Cereal Bars Target Health and Convenience

William A. Roberts, Jr., Business Editor/New Media Editor

The cereal bar category has seen something of a shift away from its natural and organic origins, as a 2008 Mintel report has found the rising cost of grains and rice, not to mention manufacturing costs, are taking their toll. However, the category continues to see a strong number of introductions, thanks in large part to that same consumer trend toward naturalness, as well as the healthy positioning of many of the category’s products.

Consumers have a multitude of health-oriented reasons for choosing cereal bars (as a trade-down from treats with a less healthy perception, a workout energy boost or even a fast meal replacement option). And, as might therefore be expected, items with reduced calories, fat or sugar have performed quite well, although Mintel finds steep declines in the percentage of such introductions of late. This suggests manufacturers could be looking to more positive benefits, such as fortification, to lure consumers worried about any nutritional deficits in their weight-loss efforts. At the same time, fortification efforts have focused on a number of priorities: from promoting development in children to boosting performance in amateur or professional athletes. High-protein, low-carbohydrate or balanced-GI formulations have seen particular growth.

Products for weight management propelled the segment significantly around the time of the low-carb craze, and Atkins Nutritionals was certainly at the center of launch efforts. By no means is low-carb a thing of the past; however, it does seem to be embracing a different tactic. Low-carb introductions have dropped notably (outside the top 20 claims found in cereal bars, in fact), but high-protein cereal bars have not only maintained their pace, but also actually increased. Jennifer McGhee, vice president of marketing with Atkins Nutritionals, explains, “I’ve seen low-carb/high-protein grow [recently], just from a lot of interest from a number of studies. Just a year ago, the New England Journal of Medicine released the results of a two-year study, which found a 50% greater weight loss and improved cholesterol on low-carb vs. low-fat diets.” As studies supporting low-carb diets continue to be published, consumers may well continue to look to such products for weight management.

Cereal Bar Tending
In its November 2008 report “Cereal Bars--U.S.,” Mintel found 59% of cereal bar purchasers consume them as a meal replacement, and 75% regard them as a snack. Some 42% opt for cereal bars because of their nutritional content, while 18% eat a cereal bar before exercising. Cereal bars have particular opportunity to reach young people, as their relatively healthy positioning is already ingrained in parents’ minds, and increased government regulation is likely to impact the selling and consumption of unhealthy snacks in schools.

Nutritious products are only part of the story, however, as manufacturers are also embracing portion control by offering these products in individually wrapped portions, again in keeping with the category’s focus on weight loss. As might be expected, the 100-calorie-pack trend is alive and well in cereal bars: Kraft Foods launched 100-calorie versions of Nabisco Newtons Fruit Crisps in a 24-pack with an apple cinnamon flavor. Likewise, Russell Stover Candies introduced a 100-calorie Sugar-free Snack Bar sweetened with sucralose and in three flavors: apple cinnamon, blueberry and chewy granola. A slightly higher calorie count (140 per serving, to be exact) could be found in Quaker True Delights Chewable Granola Bars. Made with whole grains, real fruits and real nuts, the trans-fat-free product promised the taste of honey-roasted cashew mixed berry.

While low-calorie offerings are a tried-and-true trend, other “low-in” notions have made their way into cereal bars. Oskri Organics, for instance, launched Jalow Bars, promising no additives, preservatives, artificial sweeteners, lactose or gluten, while also being low in sugar and carbohydrates. They can be found in such flavors as almond cranberry, cashew cranberry and pecan raisin.

While products low in allergens have seen notable growth in recent years, their percentage of total product launches has dipped slightly through the first two thirds of 2009, according to a search of Mintel’s Global New Products Database (GNPD). Nevertheless, the claim is the third most popular, trailing only kosher and organic, which can be found on 33% and 23% of 2009 launches, respectively. Particular growth has come in whole-grain claims, which have been spotted on 18% of 2009 introductions, well ahead of the 13% pace of 2008 and 2007. Reflecting the consumer awareness of environmental issues, some 17% of new launches this year have boasted an environmentally friendly package, up substantially from 2008’s 6%, after registering 0% in each of the two prior years.

Barring Consumers
Amid all of this, it must be kept in mind that cereal bars are a part of the snack foods segment, and The NPD Group finds that consumption of snack foods is growing among kids aged 6-12, but declining among adults 18-34 (showing greatest declines) and adults 55+. Snacking among younger children ages 2-5 is also declining. By 2017, NPD projects kids under nine and adults ages 30-39 and 50-59 will account for the largest number of snack eaters.

“There is an aging curve that shows between-meal eating peaking at a very young age; although children in general remain the heaviest snackers,” says Arnie Schwartz, who leads the The NPD Group food and beverage business unit. “On the other end of the age spectrum, between-meal eating shows growth after the age of around 60. Because this is where the population is heading, we would expect this behavior to just outpace population growth.”

NPD’s “Snacking in America” report finds most snacking still occurs in the evening at home, but evening snacking is declining. Morning snacking has shown the strongest growth, as snack foods replace more breakfast meals than other meals.

The morning meal was a focus for several items in Atkins’ latest launch, according to McGhee. “We have six new items coming out, two in our Core Advantage (high levels of protein and low levels of carbs)...and then our daybreak line with high fiber, and our Endulge line, which is a more decadent line for evening snacking.” The latter strive to be indulgent, but also nutritional: “Atkins has a principle to follow higher protein, higher fiber, low sugar and low net carbs. Some, like one of the items in the Daybreak line, have whole-grain oats in there.”

The Atkins products do boast a high-fiber and high-protein content, while being low in carbohydrates and sugar. She explains the nutritional profile for the line is higher than most of their competitors’ products, while also being free of high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS).

Why did Atkins omit HFCS? “It is in the news,” McGhee notes, “especially with a lot of juices. We are definitely concerned and look at what consumers want in products. We try to teach consumers the benefits of eating a healthy, high-protein, high-fiber diet, while maintaining a healthy weight.” To get around the HFCS, Atkins opted instead to use some sugar alcohols and glycerin, she notes.

HFCS is likewise absent from the Lärabar Jam Frakas brand crispy, chewy food bar from Humm Foods. Free from gluten, dairy, soy and trans fat, the whole-grain bar is also fortified with vitamins and minerals and is found in such flavors as Apple Crispalicious; Banana Chocolate Blastocrisp; Peanut Butter Blisscrisp; and Strawberry Crispiscrumptious. While the Humm product clearly targets young people, Clif Bar’s Luna Nutrition Bar has its sites firmly set on the female audience. The company recently augmented its line with a white chocolate macadamia variety high in calcium and folic acid, while also being rich in antioxidant vitamins A, C and E.

While a number of cereal bars target children and several focus on women, men are a largely ignored demographic--somewhat surprising, when considering men’s concerns are not entirely different from women’s--time pressures, health issues, etc. Men may not respond as well to a “diet” positioning, but a focus on energy enhancement (as has been seen so successfully in energy beverages) could lead more men to the segment.

As with any food launch, though, a product’s success stems from one factor: “Excellent taste,” says McGhee. “Consumers look at the flavor profile and nutritional profile, but they really look at the taste appeal of products. That’s really their number one selection criteria, taste.”pf