Bars have grown to be an essential part of a healthy routine for on-the-go professionals, active adults, weekend warriors, and full-time athletes. They also have carved a strong niche for clean label-focused Millennials, weight- and health-conscious middle-aged and older adults, and lunchbox-toting children. And for some, such as the elderly or infirm, they fill an important nutrition gap.

Over the years, bars increasingly focused on health, meal replacement, weight management, and energy. But indulgent branding and product formulations are on the rise again. This turn toward the more extravagant can pave a lucrative path for innovative bar makers. Exotic ingredients such as dried tropical fruits (mango, guava, pineapple, dragon fruit, and jackfruit) and rainforest treasures, such as camu-camu, cupuaçu, and pili nuts signal a special treat while still delivering sensual flavors and textures. 

Bars also can take a celebratory approach, like General Mills, Inc.’s 140-calorie Chex Mix Bars with birthday cake flavor inclusions, including Chex cereal pieces, pretzels, and rainbow sprinkles. Other bars take the comfort and indulgence path, comforting with a melt-in-the-mouth texture like Love Good Fats Co.’s Cookies & Cream flavored snack bars.

Chocolate chips continue as the leading flavor inclusion, with almonds and coconut ranking second and third, according to Mintel research. And while fruit, nuts, and chocolate typically set the stage for flavor, today’s bars are more about combining these comfort inclusions with health-enhancing ingredients.

Protein, botanicals, and even medicinal mushrooms are emerging as ways to enhance nutritional and functionality. Probiotics and prebiotics, too, are helping bars attain new levels of performance, strengthening the connection between a healthy gut microbiome and mental wellness.

From Flavor to Function

Two hot trends in bar inclusions go beyond the visible into the microscopic: protein and probiotics. Probiotics, along with their favorite foods, prebiotic fibers, have enjoyed a boom as digestive health and immunity moved to the front and center in the past few years. Helping the trend are the new strains of beneficial bacteria that can withstand the high heat and temperatures that can be inherent in bar production. 

The demand for protein has evolved significantly with an increased focus on plant-based proteins. Protein has been emphasized for a long time in bar marketing. The focus previously was on the nonglycemic effects and satiety. While those still matter, today’s protein trend looks more toward a perception of perceived better caloric management, weight control, and energy.

Protein additions to bars can range from soy and whey to concentrated milk or yogurt pellets, high-protein crisps, and nuts and seeds. The latter add taste and texture, and can be combined to offer a complete protein claim. An advantage to including some plant-based proteins, such as pea protein, is that they contribute creaminess or sweetness. In these cases, manufacturers can rely less on gums or added sweeteners to impart pleasing flavors and textures.

“There is plenty of room for new protein bars in the market, especially in niche areas such as vegan, paleo, raw and keto,” notes Bart Child, Chief Commercial Officer for Nellson, LLC. “Today’s consumers crave variety, making positioning vital when developing products to appeal to rising demands.”

Child stresses that when designing bars for niche demographics, the nutritional value of the bar as well as the overall taste and texture of the chosen ingredients are primary considerations. “Constraints on ingredient availability have been one of the greatest challenges for manufacturers today and so this factor also has become an important consideration,” Child adds. But he also cautions that, no matter the nutritional value, as with any product if the bar doesn’t taste superior, consumers are unlikely to buy it more than once.

Upcycling Sustained

Sustainability is a leading priority for environment-conscious shoppers. This means creating formulations not just for the health of the consumer but for the planet. But, as described in a recent MMR Research Associates, Inc. poll, consumers don’t equate sustainable innovation with “natural.” That makes two important factors to consider when developing a bar.

General Mills, Inc.-owned Cascadian Farm Organic did just that when creating its “HEART the Farm” snack bars. The company not only uses simple, organic nuts, chips, and dried fruits in its whole-grain granola bars, it also partners with The Nature Conservancy to protect natural resources.

Hand-in-hand with sustainability is the hot trend of upcycling. Upcycling provides a practical solution to reduce food waste while adding value and the differentiation to appeal to sustainability-conscious consumers.

Repurposed ingredients convey prudent economy and innovation, and provides consumers a role as part of the solution with sustainability. Upcycled Foods, Inc.’s ReGrained, LLC-brand nutrition bars received one of the first globally acknowledged Upcycled Food Association's certification by repurposing nutritious spent grains from beer-brewing operations in snack bars. The company also uses cutting-edge nutritional inclusions, such as ginseng and coffee fruit.

