Next-generation snack bars blend taste with targeted health solutions

As snacking eclipses “traditional” eating, consumers are reaching for more bars — and for more reasons to eat them. Here’s how innovative brands are transforming the bar aisle.

Nick Collias, Contributing writer

July 11, 2024

5 Min Read

At a Glance

  • The new crop of functional bars adds goal-specific nutrition to a familiar base of protein and carbs.
  • Making a bar might require dialing back or avoiding popular functional ingredients because of taste.
  • Consumers read bar labels and are demanding more info about what’s included — and not — on the ingredient list.

Walk down the beverage aisle of a grocery store, and you might be struck with how much it looks “like a pharmacy,” according to Scott Dicker at SPINS. Many foods and beverages now claim to enhance cognition, hormone health, stress control, and more, often made by brands with backgrounds in supplements and sports nutrition. And the same transition is quietly taking place in another aisle: the one lined with nutrition bars.

“Drinks have traditionally been the pathway into food and beverages,” Dicker said. “But bars have become intertwined with that market as well. For many brands, it’s a logical next step.”

Just a few years ago, these bars came in two varieties: carb-heavy “energy” bars and protein bars. But today, bar-makers are offering goal-specific nutrition to reach consumers who are snacking more often than ever, with some forward-thinking brands taking this category in new and innovative directions.

The basics, plus a benefit

What can a bar promise beyond calories and macronutrients? Plenty, it turns out. A few unique recent additions to the market include:

In all cases, these bars must still pass well enough as energy or protein bars to be what Dicker called a “permissible indulgence” for today’s consumers. But with those boxes checked, a bar can become a “vehicle for delivery” of additional ingredients that address common health concerns.

“I don't ever see protein and energy bars being dethroned as the functional bars of choice,” Dicker said. “But these other ones are going to piggyback on popular health concerns and find niches, and they could be sizable. Because they all share the main benefit, which is that they’re ‘on-the-go’ nutrition that will give you some satiety and some functionality.”

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Have bars become “foundational nutrition?”

Snacks are no longer just one-off treats. On the contrary, surveys by the Hartman Group and others have shown that portable nutrition like bars have become staples as central to consumers’ days as a meal. This shift allows brands to think more strategically about how to create bars that serve both specific needs and universal ones.

Dave Wright, founder and CEO of UK-based Performance Lab, says his lightning bolt moment about the power of bars came when he was looking for ways to make their flagship nootropic supplement more effective.

“The idea for Nu:tropic bars came several years after launching Mind Lab Pro — which is designed to deliver a 5%-10% 'boost' in brainpower on top of optimal foundational nutrition,” Wright explained. “But it became apparent that most people were not getting the foundational nutrition required for optimal brain health and performance.”

In response, the company designed the bar almost like a brain-and-body multivitamin, with synergistic ingredients intended to dovetail with other products a consumer is taking for the same reasons.

“We designed the bar to deliver full-spectrum foundational brain nutrition: macronutrients as complex carbohydrates; micronutrients as choline, omega-3s, NutriGenesis vitamins and minerals; and prebiotic fiber to support the gut-brain axis,” Wright said.

What is the perfect “dose” of a bar?

One big challenge in creating functional bars is that the category is so new, brands don’t even know how many bars they can expect someone to eat. This makes it hard to dial in ingredient amounts that are high enough to be effective, but not so high that taste suffers. Put another way, “We want the benefits, we just don’t want to taste them,” as MenoWell CEO Julie Gordon White said.

The natural foods brand Laird Superfood encountered this conundrum when they wanted to add protein-plus-adaptogen bars to their catalog of functional foods products, which also include coffees and creamers enhanced with protein and adaptogens.

“We had to be extra careful,” Martha Opela, VP of Marketing for Laird, explained. “In the coffee and creamer space, we can go off statistics and say that people consume 2.5 cups-3 cups per day. We can use that as our guardrail for how we put different benefits into our coffee and creamer. With bars, we had to set a different limit and ask, ‘What if people have five bars a day?’”

Opela said their research ultimately indicated that their “most avid” consumers ate three bars a day, but Laird formulated the bars as if a customer would eat more — like five to seven per day.

When the Laird team started making prototypes, it quickly became clear that they also needed to dial back the number of bioactive ingredients in the bars, since not every adaptogen passed the taste test. 

“In a lot of our products we use a four-mushroom blend: lion’s mane, chaga, cordyceps and maitake,” Opela explained. “But when we did that in the bar, the bar started to not be as delicious, and not as benefit-driven. And so we focused on just lion's mane and chaga.”

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Bars require a gentle touch

Both Performance Lab and Laird Superfood have deep backgrounds in either pills or powders, but transitioning that expertise into a bar demanded a unique approach when it came to stability and shelf life.

“Preventing degradation of bioactives begins with carefully selecting ingredients known for their stability in a food bar setting,” Wright explained. Then, the bars also needed to be “gently baked at low temperatures” in order to preserve bioactive properties and minimize nutrient breakdown.

Both Performance Lab and Laird explained that they ultimately landed a minimum one-year shelf life for their bars. This sweet spot allowed them to prioritize taste, texture and potency without having to add preservatives or emulsifiers. Because, according to Opela, bar shoppers are surprisingly picky about more than taste.
“A lot of our consumers have told us they actually ended up coming in because of the clean ingredients in the bar,” she said. “We expected it to be either taste or protein. But they told us that what’s not in the bar is often just as important. That was surprising.”

About the Author(s)

Nick Collias

Contributing writer

Nick Collias is a writer and editor with over a decade of experience working in the health and fitness industry. From 2016 to 2021, he was the host of the Bodybuilding.com Podcast, interviewing elite athletes and training thought-leaders on a wide range of exercise, nutrition and lifestyle topics. Additionally, he has worked for the last 20 years as a longform print and online journalist, as well as a book author, ghostwriter and editor. 

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