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Hitting the Sweet Spot in Nutritional Bars

Innovation Project Manager, JPG Resources

Product development is more than just that; it requires the whole business to be successful, Amy Usiak, innovation project manager, JPG Resources, told attendees of the 102nd Annual NAFFS Convention. Ingredients, nutrition and taste are all needed to hit the development sweet spot, she said.

A company, Usiak said, must determine what its brand stands for, who its target consumer is, how it plans to reach that customer and where the product will be sold – all before beginning to create a new product.

She said many more questions need to be answered once at the product development stage. Those questions, Usiak said, must be asked of the potential consumer, not of the client. Priorities to the consumer must be considered; what sensory and nutritional elements are important? Are the claims important, the key ingredients, food safety considerations?

Then, on to building and launching the product. Usiak said it’s important to understand manufacturing needs. Timing is critical but volume concerns are even more important. Anticipated volumes can change a potential ingredient, since it might not be readily available in the quantity needed or made in a production facility that’s in tune with the requirements.

Next, it’s time to grow. Usiak said testing for stability, sensibility and aging here allows for corrections that might be needed. Product development is a process, she said. Every step forward also requires one to the side, sometimes back and then forward again. The check-ins along the way are vital, she said – knowing whether your product is feasible, moving into development, validation and commercialization. Checking on costs and supply chain factors is necessary at every step, she added, noting it will allow the company to reduce the risks and the costs get closer to the original goal.

Usiak used nutritional bars to make her point on the need for balance when it comes to ingredients. The first thing she touched on was the actual product; the design and intent, the category of bar (snack or meal replacement), the key attributes of the bar and cross-functional considerations.

Then nutrition must be considered, she said. Which elements are important to the consumer? Calories, fat, sugar, carbs and protein in each serving size can all be determinants in a products success to a certain target consumer, she said. All factors in product development and functionality require calculations and compromises, she added.

Usiak said the ingredient line is critical but labeling can be confusing. For example, she said, every product that’s baked or loses moisture in a process needs a bake-off step in it. This, she said, is often missed. “A good example,” she said, “is a crispy baked bar. With serving size, fat, protein, sugar and carbs, it could show a certain set of elements. But once that bar is baked and water is removed, all content percentages of ingredients go up. This is good if you want more protein but bad if you’re trying to keep your sugar low,” she said

The ingredient line is often a determined goal for Usiak’s clients. Many questions are asked here, including the goal of the functionality, alternatives being considered or if there are any ingredients specifically intended to be included or excluded. Usiak said that basically, she must ask them, “do you want a clean, simple ingredient line or do you want to maximize the power of good science?”

From there, it’s on to a desired list of ingredients. Often, the need to replace one ingredient gives way to the need for multiple new ingredients. For example, removing gluten requires grains, starches or gums but will result in a longer ingredient line and a more-expensive product. Similarly, removing sugars means more than just replacing sweetness but also the functionality that sugar provides, she said.

Sugar provides taste, Usiak said. “But it also provides texture, mouthfeel, structure, binding, browning and many other properties. It also helps bind the product; without it a bar would be a muesli. This functionality can be replaced by honey, maple syrup, agave or date paste. Each one of these behaves slightly different with regard to taste and function. There’s a long list of syrups available too and many other possibilities that look less pretty on an ingredient line,” she said.

Usiak told the audience she prefers to do a base prototype without any flavor. She said this method makes it easier to see how the flavor impacts the product and helps determine what else she needs the flavor to provide. She described the use of strawberry extract in a date protein bar and how that affects the base product. She said the company is using flavor companies so much more than in the past to help get the best-tasting product possible.

Usiak described this balancing act between low sugar, clean label and functionality and said it’s important to understand the brand and consumer when making these tradeoffs. She allowed the audience to sample the different nutritional bars in front of them to show examples of the different outcomes.

The first bar selected was a Larabar. Usiak said it was a type of brownie bar created with ingredients as the biggest priority. “It carries clean, simple ingredients, fruits and nuts with six ingredients total,” she said. “This is a high-sugar, low-protein option.”

The second sample was Quest bar, also a chocolate brownie bar. It had a longer ingredient line because the nutrition was more important,” Usiak said. It’s high in fiber, low in net carbs and carries more grams of protein.

Usiak referred to the words “net carbs” that are often seen on labels today. “It’s a calculation,” she explained. “Begin with dietary fiber, subtract out the sugar alcohols and you are left with net carbs. This is of particular interest to someone on a keto diet,” Usiak said.

The third bar was One. It’s similar to Quest, she said, with one gram of sugar and 25 grams of protein. “It has a longer ingredient line, which was needed to get to the taste and nutrition combination that was the goal, but all other factors are the same. Taste is the most important element here.”

The last bar was the Clif bar. “Again, there’s a longer ingredient line, use of rice flour, chocolate, cane sugar. It carries medium protein, is high in sugar and provides athletes with energy through the use of those carbs,” Usiak said.

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