Last summer, the company launched an upcycled protein crisp designed to add texture and nutrition in bars while accelerating sustainable innovation. The protein and fiber come from Certified Upcycled ingredients derived from brewer's spent grain. The latter is dried to less than 5% moisture level and milled finely.

Upcycling can involve different approaches. Real Foods, LLC’s Real Food Bar line involves the “rescue” of so-called ugly and surplus produce. The upcycled kale, cauliflower, and sweet potato are dried and milled into powders for bars that also use fruit and nut pieces as inclusions

CaPao Fruit, LLC is a start-up that makes plant-powered bars and bites from upcycled cacao fruit pulp after the seeds are harvested for chocolate. The GMO-free bar is also packed with healthful inclusions including puffed quinoa, buckwheat groats, chia seeds, pumpkin seeds, golden flaxseeds, and oats—all from upcycled sources.. Another start-up bar, Força Foods, LLC, developed a line of bite-sized bars made with fruits and nuts and, unusually, upcycled watermelon seeds. The toasted seeds add protein, minerals, and tender crunch along with a profile healthy for the body and the environment.

On the Horizon

3D printing offers a new dimension to snack bar innovation, especially when applied to the upcycling format. Beyond valorizing food waste and byproducts, 3D printing opens the opportunity to transform these “orphan” ingredients into appealing new shapes and forms that can overcome the inertia of consumers toward the ubiquitous bar format. 

Student-founded start-up Upprinting Food, BV transforms food waste like stale bread and overripe or so-called ugly produce into 3D-printed snacks. This technology opens the door for a complete new generation of bars and bar-like snacks that can have custom shapes built around unusual and uncommon inclusions.

Refrigerated bars are beginning to appear in retail spaces and could become more prominent in the next few years. This is due in part to the digestive health and immunity trend that has expanded the application of probiotics. Many live cultures need to be held in “suspended animation” through chilling. Some snack bars made with probiotics already are claiming a slot in the refrigerated aisle. The cooler bar also allows for inclusions such as fresh fruit pieces or raw nuts and seeds.

“Refrigerated bars are a fresh and delicious way for consumers to enjoy a healthy snack while meeting nutritional needs,” says Nellson’s Child. “While the bars need to be kept refrigerated to protect from spoilage, they typically forego the use of preservatives and other ingredients that health-conscious consumers try to avoid.”

Cold production and other emerging technologies are a boon when it comes to bar inclusions. They allow for ingredients such as fresh fruits and vegetables, seaweeds, and specialty/nutritional oils less commonly found in bars. Combined with 3-D printing that allows for more efficient layering or shaping and developers will soon find few ideas that they cannot execute in a successful bar format.

Kantha Shelke, PhD, CFS, is a senior lecturer at Johns Hopkins University and principal of Corvus Blue, LLC, a Chicago-based food science and research firm specializing in industry competitive intelligence, expert witness services, and new product/technology development and commercialization of foods and food ingredients for health and wellness. Contact her at

Thin is In

The thin format is a novel approach that delivers permissible indulgence and lower calorie count. Such bars typically are of the crispy variety, making crunch and texture a prominent part of the eating experience. Taking advantage of smaller-sized inclusions, the thin format is an opportunity for snack bars to embrace the connection between texture and stress relief in a low-calorie vehicle.

Savory Bars

While sweet inclusions dominate bars, the potential to extend inclusions into a greater range of usage occasions opens up with savory flavors and sweet and savory combinations. A number of bars today are making use of inclusions ranging from bits of dried meat (jerky) or crunchy cheese, to freeze-dried, nutrient dense cruciferous vegetables—and even mushrooms, tomatoes, and olives. Bars studded with nuts, such as pistachios, macadamias, and pecans, have been turning toward savory formulation, as well, being flavored with herbs, seeds, and spices. And on the indulgent side, bars with chocolate and sea salt, or chocolate and bacon bits continue to fill the “neither and both” cravings of today’s consumers. Such bars are designed to stand out from stereotypical flavors, aiming instead to disrupt expectations and leaning more toward nutritious and meaningful meal replacements. One worthy example is Maine Coast Sea Vegetables Inc.’s Kelp Krunch Bars. A bar with both earthy and sweet flavor profiles, the line uses sesame seeds, maple syrup, brown rice syrup, and “sugar” kelp to make thin, crispy, vegan bar that is super high in minerals and vitamins.