Many consumers view protein bars as a healthy snack or meal replacement, but research from U.K.-based health, sports and travel specialist insurer Protectivity reveals more than a third of them contain more saturated fat than a Krispy Kreme donut, according to Food Navigator. Ten of the 56 bars studied contained more sugar than the popular glazed pastry.
Protectivity has created a fitness food index to help consumers analyze the protein, fat, carbohydrate and sugar content of several popular bars. The index shows that protein bars, which are often linked to the clean eating trend, contain very large amounts of fat and sugar.
As a result of these findings, the company is pushing food producers to change how they market and manufacture protein bars. Andy Brownsell, commercial director at Protectivity, suggested that brands detail the types of exercise that certain bars should be used for "to help consumers choose a bar based on its nutrition rather than just on its protein content or flavor."
As consumer hunger for nutritious and on-the-go meal solutions grows, protein bars have become an increasingly formidable CPG force. The category has experienced strong growth — between 2010 and 2015, the U.S. market for nutritional shakes and bars rose at an annual rate of about 10%. It topped $9 billion in sales alone in 2016, according to research from Packaged Facts. The organization predicts retail sales of these products will jump 8.3% annually through 2021.
This has caught the attention of large CPG companies. In November, Kind said Mars took a minority stake in the healthy-snacking company. Last fall, Kellogg acquired RXBAR, a maker of clean-label protein bars for $600 million, signaling the financial opportunity this segment holds. But while it's popular with health nuts and average consumers alike, RXBar isn't reflective of the protein bar category as a whole. The brand's product formulas contain no added sugar, dairy, soy, gluten or artificial colors, flavors, preservatives or fillers. Each bar contains only about four ingredients, which are listed on the front instead of a logo or design.
This formula delivers on what consumers say they want — transparency, clean labels and all-natural formulas. But a product this healthy isn't going to appease all consumers. In an effort to make 10 to 30 grams of whey or soy protein taste great, many bar makers are pumping up their products with high levels of fat and sugar, making product names like "lemon cheesecake", "brownie" and "double chocolate" deliver on flavor. This, of course, undermines the reason many consumers are buying protein bars in the first place: as a nutritious snack or meal supplement.
For example, Nature Valley's protein bars appear to contain as much fat as they do protein, according to Protectivity's data. Formulation ratios like this may be flying under the radar for now, but it's safe to assume that consumers would be turned off by these numbers if they knew. Indeed, a campaign by a product watchdog group highlighting levels like these could cause serious damage to a brand's reputation. But how can manufacturers better educate consumers without undercutting their own health halos?
It's a tall order. But showing the types of exercises that should accompany certain types of bars, either through images or text on product packaging, could be a viable solution. These symbols could signal to consumers that protein bars are too caloric to be consumed as a casual snack. This tactic may not dissuade shoppers from chowing down on protein bars as a breakfast substitute, midnight snack or pseudo-dessert, but it could at least protect brands from backlash.
Time will tell if major brands begin shifting the spirit of their marketing campaigns and packaging claims, and if groups like Protectivity amplify their concerns about fat and sugar levels in protein bars. If the latter occurs, it's possible that consumers could move on to another trendy food solution.
"It's difficult to say from our data if protein bars are a passing fad or a long term 'health' staple. Clearly there will also be a desire for quick, easy and healthy snacks so there's little reason to believe that they won't stick around," Brownsell told Food Navigator. "However, as consumers become more aware, there's no doubt that the market will need to adapt with a greater focus on healthier ingredients."