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Could the Next Soylent Be an Artisanal Nutrition Bar?

Meet the new generation of products blurring the definition of "mealtime"

Yershov Oleksandr/Shutterstock

Since Rob Rhinehart rocked Silicon Valley (and the food scene worldwide) in 2013 with his creation of a nutritious shake made with maltodextrin, amino acids, fibers, olive oil, and other ingredients, the food on our plate —€” according to some —€” has been threatened. Rhinehart's invention, Soylent, was created as a cheap, venture-backed meal replacement for those who don't want to stop whatever they're doing to have a meal. Its nutritional make-up is based solely on recommendations by the Institute of Medicine, as Rhinehart wanted to prove the difference between "nourishing" and actually eating; among functional food and food for pleasure. His goal was to create something that made people rethink food as they knew it.

Rhinehart's company, Soylent Corporation, has now raised more then $20 million, and counts funds from the Twitter-, Uber-, and Facebook-backing Andreessen Horowitz among its coffers. But now some chefs are working to put meal disruptors in their clients' pockets instead of in their fridge —€” literally. Now that traditional power bars have gone mainstream with giants such as Mars and Hershey Co. getting in the market (Hershey acquired Krave Pure Foods in January 2015), some makers are creating artisan items with the goal of similarly shaping the snack-bar category: to provide time-saving, convenient, nutrient-packed meals. But now these next-generation meals are turning from liquid to solid —€” and are coming in pocket-size bars.

"They’re the perfect counterpoint to our obsession with food and eating out, which many consumers now see as a ritual."

"As people continue to work 24-hour lifestyles and are traveling more than ever, they're trying to fit more in," says Lucie Greene, worldwide director of J. Walter Thompson Intelligence, which forecasts consumer behavior and lifestyle trends around the world. "As a concept, [these bars are] the perfect counterpoint to our obsession with food, experiences, and eating out, which many consumers now see as a ritual."

Like Soylent, the rise of these bars asks consumers to reconsider how they define "mealtime." According to their creators, they allow us to deliver the right amount of nutrients our body needs, wherever we are —€” no need for a table, fork, or anything else. The distinction with these new-generation bars is that if they're intended to replace regular food plans — in smaller, more frequent portions — they're doing so with products made from recognizable ingredients.

According to Greene, consumers are more sophisticated than ever in their understanding of diets, energy levels, and the connection between what they eat and their mental function, skincare, and productivity. The bars are giving them a new confidence to move beyond traditional breakfast, lunch, and dinner models to alternative plans. But could the next mealtime disruptor really be an artisanal nutrition bar?

"Think of all the occasions when you're not at home but trying to find good food. Instead, what do you get? Sandwiches, burgers, and sugar-based snacks," says Ivan Perez of the Berlin-based Die Kraft des Urstromtals (English translation: "the force of the Glacial Valley"). "Our bars keep you going for several hours —€” whether as a breakfast meal or a midnight snack."

Die Kraft is focused on vegan and paleo energy bars with unusual ingredients like chili, lime juice, (jerkied) deer, and garlic. Save for the fact that all ingredients are compacted into bars, it's food anyone —€” even our cave-dwelling ancestors or our great-grandmother —€” would recognize as food. This is a concern that guides most of this new generation of meal disruptors. "We don't grind them down to an unrecognizable brown paste," Perez says. "Instead, we leave the ingredients as large as possible, so you'll notice a new flavor with every bite."

For some bar creators, the goal is to mimic what's eaten during traditional meals. According to Joshua Tablin, when he and partner and Zora Tablin decided to create their own homemade bars, the only ones available on the market contained high levels of sugar (usually 20g to 25g per bar). "We found that we felt much better when we ate snacks high in protein and low in sugar, like jerky. But jerky can be quite salty; it's often made with preservatives. And besides, who eats just a piece of meat for a meal?" Joshua asks.

