Functional bar future: Will protein get kicked off its pedestal?

By Kacey Culliney

- Last updated on GMT

Getty Images / Ridofranz
Getty Images / Ridofranz
Functional bars have flourished in recent years, driven by obesity woes, sports nutrition and busy lifestyles, and industry onlookers are betting on meal-replacement and insect bars to create excitement.

The global functional bar market, which represents 3.8% of the world's functional foods and beverages, will reach an estimated €1.86bn ($2.2bn) by the end of 2026, growing at a CAGR of 4.1% each year, according to Persistence Market Research​. The category is currently “dominated”​ by protein-rich bars – worth €298.8m ($352.3m) in 2017 and set to soar to €398.7m ($470m) by the end of 2026 – followed by energy bars, low-carbohydrate bars and meal-replacement bars.

Pratik Gurnani, consultant in the food innovation department at Persistence Market Research, said whilst protein-rich bars will continue to stand strong in the coming years, meal-replacement bars are a segment to watch, given the appeal beyond obesity and weight-loss.

“Other drivers include penetration of the meal-replacement meal into long endurance sports and outdoor activities where consumers require carrying food and hydrating agents,”​ Gurnani told NutraIngredients.

The fact that meal-replacement bars are easy to carry, eat and digest means they suit these activities perfectly, he said.

“Also, the on-the-go nature of the product is expected to drive the meal-replacement bars market into urban regions, amongst the working class who tend to have food on-the-go and choose healthier options.”

Gurnani said future innovation in meal-replacement bars will likely centre around more natural and organic ingredients, with manufacturers shredding down additives and synthetic ingredients, but it will be important they can communicate the exact function of the bars to avoid consumer confusion.

Protein lull? Not yet... 'protein is here to stay'

But is the potential of meal-replacement bars enough to push protein off the top spot?

Not quite, said Jodie Minotto, research manager for Mintel Food & Drink, Asia-Pacific.

“Protein is here to stay. Simple, empty calorie snacks are getting harder and harder for consumers to justify given our burgeoning weight management issues...Protein remains the macronutrient with the most positive image; it is not 'fattening' and it's associated with satiety and an active lifestyle,” ​Minotto said.

Matthew Perry, associate analyst at GlobalData, agreed and said protein will continue to play an important role in active lifestyles, especially sports.

“Functional bars, particularly those associated with sports nutrition, have typically always focused on high-protein content and this is likely to remain the case in the near future,”​ Perry said.

“This being said, we are seeing drastic changes in the types of protein being used in formulations.”

Traditional whey proteins are being switched out for plant-based proteins like pea and hemp, for example, driven by consumer diet changes towards veganism, he said. As this continues, it will be important manufacturers work carefully on formulations, he said, to ensure bars provide 'complete' formulas, i.e. contain all essential amino acids.

Innovation: Lab-grown egg whites, meat, cheese and insects...

Beyond continued work in protein, Minotto said manufacturers in the functional bar category have great scope to innovate because consumers tend to be “early adopters of new, more sustainable food sources”.

“Manufacturers will need to stay aware of these new, sustainable food sources, such as lab-grown egg whites, casein and gelatin, and help educate consumers about the benefits of these and incorporate them into their products,” ​she said.

Growth in online shopping will also bolster scope to innovate, she said, and continue to provide startups with an accessible way into the category. It will also facilitate the continued expansion and fragmentation of the category, she said.

“There has been a growth in products incorporating more natural, real food ingredients, and a definite shift away from traditional bases such as granola, with many new ingredients, such as meat, cheese, yoghurt and nut butter appearing in bars. And, of course, the development of a savoury segment for consumers concerned about sugar as well as those looking for a more meal-like, savoury snacking experience.”

Parry said one area with a lot of potential is in edible insect bars. “Insects are a healthy and highly nutritious food source with high protein, fibre, vitamin and mineral content. For example, cricket flour has twice as much protein as beef and twice as much iron as spinach. They are also greener and more sustainable alternatives to traditional animal protein sources such as beef, pork and poultry give they emit fewer greenhouse gases and require less water and feed to produce.”

He said manufacturers developing edible insect bars should shape marketing and advertising to position the products as highly nutritious and eco-friendly alternatives to conventional animal-based proteins sources.

However, Parry said manufacturers will have to invest in educating consumers because according to a2017 GlobalData consumer survey, 38% of consumers globally are not familiar with insect protein and its benefits and a further quarter of consumers perceive it to have neutral impact on their health.

“Rather than being completely averse to consuming insect protein, many consumers may simply be unaware of insect protein's numerous benefits, hence the onus is on manufacturers to better communicate these benefits to facilitate their adoption into society.”

Persistence Market Research predicts Asia-Pacific will become a major market for functional bars in the coming years because of the region's rapid urbanisation. North America is expected to lead with the highest market value.

Related topics: Markets and Trends

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