Outdoor Retailer Summer Market ’10: SNEWS Youth Team on food trends

Those chunks of bars and mini plates of camp food offered to hungry Outdoor Retailer attendees represent the latest trends in outdoor foods that are fighting for consumers’ shelf and stomach space. Our SNEWS Youth Team reporter serves up the trends.

Those chunks of bars and mini plates of camp food offered to hungry Outdoor Retailer attendees were more than just sustenance. In fact, they represent the latest trends in outdoor foods that are fighting for consumers’ shelf and stomach space as bar companies turn to chews and camp food gets healthier.

Bars, chews, gels…oh, and waffles

Nutrition bars have come a long way from their days of hard-to-swallow mounds of concentrated protein. There are more palatable options, shapes and forms now than ever before. Doesn’t hurt that those bars are making their way beyond the hands of hard-core athletes and into the bags and packs of consumers who are snacking on bars during and after workouts, as well as in the office or while traveling.

“Chomps are the biggest thing for us right now,” said Brooke Kennedy, marketing manager for GU (www.guenergy.com). “Not only are Chomps a workout energy booster, but they make a great pick-me-up during the workday.”

GU wasn’t the only company excited about tasty gelatinous chewables. Although not its showcase item, Honey Stinger (www.honeystinger.com) also stated that chewables were its fastest-growing item. And PowerBar (www.powerbar.com) has its Gel Blasts with smooshy centers and lots of new flavors.

First created as a concept by Clif in 2005, its Shot Blok chewables made gels more palatable to the average athlete. Clif said it plans to remain the lead innovator by packaging Shot Bloks in easier-to-open packets for runners and bikers. “In bike shops,” said Chris Dare, inside sales director of Clif (www.clifbar.com), “the focus is definitely moving from gels to chewables.” With Jelly Belly highlighting its Sports Beans (www.sportbeans.com), it is obvious that chewables will go beyond athletics, into purses and lunch boxes, just as bars have done. For youth looking for a bonk-cure on the trail or for all-night studying, chewables are becoming the first choice in the lightweight, protein-less category.

Dare was quick to point out that although chews are growing fast, the entire market segment is growing steadily during this economic downturn. “A lot of our bars aren’t targeted specifically at athletes. Our new Luna women’s-specific protein bar, although used by athletes, is more of an after-work bar. Our Builder’s bars, despite the name, are often used for meal replacement, and our new Clif C, five-ingredient bar is a snack bar for both on and off the trail. At the grocery stores, bars will always be a great seller.”

With the trend toward people working more hours and meal times shrinking, the bar companies are expanding their flavors and options to cater to the growing number of consumers who aren’t elite athletes -- while not losing their athletic feel so even athletes will turn to them during “marathon” work days. Not just adults are feeling the time-is-money crunch: Students are trying to finish their degrees faster, so they can get into the workforce and out from under student loans. With more time spent studying for extra classes, meal time is sometimes condensed to a bar.

PowerBar sticks to its traditional selling point of candy bar flavors for its consumers. “They work,” said Paul Grammatico, head of U.S. retail sales for Nestle Nutrition, parent company of PowerBar, referring to candy-like flavors, rather than something more exotic. “In Europe, we sell a coconut bar because Europeans like coconut candies. Here, we can’t because there are only two coconut candy bars in the market.”

Kids agree -- much younger ones. Instead of a Snickers bar packed for lunch, I often see cookie-flavor protein bars emerging from paper sacks as an after-meal dessert or snack at a kid’s bike program where I volunteer. “My mom says they are more nutritious and I think they taste just as good!” said one freckled sixth-grade boy at the program recently.

Stacy Johnson of Lara Bar (www.larabar.com) agrees that cookie flavors are more mainstream, but Lara Bar will enter that flavor category in its own way. Its new cookie-inspired line of flavors will stay under nine ingredients, but will be the first of its bars to contain sugar.

Honey Stinger representatives agreed with all the trends, but said they were much more focused on the new item inspired by Lance Armstrong, who recently bought into the company. “There is the next big trend -- and then there is the next big thing. We have the next big thing,” maintained Jeremiah Jackson, West Coast inside sales director of Honey Stinger, referring to its Stinger Waffle snack. “It is based on real food and infused with honey. People will love it, no question.” I was certainly hooked after having a slice of the round snack melt in my mouth.

Camping food

The saying goes that food always tastes better after a few days on the trail. Long gone are the days that camping food offered just calories and sustenance without much in flavor. The food that was generously doled out at the show was so tasty that if I served it to guests they would think I was a great cook. Like many other pre-packaged foods, the freeze-dried food sector is responding to a higher demand for healthy options.

“By Winter OR, we plan to reduce the sodium in our entrees by 50 percent,” said Tim Pratt, vice president of sales and marketing for AlpineAire Foods (www.aa-foods.com). “Organic was the big trend last year. All the feedback now is to reduce sodium and have more gluten-free options.”

Gluten-free is a big deal with youth. I have met kids as young as 6 years old, who have been identified as gluten intolerant and the number of those affected seems to be on the rise. Lower salt, on the other hand, has never been a strong selling point for youth. Adults often reduce salt because of health reasons, but youth may not have -- or know they have -- those problems. Some athletes, young and old, may even be salt-deficient.

Melanie Cornutt, sales manager of Mountain House (www.mountainhouse.com), said she agreed with the trend in sodium reduction, but disagreed with the possibility of gluten-free ever becoming a trend. “There are no rules to gluten-free, so there is no way to certify a product label as gluten-free. No one in the sector can officially put it on their packaging, so the point is moot. Here at Mountain House, we offer plenty of products made without wheat, but there aren’t regulations regarding what extent of contamination needs to be avoided. So, we can’t claim to be gluten-free.”

What Mountain House is doing is expanding its product usage to lunch on the trail. “No hiker wants to boil water for lunch, so we came out with our first cold-water entrée.” With its cold-water chicken salad entrée, hikers can eat more than trail mix or beef jerky during the day, too.

Still, freeze-dried snacks are growing as well. Crunchies Food Company (www.crunchiesfood.com) is targeting both hikers and non-hikers alike with its freeze-dried snacks, especially the new 0.33-ounce snack packs of dried fruits that taste like real fruit. AlpineAire is breaking into the crunchy fruit and veggie market also with its new line of organic freeze-dried fruits, even debuting in Williams-Sonoma gift baskets this year. These kinds of snacks could be big in the calorie-counting health craze still large in high schools. Many kids are looking for healthy alternatives to greasy, salty chips and salted, freeze-dried peas, green beans or edamame might just be the ticket.

The focus for Backpacker’s Pantry (www.backpackerspantry.com) is on campers who want a culinary experience as good as the view. “We see our customer as a person on a vacation in a beautiful, remote location, and we try our best to match that experience with interesting, exceptional meals from classic American cuisine to exotic ethnic cuisine,” said Rodney Smith, president of Backpacker’s Pantry. It plans to expand its exotic line, which already has many Asian options, to include meals inspired by the Middle East, Africa and Latin America.

Look to the future for more options for the trail, as well as lots of new products in the “bar” sector that go way beyond bars.

--Lorin Paley, SNEWS Youth Team Reporter

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