Whether you missed breakfast, need a workout power boost or a mid-afternoon snack, there’s always a cereal bar to get you going. Despite their crunchy, hippie origins, cereal, granola or power bars are today a billion-dollar industry of highly sophisticated, designed foodstuffs. But what does this food group really look like?
Norwegian confectionery manufacturer Freia introduced its Melkesjokolade bar in 1906; the first industrially produced, individually wrapped, one-portion chocolate-coated candy bar defined the product’s typeform. Its scale, ingredients and packaging made it easy and cost-effective to manufacture, store and sell (or, in the case of troops who later carried candy bars to the battle field, distribute) on a massive scale.
It was only in the 1960s however that candy bars began to be thought as more than just a sweet snack. On the chocolate bar front, canadian bodybuilder and fitness expert Joe Weider came up with Tiger’s Milk bar, “America’s Original Nutrition Bar.” Packed with protein, vitamins and minerals, Tiger’s Milk bars became popular as a more nutritionally balanced option to the candy bar. At the same time, Granola (a turn of the century, American invention) was witnessing a revival as an increasing number of Americans started adding dried fruits and nuts to the baked cereal, making it the breakfast option of choice of the hippie movement.
In 1975, 17-year old high-school senior and health food enthusiast (but no hippie) Herrick Kimball of Moravia, NY thought making bars out this mix was a good idea. Kimball has since been fighting for ownership of this idea, attributed by several sources to American inventor extraordinaire Stanley Mason. Regardless of their inventor, cereal bars are today an integral part of our culinary, nutritional and material landscapes: several brands and hundreds of varieties fight for shelf space and taste buds in the USA alone.
The following observations are based on an analysis of over 40 individually-wrapped, one portion bars sold in three supermarkets, one health food and one vitamin store in New York City.
The average bar weighs about 2 ounces and is roughly parallelepipedic in shape; it is also wrapped in the same plastic foil material (in general polypropylene) used for candy or chocolate bars, known in the industry as fin-seal over wrapping, flow wrap or candy wrap.
Once you tear open the wrapper, the cereal bar inside should derive from one of two processed food typologies, declinations of the aforementioned snack bar inventions: the “mysterious, nutritious chocolate bar” family – known to power food/fitness/bodybuilding fans and lovers of guilt-free sweet snacks – and the “natural and exposed” variety – heir to the granola/health food strand of nutrition.
The former typology is made up of more or less lumpy bricks and sticks coated in chocolate on all sides, revealing nothing of its contents. The latter is actually divided into two sub-categories: one, which can be named “grains and fruits and nuts stuck together”, produces photogenic conglomerations of seeds, nuts, and dried fruits prodigiously held together by an unidentified thin mortar. The other, “dense concoctions of goodness”, seems to be made up of pure mortar: lumps of dense, pounded vegetable matter that contain a myriad of nutrients from seeds, exotic algae or tropical berries, but resemble things like solidified mud, batteries, chipboard or human stool.
While they may be sold as a natural product, these bars don’t grow on trees or sprout up from the ground. They’re manufactured by industrial food processing machines that churn out thousands of one-portion, individually wrapped bars per day. Even if the end products are ugly, this is no doubt a designed food group; each of these bars is thought out in its ingredients/components and in what is necessary for it to be made, distributed and sold.
No one really knows what a granola, candy or cereal bar looks like. When we look closer, some don’t even seem edible or appetizing. Even if we care (or worry) about what these bars look like, it doesn’t matter: once the wrapper is open, it’s gone in minutes. So what makes us eat – by the millions – these generally unattractive, yet nutritious morsels? Something must call to our taste buds and inform our choices. As with so many other industrially produced products, it’s all in the packaging.
On my research I grouped the bars in seven packaging subcategories. “Serious business”, largely made up of wrappers that mimic the design of nutritional supplements, gym equipment and bodybuilding publications as to appeal to a specific audience. Bold, flashy lettering, plenty of gold and silver outlines, extreme product close-ups, big (usually big on protein) claims. These bars, of which Detour is surely the king at 30g of protein a pop, would advertise steroids if they could.
“Active Types” bars show a more discreet and wholesome approach to energy-rich snacks aimed at fans of the outdoors. One of these, the Clif Bar, comes in several varieties and is made with organic ingredients.
The “No guilt dessert” group includes scrumptious sounding, often chocolaty offerings that claim to be both delicious to the palate and friendly to the physique (kind of). Lärabar bars for example come in a whooping variety of 24 alluring flavors.
For the real health-conscious the “Mens sana in corpore sanum” kind of bars offer functional ingredients and are high in fibre, antioxidants and other exciting components, such 500mg of spirulina in the case of Odwalla’s Superfood bar.
Some bars claim to be both good for you and “Tree-hugging good”; organic, fair-trade ingredients from remote parts of the world come together in sometimes cute, sometimes “granola hippie” wrappers, such as Greens+ High Protein bar.
Luna bars, marketed to women by the makers of Clif Bars, are the best example of “One for the ladies” category. They’re 70 percent organic, high on folic acid and the company gives a portion of its proceeds to eliminating environmental causes of breast cancer. Lastly, it’s never too early to discover the joys of a cereal bar, so both Lärabar and Clif have “Kiddie Bar” varieties with colorful, bouncy graphics.
What gets the business of cereal bars going is not our obsession with nutrition, power or sugar. It’s rather our continuous search for ways to define our lifestyle; just as these bars are individually wrapped, also we have our own ways of presenting and projecting ourselves.
So either we look for extreme contents (as in Pure Protein’s 32g of protein), exotic ingredients (Regeneration’s Anti-aging endless list of extracts and blends), professional assurance (as in Andrew Weil M.D.’s line of bars for Nature Path) or personal stories (such as Gary’s, the creator of Clif Bar), we know what the right bar for us should be. At the cereal bar aisle or in front of the snack bar counter, things get personal: cereal bars may not be that different on the inside, but they all speak to us differently in their own voice. We just need to find the one that shares our needs and beliefs.