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Without on-the-go lifestyles, bar sales lag. What will it take to win consumers back?

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Analysts have been commenting on consumer eating habits during the pandemic. One of the most frequently commented upon behaviors is an uptick in snacking. The constant munching offers comfort and eases stress. Yet despite the popularity of snacks and snacking during the pandemic, one formerly robust segment of the snacking market – bars – has not fared as well.

Pre-COVID, about half of people were regularly buying snack bars. And the percentage was even greater among younger consumers (18- to 24-year-olds) where 58% claimed in November 2019 to have purchased a snack bar in the previous three months, according to Lightspeed/Mintel data. Snack bars were a staple for on-the-go consumers. In fact, the same data showed 51% of American consumers who increased their snack bar consumption in the previous year (during 2019) did so as they were eating bars on-the-go.

A scant few months later “when the pandemic hit, consumer behaviors changed dramatically,” observes Nick Ferraro, marketing manager, DuPont Nutrition & Biosciences, St. Louis, Missouri. “People abruptly stopped or altered their ‘on-the-go’ lifestyles. Many transitioned to working or learning from home, consequently, preparing and eating most meals at home; and people curtailed many of their out of home activities – going to the gym or playing sports, attending classes, etc.” This slowed overall bar sales, especially performance and nutritional types. 

Resetting the bar

As the pandemic persists, consumers are tiring of preparing all their meals and looking for convenient, nutritious and functional products to fill in some eating occasions. This presents an opportunity for bar manufacturers to address the needs of stay-at-home consumers with bars that fit these emerging need states. The pandemic has fed interest in functional ingredients that provide immune-enhancement and gut health as well as stress relief and mental well-being. People are looking for foods that bolster their immunity and give them energy.

“While the pandemic may have disrupted consumer lifestyles, people are adapting,” says Ferraro. “They are finding ways to cope, and just as they did pre-pandemic, people want snacks and bars that align with their lifestyle – whether that’s healthy indulgence or particular functional benefits.”

Areas of greatest interest are high protein with a special emphasis on plant protein and sugar reduction. Protein is an important attribute for consumers in selecting bars, with half of bar buyers basing their purchase on protein amount, and a third interested in protein source, according to Lightspeed/Mintel. Additionally, high protein was a leading claim (68%) in new nutrition bar launches in 2019.

Top Bar Attributes

  • Protein Amount
  • Sugar amount
  • Low price
  • Sugar reduction
  • Protein source
  • Fiber amount
  • No artificial ingredients

Source: Lightspeed/Mintel – November 2019   

The general interest in plant-based eating is being reflected in the bar market as more consumers seek out plant proteins. Over the past couple of years, bars with product claims of plant-based protein, such as pea, increased, while dairy protein use declined. Sugar content is also being scrutinized by consumers, who are examining both source and levels.  

Formulating future bars

As the market readjusts to disruptions in consumer behavior patterns brought on by the pandemic, opportunities for innovation are ripe. Consumers are curious and willing to try innovative, healthy snacks that deliver benefits they want. The market is primed for innovation incorporating high levels of protein, functional ingredients and reducing sugar. Yet basic demands for good taste and texture still reign supreme.

Unsurprisingly, taste is the #1 attribute in bar decision making. Proprietary research for DuPont conducted by MotiveQuest over a period of nearly two years supports this supposition. An analysis of nearly 400,000 online conversations showed that taste is the most valued factor in bar purchasing decisions. Taste far exceeded any other factor in all types of bars from convenience to weight loss/health bars. Also notable in the research is that consumers discuss bar macro-nutrient content (protein, carbs) far more than micro-nutrient content (vitamins, minerals).

“Protein source and levels of protein in a bar can negatively impact flavor,” says Luping Ning, Ph.D., applications manager, bars, snacks and confection, DuPont Nutrition & Biosciences. “Bar texture also influences taste perception and overall enjoyment. We take a multisensory approach to development, so we can meet consumer expectations on ingredient delivery as well as taste and texture.” Snacking consumers want to see and try new flavors, while at the same time, they don’t want anything too radical. “There’s a push and pull in flavor innovation between what consumers want to try, and tastes with which they are familiar and comfortable – there’s a tightrope of expectation one must traverse.” 

Reduced sugar is taking on a larger role in bar purchasing decisions. Consumers are no longer shying away from these products as can be seen by the growing number of low/reduced sugar and no added sugar claims made on new bars. This is further supported in the MotiveQuest research, which showed sugar content as a top concern for bar consumers.

As this call for sugar reduction in healthy bars gets stronger, formulators are faced with the challenge of not only replacing sugar’s sweet taste, but also its functional characteristics. “People are used to the clean sweet taste of sugar, so it’s a challenge to reduce levels while maintaining taste expectations. It becomes a matter of ingredient choices,” relates Ning. “We combine ingredients that may boost sweet perception or provide natural sweetness all while keeping in mind the goal of delivering great taste.”

Read more about emerging snacking opportunities in our white paper​.

Related resources from IFF (formerly DuPont Nutrition & Biosciences)