The American highway is still one of the best places get a feel for the country’s cultural pulse. I recently drove from Chicago to Minneapolis and back, and on my way up Interstate 94 through the pastoral rolling hills of rural Wisconsin, I made a couple of stops that revealed some significant advancements in grab-and-go roadside food fare.
One of the most compelling was the incredibly crowded bar scene—the nutrition bar scene, that is—the avalanche of nutrition bars available at truck stops once known solely for greasy burgers, pork rinds, jumbo-sized candy bars, and generic java. You can still get that stuff, but in today’s spiffed-up, brightly lit, homogenized convenience mart, nutrition bars have an oft-dominant position.
In 2000, Americans spent $821 billion on food—in all venues and forms. By 2010, this figure will rise to $1.2 trillion, according to the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service. While expenditures are rising, consumption is not. Competition means taking share of stomach from another brand or category—a tricky confluence of demographics, product development, marketing, and distribution. Nutrition bars are hot because they’re right at the heart of this confluence. There are a number of reasons for this trend:
• Speed. Almost half of all parents with children under 18 say that speed and ease of preparation are the most important factors driving food purchase decisions, according to the 2001 Yankelovich Monitor. Bars fit—for lunch boxes, a fast on-the-bus breakfast, and after-school snacks.
Of course, the need for speed is increasingly reconciled by eating in the car, which has become one of the primary dining locations for all Americans. Fully one-fifth of all meals are eaten on the road, NPD Group reports. The portability and one-handed ease with which nutrition bars can be consumed make them prime auto menu items. And they fit nicely into the glove box.
• Health. Consumers have a growing awareness of the link between diet and health. Three-quarters are able to name a specific food they believe enhances health, according to a 1998 study by the International Food Information Council. The same percentage had recently changed their diets to improve their health. On one end of the spectrum are aging Baby Boomers seeking to hold onto their status as the “now” generation by embracing dietary solutions to problems associated with aging, and on the other end is Generation Y, which has grown up in the media-sopped Internet age, with unprecedented prosperity, product choices, and ethnic diversity.
• Taste and Fun. The total market for functional foods is $1.4 billion, and increasing at the rate of about 14% per year, according to market research firm Mintel. But consumers won’t buy what doesn’t taste good. And it wasn’t until product formulations broke out of the compressed-silage taste profile that sales really took off. In 1999, the snack bar market hit $1 billion, including all breakfast, nutrition, and granola bars. The largest component was nutrition bars, which represented nearly half of the sales total.
That was enough for the big players. Kraft bought the number-two brand, California-based Balance Bar, in 2000 for $268 million. Nestlé followed by its acquisition of number-one PowerBar, based in Berkeley, Calif., for an estimated $375 million. The resulting competition resulted in a spectrum of new flavors and formulations.
Major subcategories today include women-specific products such as Clif Bar’s Luna brand, Kraft’s Oasis, and Kellogg’s Krave. Last year, PowerBar also unveiled a new version of its leading line, aimed at women.
Nutrition bars aimed at children are expanding, too. A joint venture between HealthSouth Corp. and General Nutrition Centers (GNC) produces the kid-friendly Go For It! For meat-lovers, a bar popular in Europe may soon hit U.S. shores. Del Diche, a Belgian company, makes a nutrition bar that closely resembles sausage.
And dog owners can actually purchase nutrition bars specifically designed for canines. Zuke’s, of Durango, Colo., makes Power Bones, “an endurance bar for dogs,” while Power Bark bars are a product of Dandy Doggie of Novato, Calif.
The next phase of this proliferation might be taking shape among the original core consumer target. Runners, campers, and extreme sports buffs are eschewing bars for nutrition gels—gooey concoctions loaded with vitamins and protein. They’re just as portable, and even easier to eat. Just squeeze and goo, er, go. I haven’t seen them along I-94 yet, but it probably won’t be long.
by PIERCE HOLLINGSWORTH
President, The Hollingsworth Group, Inc.