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Wednesday, May 25, 2022

DIY Protein Power

With dozens of options lining grocery store shelves, consumers of nutrition bars seem to have an overabundance of choices. But despite the variety, sports nutritionist and former real estate agent Karen Nation could find nothing that worked for her and her clients. Most of the bars in stores had too much sugar – and those that didn’t tasted stale, she said. She took it upon herself to make her own bars, giving them out clients, family and friends. “None of my friends ever come over without leaving with something healthy to eat,” Nation said. Now, through her company Creation Nation, she wants to give the rest of the world a taste. But the Calabasas firm doesn’t sell bars at the checkout counter like the competition. Instead, it sells ready-made, no-bake mixes so consumers can create their own. Creation Nation mixes come in five blends of ingredients: three vegan options and two designed with those following more meat-heavy “primal” or “paleolithic” diets in mind. They retail between $9.99 and $14.99 a bag, enough to make eight bars or 24 balls. Customers blend in their own liquid and choice of add-ons – the company recommends coconut oil, nut butter, bananas or a natural sweetener – then mash or roll the mix to their desired shape, and refrigerate. Four years after launching the mixes online, Creation Nation products are carried in more than 100 grocery stores in the southwestern U.S., as well as on the websites of online health food sellers Thrive Market and Vitacost.com Inc. Whole Foods Market began offering the mixes two months ago in the Amazon.com Inc.-owned grocery chain’s Southern Pacific region, which includes stores in Nevada, Arizona, Hawaii and Southern California. Expansions into East Coast grocery chains are on the horizon, Nation said. “Initially it was just an e-commerce business,” she said. “Now here we are in Whole Foods Market.” Crowded shelf The market for nutritional food products – especially prepackaged bars – is highly contested. On a low-carb diet and concerned about fine lines and wrinkles? Try a bar filled with grass-fed whey and collagen. Vegan and gluten-free? There’s a bar for that market, too. In a single store, customers might have dozens of options within a few square feet of shelf space. The competition is even stiffer online; a search for “bars” on Thrive Market turns up more than 2,200 options. Part of the original appeal of nutrition bars was convenience. Fitness enthusiasts and bodybuilders could get a meal’s worth of nutrients without having to cook or stop at a restaurant. Unlike the pre-packaged bars of yore, there is a little bit of muscle required to make a Creation Nation mix – and the balls or bars can’t sit in a gym bag for months on end. But by Nation’s standards, that’s a clear sign that competing products aren’t as nutritious as they claim to be. “The bars that are in stores … can sit on a shelf for a year or two,” Nation said. “I don’t have any food I ever make that lasts that long.” There is some evidence that consumers might share her skepticism. Google searches for “protein ball recipes” have been on an upward trend since 2012, and there are no shortage of recipes and videos online for protein-packed goodies. According to Debra Holstein, founder of consulting firm Edible Future and the owner of her own nutritional snack company, The 4:00 Cookie, Creation Nation’s products align with customer demands on a few key parameters, including customization and the concept of “almost cooking.” “We like to think we can cook or bake because we watch so much of it on the Food Network,” Holstein said. “But really we just want to assemble and make it appear that we know our way around the kitchen.” Still, without having the ingredients readily available, even just assembling a protein bar can be a huge hassle. One of the reasons Nation thought mixes could be a viable product in the first place were comments from her clients, who wanted to make the homemade protein bars she gifted them but bemoaned having to go to multiple stores to procure all the ingredients. “I just thought, ‘Yeah, why is there not an easy way to do this?’” she recalled. The prevalence of so-called “food tribes” – like those who adhere to a low-carbohydrate, high-fat “ketogenic” or “keto” diet – has been favorable for Creation Nation’s growth. Such eaters want to know what’s in their food; do-it-yourself products are a natural extension of that. “We have a big following with different food tribes,” Nation said. “Keto people love our product because you control the sugars.” Creation challenges An avid reader of ingredient labels herself, Nation knew from the start that making a product that would appeal to a nutrition-obsessed audience would not be easy. She tried out hundreds of different blends before coming down with the final five, she said. “This is a product where people really care about the nutrition profile,” Nation said. By her own account, she focused on the “macros,” meaning the macronutrient profile, or the amount of carbs, proteins and fats in the bars. To get the recipe right, Nation had to first figure out how much of each nutrient she wanted, then use the right ratios of ingredients to fit the profile. One bag of the Coconut Bliss Ball mix, for instance, includes a combination of shredded coconut, Brazilian nut powder, cocoa powder, flaxseed meal and monk fruit; the blend comes out to 7 grams of protein, 6 grams of fat, 5 grams of carbohydrates and 80 calories per serving, before the addition of nut butter or other ingredients. By comparison, a coconut cashew bar from Quest Nutrition contains 20 grams of protein, 7 grams of fat, 23 grams of carbohydrates and 190 calories per serving, according to the company’s website. Affordability also was a key concern for Nation as she designed her recipes. Even the most delicious mixes will be hard to sell if the price point is too expensive for the customer, she pointed out. “If a great recipe is going to cost $20 in the store but people only want to pay $5 for an item like that, you aren’t going to have a business,” Nation said. “It’s a holistic process.” Nation purchased the first ingredients with her own money, then bootstrapped the company when she began making some sales. An angel investor later gave her the funds she needed to focus on marketing and get the product into brick-and-mortar stores. “Everything that we made went right back into the company just to produce the product,” Nation said. “We didn’t have the capital for marketing yet, so we had to do everything kind of grassroots.” Whole Foods cache While the overall market that Nation has entered is massive, her niche is still small. Getting new customers to bite requires a lot of education, Nation said. To that end, she holds demonstrations at stores as often as possible and is active on social media. “We just really want to continue to educate in the marketplace and build our distribution,” Nation said. Getting the mixes into Whole Foods gives Creation Nation some clout with other distributors, Holstein said. “Being able to say ‘We’re in Whole Foods’ is your ticket to getting in elsewhere,” Holstein said. “It’s a great resume builder.” But while the company will get its product in front of more customers as it expands, it also will incur the cost of additional “slotting fees,” or sums charged by retailers for having the product on its shelves. “That really makes a dent in your profits,” Holstein said. Additionally, maintaining the cost of goods will be crucial, she added. Though the size of companies like Mondelez International Inc. subsidiary Nabisco give such firms a buffer against fluctuations in the cost of ingredients, entrepreneurs making relatively small batches do not have the same luxury. “Every price change hits (small companies) a lot more dramatically,” Holstein explained. Furthermore, Holstein is not convinced that there is not already a protein bar out there for everyone. In her experience working with focus groups for large food companies, she has never heard a participant express the need for a customizable protein bar mix. “Focus groups are an ideal way to see what’s missing,” Holstein noted. “But that doesn’t mean there aren’t enough people out there (for this business to work).” Nation does not expect to convert every protein-bar lover into a customer. But while prepackaged bars are here to stay, she believes customizable mixes should always be an option. She also knows her target audience pretty well – they’re people just like her. “Not everyone in the world is going make their own bars, but … there are millions of people who are tired of all the sugars and preservatives in bars, too,” Nation explained. “I really see this as having widespread distribution.”

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