They founded Wild Zora in 2014 in Colorado and developed five bar varieties such as chile beef with apricot; kale and cayenne pepper; and curry masala turkey with spinach, dates, and cardamom. "We made them from meat, vegetables, and a little bit of fruit because this is what we actually eat for our meals at home," he says. The meat accompanied by the vegetables tries to replicate the conventional meal-replacement concept, featuring all you would usually eat for lunch inside one package. "It took hundreds of trials and errors over a three-year period until we got it right," he says. "They're perfectly acceptable for when you don't have time for a hot meal."

Caleb Simpson, owner of the Austin-based Bearded Brothers, explains that he and his brother, Chris, were concerned about creating bars that could guarantee satiation during rock climbing trips and long weekend runs. "I wasn't satisfied with anything on the market because of the lack of organic ingredients and addition of processed sweeteners," he says. So they ended up creating an energy bar that "was about 25 percent bigger than any other on the market," Simpson says, noting the bars contain about 240 calories per bar. "They're very filling and nutritious. So they're great for a meal on the go when you don't have time to sit down."

Earlier this year, the Austin-based food-bar brand EPIC Provisions was purchased by General Mills for an undisclosed sum, signifying that Big Food is also trying to get its share of market by using a "cheffy" appeal. EPIC's bars combine ingredients unique to other beef jerkies: pulled pork, lamb, pineapple, currant, and mint. "The inspiration to incorporate different animals was a result of the unique nutritional profiles of different species," says Taylor Collins, co-founder of EPIC, which uses grass-fed animals like bison, beef, lamb, and turkey sourced directly from farmers and ranchers.

"My wife Katie and I develop all of the EPIC bars in our kitchen," Collins says. "Every night that we cook food together serves as an experiment to try new ingredient combinations and ideas. It all comes down to being creative with food and trusting our instincts."

But Collins' allusion to "cooking" is perhaps why he separates his product from the idea of meal replacement. "Meals will always trump snack foods," he says. "When we take the time to cook our meals, we allow ourselves to connect with food and socialize with our loved ones. There's something deep rooted and primal about eating fresh-cooked food with friends or family." He believes people are unable to put that aside. "I don't think snacking will ever replace the holistic experience of cooking meals and sharing that with a community."

"I don’t think snacking will ever replace the holistic experience of cooking meals and sharing that with a community."

Evan Delahanty, who founded the Peaceful Fruits line of açaí bars in 2014, ties in a social element to the idea that bars aren't adequate meal replacers. His main goal for Peaceful Fruits is to promote social economy, working with a collection of local farmers to source açaí in Pará, Brazil. "We also work with farmers for our other fruit ingredients, making sure they're of the highest quality and the best for our customers, the environment, and also for their lives," Delahanty says, noting he's trying to further expand his network of farmers into Suriname, where he lived for several years.

Right now, Peaceful Fruits' bars feature açaí paired with granola, chocolate, and other fruit. "We just want to deliver fast, healthy energy that will stick with you so you can keep making a difference," Delahanty explains. "Nothing replaces a well-balanced meal, but a good snack can do a lot to get you through the day." For him, snack bars can replace the way we deliver nutrients to our bloodstream, but not a traditional meal. Since he is working to make bars through a social perspective, believing otherwise wouldn't make sense.

According to Delahanty, food is always social: "Even when you eat by yourself," he says. "That's why we try to tell a bit of our story on our package — even if you're just eating it quickly in your car, you can feel connected to the people in the Amazon that harvested the açaí, and our team of people with disabilities that we work with to produce our snacks," he adds. "That feeling of connection can offer a great boost, along with the energy of the snack."

Greene, the consumer expert, agrees. "Consumers are using these bars as a way to manage their health and nutrition easily, but they're not at odds with weekend meals out and dining at the latest restaurant." But by creating a new generation of food bars (products more concerned with both nutritional and social values), cooks are redefining the way we eat and also setting meal replacements to a higher bar — one you can take out from your pocket anytime you want.

Rafael Tonon is a food writer and journalist based in São Paulo.
Editor: Erin DeJesus