If you ever find yourself hopelessly lost at a Whole Foods, you’ve probably wandered the aisles and seen a dizzying array of ready-to-eat snack bars: Pro Bars, Clif Bars, Rx Bars, Luna Bars, Bobo’s Oat Bars. And the bar phenomenon is not limited to your local upscale organic food chain: According to a recent Outside Magazine piece, the market has absolutely exploded in recent years, with mainstays like Kind and Clif competing with upstart brands like Larabar and Zing to rake in an estimated $5 billion globally.
A casual observer of the bar market may conclude that these brands seem pretty interchangeable. But snack bar brands range widely in terms of ingredients and their target consumers: While companies like Clif Bar appear to be focused on catering to a more active clientele, brands like Kind appear to be catering to more of a #girlboss crowd. Kind’s Instagram features women with ombre hair and matte red lips sampling bars alongside matcha lattes. Yet almost all of these companies position their bars as healthy items for people who care about what they put in their bodies.
“Our tribe is knowledgeable about ingredients. They want to know exactly what they are eating,” says Shane Emmett, the co-founder of Health Warrior, which is best known for its chia seed bars. Although Emmett declined to share specific sales figures, he says that Health Warrior sells millions of bars per month and has reportedly grown considerably since the company started selling products in Whole Foods in 2012. “They work out four or more times a week, [they] are often on the go as parents, and (for whatever glorious reason) tend to have a dog.”
Dog ownership aside, it’s clear that people are buying snack bars because they think they’re good for them — but whether or not they actually are is, depending on who you ask, another story altogether.
Why are snack bars so popular?
It may seem like only recently people developed a taste for six-inch hunks of dried fruit and sorghum. But Outside writer Marc Peruzzi attributes the rise of bars to a number of factors, from millennials’ desire for more organic and wholesome ingredients to a heightened demand for on-the-go meal options, which he dubs “the snackification of the country.”
It seems to be true that the explosion of snack bars has in part arisen from the increasing demands of the US workplace, says Brett Klein, a dietician and co-founder of the nutrition counseling and wellness company the Wellthy Plate.
“There has been a large increase in the number of people snacking in the last 30 years as our dietary patterns have shifted and the number of hours we spend at work have increased,” Klein says. “This has created an increase in demand for quick, easy food options and the market has exploded to meet that demand.”
For this reason, many brands have marketed themselves as “meal replacement” bars, or more attractive alternatives to greasy takeout or #saddesksalads during a busy workday.
The emergence of specialized markets like the gluten free and vegan food product industries, as well as buzzy fad diets like keto and paleo, have also been boons for the bar industry, with brands like Bulletproof (famous for its keto-friendly, high-performance butter coffee) and Epic (which has cornered the market with its “meat strips,” featuring such high end ingredients as Wagyu beef and venison) dipping toes into the market.
“The gluten free product market increased 140% from 2014 to the projections for 2019,” says Klein. “The same can be said for keto products, which totaled $9 billion in 2018 and are projected to rise to over $12 billion in the next five years. ... As new fad diets emerge, the snack market creates products to meet the demands of these new dietary parameters.”
Are bars healthy?
Within the nutrition and dietary community, this is a question subject to some debate. For the most part, the answer appears to boil down to: It depends. “I think there is a bit of a health halo around items like protein and snack bars,” Klein says. “Some protein bars are better options than others. Many protein and snack bars are full of added sugars and can be of minimal nutritional quality, while others are a good option on the go.”
It’s crucial to note that just because something has health-conscious buzzwords like “keto” or “low-carb” or “superfood” on the label does not necessarily make it healthy. “One of the challenges of nutrition in general is we don’t work in nuance,” says dietitian Maya Feller. “We give things these blanket labels like ‘protein bars’ or ‘snack bars’ or ‘low-carb bars,” and while these labels sound healthy at face value, “the ingredients absolutely matter, and we don’t take that into consideration.”
One of the most common culprits is added sugar: an oft-repeated trope is that some snack bars are “candy bars in disguise” due to how much added sugar they contain. Indeed, Klein says you should look for a bar with less than 10 grams of sugar. (For what it’s worth, both Kind dark chocolate nut and sea salt bars and Health Warrior chia seed bars fall into this category, at five grams and three grams, respectively; chocolate chip Clif bars, by contrast, have a whopping 25 grams of sugar.)
You should also be aware of the source of the sugar, she says: “If it’s from a dried fruit, it’s a better choice than those with lots of added sugars from things like honey, agave, and rice syrup,” she says.
Additionally, be wary of more than 10 grams of added fiber. While brands often tout high fiber count to make their products appear more filling, many brands add ingredients such as chicory root fiber, which Klein says can cause added digestive distress for some. (Again, for what it’s worth, both Kind’s dark chocolate nut and sea salt bar and Health Warrior chia seed bars contain chicory root fiber.)
Overall, a good rule of thumb is to make sure the ingredients in the ingredient list are both pronounceable and identifiable. While some brands use the fact that their ingredients are recognizable as a marketing strategy, Klein says there’s some truth to it being a solid nutritional litmus test. For instance, if a label contains “any ingredients that end in ‘ol,’ such as sorbitol, mannitol, or erythritol,” that can be a sign that the bar may cause gastrointestinal distress, says Klein. It’s also best if the ingredient list is short and feature whole grains, fruit, or nuts at the top.
