes versatility to a whole new level.”

Rheon’s co-extruders rely on a cutting section, called an iris, that operates like a six-piece shutter on a camera lens.

“As it closes, it cuts, wraps and seals our extrusion,” Mr. Giacoio said. “The internal layers are completely encapsulated.”

Mr. Giacoio refers to the systems as “continuous co-extruders” because the design of the shutter cuts material on the fly.

“Our shutters are also able to cut very sticky materials without any problems,” he said.

Bringing two or more product streams together, whether layered or enrobed, provides a challenge that can be met.

“We can do it at high speed with quick changeovers,” Mr. McIsaac said. “It can only be done with versatile pumping systems and customized attachments, which are two of Reiser’s and Vemag’s strengths.”

As co-extruding in layers or concentric circles has become more popular in the market, Bühler relies on systems that handle materials with a wide range of viscosities to create double- or triple-layer bars. Once again, however, manufacturers should monitor the viscosity of all fillings and batters closely to minimize production issues.

“The differentials in viscosity become a greater issue when you have coextrusion because you have two different materials with different water activities,” Mr. Knott said. “They don’t always play nice together. To make it work, we use multiple extruded heads that are servo controlled. One rate of flow is different from the other rate of flow.”

Prior to packaging, he added, many bar producers rely on ultrasonic cutting for sticky or gooey coextruded products.

“You get a much cleaner cut that way,” Mr. Knott said.

With the category facing headwinds and the market changing, bar producers should look to new products to address consumers’ functional needs, according to Mintel’s report. And that means adapting on an operational level as well.

“A line should be designed for today’s and tomorrow’s products,” Mr. McIsaac said.

That’s how the category will turn headwinds to tailwinds and move the bar to the next level with healthy and snackable products for years to come.

This article is an excerpt from the July 2019 issue of Baking & Snack. To read the entire feature on bar technology, click here.