There’s no escaping nutrition bars. From the grocery store to Amazon, there’s a seemingly endless number of shelves to shop and never-ending pages to scroll offering the snack equivalent of a healthy lifestyle... whatever that means

Given the sheer number of bars and the countless varieties, it may not come as a surprise to learn that the global nutrition bar market was valued at $5.1B in 2017. What is surprising, however, is the origin of the nutrition bar.

Space Food Sticks—a nutrition bar for astronauts created by Pillsbury in the 1960s—were the predecessor to the modern day energy bar. Later, Pillsbury went on to file for a trademark on “non-frozen balanced energy snacks” ahead of marketing Space Food Sticks to the public. Although their space-inspired efforts never quite caught on, the concept of a convenient, nutritionally balanced meal/snack stuck. 

Although, General Mills, not Pillsbury, is thought to be the originator of the mainstream bar category. In the 1970s, when General Mills noticed that people were eating its Natural Valley Granola cereal as a snack, it created a crunchy granola bar under the same name. 

Forty years later, General Mills is still a force in the bar category, with sales exceeding $749M in the 52-week period that ended Oct. 7. But granola bars were just the beginning. Over time, General Mills built out its portfolio of bars through acquisition—snapping up Fiber One, Cascadian Farm, LÄRABAR, and Epic—while creating the Big Food blueprint in the process: if you can’t beat ’em, buy ’em. 

What’s Next For Nutrition Bars? → 

The future of the nutrition bar market—a segment that includes muscle-building protein bars, as well as weight loss and energy bars—is being shaped by upstarts and acquisitions. In recent years, General Mills spent $100M to acquire Epic, Kellogg’s paid $600M for RXBAR, and last month, PepsiCo scooped up plant-based bar maker Health Warrior. 

At the same time, two privately held companies by the name of Clif Bar (who walked away from a $120M buyout offer from Quaker Oats in 2000) and Kind Healthy Snacks (for which Mars, makers of Snickers and M&M’s, is an investor) continue to accelerate with more than $800M and $700M in annual sales, respectively. Photo: Alex Lau