And don’t be suckered in by a brand’s claims that a bar contains a trendy “superfood,” especially if it’s unclear on the label exactly how much of a certain ingredient is in the product. “[Manufacturers] latch onto words they have health halos and are able to market them to people,” says Feller. “They can unknowingly or knowingly latch onto consumer confusion.”
This consumer confusion is, in part, what motivated Health Warrior to create its signature chia seed bars, as chia seeds have a reputation as a superfood packed with fiber and omega-3s. “We thought it was a ruse that most nutrition bars offered lots of empty calories and lacked micro-nutrients, plant-protein, and fiber from real foods,” Emmett says. “So we insisted on chia seeds being the main ingredient in our bars.”
The darker side of bars
The nutritional profile of protein bars aside, one of the main issues dietitians have with many brands is that they market their products as meal replacement bars, or substitutes for full and balanced meals.
“Protein bars can be a healthy and helpful food in certain scenarios,” says Torey Jones Armul, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “Their protein content can provide satiety and keep you feeling full until your next meal. Because they’re portable and safe at room temperature, they’re a reasonable choice for people on-the-go or with limited access to fresh foods. They’re also helpful for athletes who need to replenish protein stores within a limited window of time.”
The trouble is that most people who regularly opt for protein bars — i.e., your average sedentary office workers looking to get in a quick breakfast or lunch between meetings — do not fall in this category. That’s why, “for most people, I recommend choosing fresh foods over bars when possible,” says Armul, simply because “whole, fresh foods tend to be higher in fiber, healthy fats and other important micronutrients.”
High-protein, healthy fat-laden snacks like eggs, raw nuts, and cottage cheese are likely a much better source of nutrients than most bars on the market, and will keep you fuller for longer.
Considering the fact that most people don’t want to offend their cubicle mates by whipping out a Tupperware container full of hardboiled eggs at breakfast, protein bars are seen as a solid and convenient meal replacement. But Feller says even higher-calorie bars likely won’t cut it as a meal replacement, leaving you hungry and eager to snack an hour or so later.
And this is an issue for those who are trying to manage their weight. “They’re marketed as ‘just grab it and go,’ and so many people just grab them and it’s a mindless activity, so they might not process they’ve eaten one,” Feller says. “An hour later, you’re having another meal, and you’ve been sitting at your desk all day.”
While this probably isn’t a terrible thing if it happens every once in a while, it’s not exactly a healthy long-term habit — and many brands lean into the perception that bars can serve as meal replacements in their marketing materials.
On its website, for instance, Health Warrior doesn’t explicitly say that its chia bars serve as a meal substitute, but it does use language to that effect, claiming that the bars “fill you up without weighing you down” — even though they are only about 100 calories, well below what the average man or woman needs for, say, breakfast.
When asked whether Health Warrior believes its bars are sufficient meal replacements, Emett said, “we don’t market or consider our bars ‘meal replacement’ because they don’t have enough calories to count as a ‘meal.’ However, you get a lot of nutrient bang for your buck”; because chia seeds are nutrient-dense and an excellent source of fiber, they can “make you feel fuller longer,” he added.
Perhaps more concerning, low-calorie meal replacement bars are sometimes used by those struggling with eating disorders as a way to manage their weight, largely because they are explicitly marketed as weight loss products.
“I do have some [eating disorder] patients who use snack bars in place of breakfast, and we work on it,” says Feller. “[I] have seen people who use these bars in place of food.” (It’s perhaps worth noting that Luna bars, a subdivision of Clif bars that are marketed exclusively for women, make appearances on pro-anorexia forums online.)
While brands themselves can’t be faulted for people using bars in less than healthy ways, the fact that some, like PROBar meal bars, are explicitly marketed as acceptable substitutes for full meals certainly raises some eyebrows in the nutrition community. “Eating disorders start in a psychological basis, and it’s more about the control, which I think is important to be said,” says Feller. “It’s about controlling your intake. And [relying on these bars is] very controlled.”
The future of the bar market
As bar brands attract more investors and high-end celebrity spokespeople (Kristaps Porzingis of the Knicks, for instance, is the face of Zing bars), it’s clear that the market is set to grow further. Bars are also migrating from the aisles of stores oriented toward natural foods like Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s into convenience stores and snack shops nationwide, meeting millennial consumers’ demand and edging out more blatantly unhealthy options like chips and chocolate bars.
“Younger people eat differently,” Errol Schweizer, the former vice president of grocery for Whole Foods, told Outside. “And whether they’re retail buyers or consumers, they buy accordingly.”
Even behemoth snack companies that aren’t typically associated with the health sector are getting into the game, as evidenced by Health Warrior’s recent acquisition under undisclosed financial terms by Pepsi.
When asked about the unlikely marriage between a health food startup and a company that is primarily known for churning out soda and spicy cheese snacks, Emmett said: “We always wanted to partner — at the right time — with a food company that could help us put nutrition within reach of more people and that’s one of the things PepsiCo has been working hard to do for many years. We think they’re our perfect partner and look forward to doing big things together.”
While this bodes well for health food startup owners and CEOs, some nutritionists are worried that it bears ominous tidings for the future of the American diet, which is skewing much more towards snacking and less toward whole, balanced meals. “We really are a fast food nation, and bars are the ultimate answer to that,” Feller says. “It’s like, ‘Forget the fast food place. Here, have a bar.’”
And with the already staggering US obesity and diabetes rates only expected to rise further, the trend toward “snackification” may be cause for concern, regardless how many quote-unquote “healthier” snack options there are. “When we see this uptick of snack bars and convenience foods in certain areas,” Feller says, “then the question is: How sick are people going to become?”
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