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Sensible Snacking

Snack bars never seemed healthier. Among the many options on retail shelves are cereal, snack and granola bars packed with fiber, calcium and antioxidants all attributes that appeal to health-conscious consumers. Though granola bar dollar sales slid 1.2% to $884.9 million at food, drug and mass channels (excluding Wal-Mart) during the 52 weeks ending July 12, breakfast/cereal bars generated $728.8

Snack bars never seemed healthier.

Among the many options on retail shelves are cereal, snack and granola bars packed with fiber, calcium and antioxidants — all attributes that appeal to health-conscious consumers.

Though granola bar dollar sales slid 1.2% to $884.9 million at food, drug and mass channels (excluding Wal-Mart) during the 52 weeks ending July 12, breakfast/cereal bars generated $728.8 million, a sound 4.5% increase during the same time period, according to Information Resources Inc.

The economy is certainly a factor in the growth, as these convenience foods offer an inexpensive meal or snack option.

But the addition of new value-added bars is making an impression, too.

At Big Y Foods, Springfield, Mass., cereal bars, granola bars, toaster pastries and cereals sales are up, which category manager Brian Paulin attributes largely to new products with added health benefits.

“Convenience breakfast items with some type of health benefit, such as fiber or whole grains, have seen strong growth,” Paulin said. He did not provide exact sales figures.

Dominated by General Mills, Kellogg and Quaker Oats, the category boasts plenty of better-for-you options. Among them are South Beach Living FiberFit cereal bars that contain 36% of the daily value of fiber; Nature Valley chewy granola bars are topped with yogurt coating, a “good source of calcium,” it claims; and Kellogg FiberPlus bars contain 35% of daily fiber and are rich in antioxidants, vitamin E and zinc.

At Big Y, General Mills' Fiber One bars and Kellogg's FiberPlus bars are particularly strong sellers, as well as Kellogg's Special K snack bars, according to Paulin.

Big Y chooses which cereal bars to carry based on four factors: consumer trends in the category; product details such as ingredients and health benefits; manufacturer marketing plans for the item; and uniqueness of the item.

Indeed, unique items are becoming increasingly present in the category.

Quaker Granola Bites, small granola pieces rather than a bar, are an option for consumers with “bar burnout,” according to research firm Mintel, Chicago. They are a unique niche item because they are portable, whole-grain and contain 90 calories per pouch.

Such innovation fuels alternative consumption occasions, and adds an element of fun for kids, according to Mintel.

The category has plenty of other options. For instance, there are bars for the calorie-conscious, like Special K 90-calorie Bars, Nabisco 100-calorie bars and Curves' 100-calorie bars.

And for those who want an indulgent treat, there's Kellogg's new Cinnabon snack bar. Cinnabon is a retail chain whose signature item is a large, warm cinnamon roll.

There is also Quaker True Delights, whole-grain chewy granola bars made with dark chocolate chunks, fruits and whole nuts.

“Some recent new-item innovation does include some more indulgent-type items, which are performing very well,” Paulin noted.

Growth in the snack bar category is primarily due to the success of new fiber-rich functional brands, according to Mintel.

Such functional uses have the potential to appeal to a wider audience, including men, who are resistant to purchasing weight loss/management products from companies like Slim-Fast.

There have been so many new introductions that C&K Markets, Brookings, Ore., continually evaluates which ones it should sell.

Snack bars are popular because they're a convenience item and positioned as a healthy alternative to other snack foods, said Matt Olson, direct-store-delivery grocery buyer for C&K, which operates about 60 stores under the Ray's Food Place and ShopSmart Foods Warehouse banners.

The challenge is, in light of limited retail space, deciding which new flavors to bring in.

“It's difficult because we don't have the room,” he said.

Snack bars' sister category, Pop-Tarts, are no exception.

“Pop-Tarts come out with new flavors all time, and we'd like to bring some of them in, but can't due to space limitations,” he said.

Meanwhile, households with children under 18 are 20 percentage points more likely to consume all bar types than those without (83% vs. 63%), according to a Mintel study.

Older respondents (55-64) are looking for great taste (85%) and easy chewability (59%) but prefer the healthier bars on the market that are higher in fiber (47%) and lower in calories (47%) and sugar (42%), according to the study.

Six in 10 respondents feel that cereal bars are a very good value choice for healthy snacking, with women feeling that this is true by a higher margin (63%) than men (55%). But some dietitians warn that cereal bars may not be as nutritious as they're portrayed.

Tyra Carter, dietitian for United Supermarkets, Lubbock, Texas, agreed that some bars do contain added fiber and/or calcium, but the added fiber may be in form of polydextrose or inulin.

“This form of fiber may not carry health benefits for prevention or treatment of disease that comes from fiber found naturally in foods such as fruits, vegetables and whole grains,” Carter said.

Saying that many people use bars as a quick meal replacement or snack, she added that bars can fit into a balanced meal plan, but should not be relied on for more than one meal or snack per day.

If sugar, corn syrup, refined grains such as rice (not brown rice), partially hydrogenated oils, palm kernel or coconut oil are the main ingredients, it's not as healthy as people would think, Carter said.

Taste Key to Snack Bar Success

Snack bar shoppers enjoy healthier options, but are most interested in taste, according to research firm Mintel.

Flavor and flavor variety are the two most influential factors (80% and 71%, respectively) for those who purchase cereal bars (80% and 67%, respectively, for granola bars), according to a Mintel survey.

Good taste may be the single biggest advantage that cereal/granola bars have over energy/protein/diet bars that are often chewy or chalky, with a less desirable aftertaste, the study states.

Among other survey results:

• Most respondents want their granola bars as a snack (85%).

• Older respondents (45-54) like to eat cereal and granola bars as meal replacements.

• The oldest respondents (65+) often choose to eat cereal bars for breakfast (91%) and granola bars for lunch (67%).

• Young people (18-24 and 25-34) are most likely to choose cereal and granola bars while working and traveling.

Growth Opportunities

Despite the many varieties already on the market, there's plenty of potential in the snack/cereal bar category, according to research firm Mintel.

For instance, there's more opportunity for brands for kids, men and seniors.

Likewise, flavor profiles that are targeted to Asian or Hispanic tastes could cater not only to these ethnic groups (who already rank highest in cereal bar consumption), but also to consumers who want to experiment with more exotic flavors, Mintel states.

Among other opportunities:

• Budget Bars — To compete with store brands such as those offered by Walgreens, Wal-Mart and Trader Joe's, companies should consider developing basic granola bars and cereal bars priced competitively at approximately $2 per box.

• Super-premium offerings — Functional ingredients like goji and açaí fruit will appeal to educated consumers, even if they come with higher price tags, according to Mintel.

• Larger, single-serving cereal and granola bars with greater nutritional value, protein and calories.