It often requires nutritionists' guidance to sort through the maze of food supplement bars.
Along with filling a need for athletes looking for supplemental protein, food bars — often sold in the nonfood diet and nutritional supplement sections of supermarkets — are developing a growing following among everyday people who want to lose weight or simply have a wholesome snack.
Although only 14% of the population currently consumes nutrition bars, the market is poised for growth since bars are appealing to more demographics like women, Baby Boomers and even children.
“They're not just for fitness buffs anymore,” said Joy Kemp, Dorothy Lane Market's, Dayton, Ohio, healthy living director.
Bars are increasingly being incorporated as part of weight-management programs. Almost 40% of 25- to 44-year-olds are eating nutrition/energy bars in the hopes of losing weight, according to Mintel.
Helping to propel the trend is a new wave of better-for-you bars made without high-fructose corn syrup and hydrogenated oils. These minimally processed bars tend to be lower-calorie, and made with just a handful of ingredients like fruits, grains and nuts.
Nutrition/health bars generated $585.3 million in food, drug and mass (excluding Wal-Mart) for the 52 weeks ending July 12, a 5.7% increase from the same period in 2008, according to Information Resources Inc. The Clif brand is the category leader, with $56.4 million in sales, a 12% increase.
While food bars are increasingly being seen as a healthy snack, choosing the right one is no easy task. That's because the market is crowded, and many shoppers are unsure about the difference between high-protein bars vs. those with less protein, calories and fat, registered dietitians tell SN.
“There's a lot of confusion about bars,” said Kemp. “Some are full of junk and not very healthy.”
That's why Kemp and other dietitians are working to educate shoppers about what types of bars are best for certain lifestyles.
When it comes to meal replacement bars, Kemp recommends brands like the Probar, made with whole grains, dried fruits and 13 other whole foods, 70% of which are raw.
Such a combination helps provide more nutrition and curb hunger longer, Kemp said.
While Probars are designed for those looking for a meal replacement, supermarket shelves have plenty of other options for those who simply want a healthy snack.
Manufacturers are bringing new products to market at a rapid pace. A common trend among new-product introductions is bars that address consumer time restraints. Last year, for instance, nine new-product launches with the claim “on the go” hit the market, according to research firm Mintel.
“Food bars can be a healthy convenience item for moms when they're driving their kids back and forth to all their activities,” Kemp said.
If this is the case, Kemp may recommend a brand like Larabar, which contains no more than eight ingredients, all of which are whole foods.
“The fewer the ingredients, the better,” said Kemp. “Some Larabars have just three ingredients, and taste great.”
Another brand Kemp suggests is Amazing Grass bars, which are raw, gluten-free, dairy-free and vegan. All flavors contain a so-called “Green Super Food” blend of organic wheat grass, spinach, broccoli and other whole foods.
What's more, Amazing Grass bars keep calories and fat in check. The Amazing Grass Whole Food Energy Bar has 220 calories, 8 grams of fat, 5 grams of protein, 25 grams of sugar and 36 grams of carbohydrates.
“People need to read what's inside a bar,” Kemp stressed.
RANK THE HEALTHIEST BARS
To help shoppers do just that, Chandler, Ariz.-based Bashas' registered dietitian Barbara Ruhs discusses food bars in store tours.
During the store tours, conducted twice a month, Ruhs plays a game in the aisles by asking participants to pick a category and rank brands according to which they think are healthiest in terms of sugar, fat, calories and other nutritional content.
She realized how confusing the food bar category was when many participants asked to play the game in the food bar category, which is merchandised in a 5-foot section in Bashas' Natural Choice natural and organic department.
She's not surprised about all the questions. After all, 10 years ago, there were just a handful of bars, lead by the Powerbar. Today, there are several dozen, some geared to athletes; others, women; some, children.
“The choice can be overwhelming,” Ruhs said.
Ruhs makes suggestions based on the reasons behind the purchase. Some want a low-calorie bar, while others are more concerned about fat content. Then there are those who are set on a high-protein meal replacement.
“Different people make decisions on bars in different ways,” she said.
She educates them on what aspects of ingredients to look for. For instance, some “Kind” bars have 15 grams of fat and 210 calories. At first glance, most people would put this back on the shelf. But Ruhs teaches them to take a second look at the ingredients label because the bars are all-natural and made only with fruits and nuts.
To lose weight, she encourages frequent healthy meals. To do so, she gives them options. For those who are on the go, a healthy snack like apple and peanut butter isn't going to work, so she'll suggest a food bar like Larabar.
She often recommends Larabar's apple and cinnamon flavor, which is low in fat. Another reason why she recommends Larabar is that it's one of the few gluten-free bars on the market.
“Many people look for a healthy snack that they can keep in their pocketbook or car,” she said.
She even gets queries about food bars for kids, like Clif Kid Organic ZBar, a whole oat bar that contains 130 calories and 3½ grams of fat.
For those who want a snack between meals, she'll suggest a bar with 200 or fewer calories.
She warns people to be cautious about high-protein bars. While some protein is good for those who work out because it helps to build muscle mass, too much is unnecessary.
“Most women going for an hour to the gym every so often don't need a high-protein bar,” she said.
Men need to be conservative as well. For instance, Promax energy bars pack in a whopping 20 grams of protein each.
“A bar with that much protein, even if you're a male, shouldn't be eaten more than once a day,” she said.
Shoppers should also read the label for calories, said Ruhs. While men can easily have a 350-calorie bar, women should keep it at 200 calories or fewer, unless they are training for a marathon or another endurance sport.
“I often recommend the lower-calorie bars because you can supplement them by adding in a piece of fruit or a glass of low-fat milk and you still won't go over a healthy calorie limit,” she said.
At Hy-Vee's Fleur Drive location in Des Moines, Iowa, store dietitian Anne Cundiff includes nutrition bars in store tours for a weight-management class. Education is necessary in the category due to the many brands, flavors and nutrition claims shoppers need to consider.
“Meal replacement bars are typically mixed in with protein bars, so shoppers need to know what they want,” she said.
She recommends that the average person should look for bars with sugar content fewer than 10 grams.
Protein bars, which contain between 8 and 15 grams of protein, are a good option for those who don't eat meat and need supplemental protein, she said.
But her advice is much different for those who want to enjoy something healthy between meals. For such shoppers, she suggests a bar like Clif Mojo bar, which contains 200 calories and is filled with whole nuts, pretzel pieces and other all-natural ingredients. Plus, she said, it tastes good.
“It's not something I want them to have every day, but they're better to have as a snack than something unhealthy like fast food,” she said.
What's more, food bars can easily be incorporated into a weight-loss plan.
“If people are busy and have a fast-paced life, I may suggest they have a bar on hand as a snack,” she said.