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Granola Bars Going Against Grain of the ‘80s

Times Staff Writer

Granola bars, the once highly touted health food snacks rooted in the counterculture of the 1960s, are fast becoming about as popular as love beads, Nehru jackets and flower children.

After zooming in the early 1980s, sales of granola bars peaked in 1985 at $377.3 million. Since then, sales have tumbled by nearly one-third, and some major food firms--like Ralston Purina--have quietly dropped out of the market.

What went wrong? Well, according to food industry experts, food companies--eager to broaden the product’s appeal and market--turned granola bars into candy bars, covering them with chocolate and filling them with peanut butter, chocolate chips, sugar and fats.

Meanwhile, consumers began switching to fruit-filled snacks, and candy bar makers fought back by touting the nutritional value of their products.

“People became smart and read the labels,” said Matt Huupponen, owner of Nature Mart, a Los Angeles health foods store. “If you take one of the granola bar boxes and read the ingredients,” he said, “the idea of it being healthy is totally ridiculous.”

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Says James Echeandia, publisher of the trade magazine Confectioner: “When granola left its (health food) turf to compete on the candy bar turf, the candy bars won.”

Granola, usually a toasted mixture of crushed oats, nuts, dried fruits, honey or fruit juice, dates to when man first learned to crush grains to make them easier to eat and digest, health food experts say.

In the 1960s, granola cereals became popular as a “counterculture, anti-establishment food,” said Boyd Foster, president of Arrowhead Mills, a health foods maker. The young, Foster says, wanted to be different from their parents, big business and government, and “they decided to eat different, too.”

Granola entered the mainstream in the early 1970s when General Mills introduced a granola cereal--Natural Valley Granola. After finding out that people were using the cereal as a finger food, it introduced a dry and crunchy granola bar under the same name.

In 1981, Quaker Oats stole the show with its Quaker Chewy Granola Bars, a sweeter and moister version of the granola bar that quickly became the sales leader. Quaker and General Mills were soon joined by other major food companies--such as Hershey Foods, M&M;/Mars and Carnation.

The sweeter bars were designed to satisfy the sweet tooth and desire for healthy foods all in one product.

But the granola bar makers went overboard in sweetening their products, analysts say. As a result, consumers switched to dried-fruit snacks, whose sales surpassed granola bars and topped the half-billion mark last year, according to Snack Food magazine.

The market for granola bars is expected to continue to shrink--but not disappear. “There will still be a lot of people who like granola bars,” said Ronald Bottrell, spokesman for Quaker Oats. “I don’t think you’re going to see the category go away.”

Echeandia agrees: “Mothers like to have granola bars at home for Junior to snack on.” Of course, he says “when Junior has 40 cents in his pocket, he’ll buy a candy bar.”


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