The snack bar company Kind began airing a national TV commercial in June that seemed, well, not very kind at all. It pitted its product against a competitor’s—and became the latest salvo in the billion-dollar fight to reshape what Americans consider a healthful bite to eat.
The setup goes like this: A man and woman are stuck on a plane and getting hungrier, so they pull out some snacks. The man opens a Clif Bar and tips it over, and brown ooze dribbles out. The woman unwraps a different bar—you can already see the chocolate-drizzled nuttiness through its translucent packaging—and a bunch of whole almonds tumbles out.
This is TV-land, where no one freaks out that their snack bars have been oddly deconstructed. Instead, an omniscient narrator intones that the first ingredient in Clif bars is brown rice syrup—”just another name for sugar”—while the first ingredient in Kind bars is, simply, almonds.
The ad marks a major departure from the oblique and earnest spots Kind was cranking out just four years ago, which included a video of Kind founder and CEO Daniel Lubetzky letting his team dump a bucket of goop over his head Nickelodeon-style to point out that the common snack-bar thickener methylcellulose is sort of gross and Kind would never use it. But the field today is more crowded than ever, which has forced Lubetzky to rethink the true purpose of his brand.
Turns out the secret ingredient in the $8 billion snack-bar market is actually consumer ignorance, or at least confusion. About one-third of Americans’ total daily calorie intake now reportedly comes from snacking. Many of these snacks are ultraprocessed, making them both energy-dense and easy to consume. (A recent study shows that people actually wolf down highly processed foods faster than unprocessed items like fruits and vegetables.) More than 40% of the U.S. population can’t recognize which ingredients on a label are sweeteners.
Not surprisingly, most Americans are overweight and trending toward obese. But Lubetzky is on a mission of what he calls “enlightened self-interest” to change that. The plan includes behind-the-scenes work to shift label laws and food policies at the FDA, along with an increasingly public effort to correct how food shoppers see the world. “We’ve invested heavily in what’s right for society, and we’ve always thought that that’s ultimately going to be the right answer for us too,” he says.
Category-redefining measures such as food-labeling changes are typically pioneered by industry groups working to protect their own interests. The dairy lobby, for instance, has spent years trying to block nut, soy, and other alternative “milk” producers from being able to use that term in their marketing. “It’s rare to see an individual company get involved in changing food labels in a way that might help their product, but [this] really goes beyond that,” says Bonnie Liebman, the director of nutrition at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. She believes that “[Kind] is trying to help the marketplace steer consumers towards healthier foods.”
Kind’s competitors, however, are likely to see things differently. The label-regulation push represents just another round in a fight that’s been playing out publicly since Kind launched a new line of protein bars in January 2018—with a campaign featuring comedian Anna Faris reading several salty reviews that customers publicly posted about rival offerings. (“These taste like garbage and resentment,” goes one. “My roommate just asked ‘Did someone just s**t in my mouth?'”) It offered customers free samples of its new product alongside ones from Quest, Power Crunch, ThinkThin, and Clif.
It took a little over a year, but Clif fired back with an ad in the New York Times, designed as an open letter to Lubetzky, that pointed out how confection giant Mars is an owner of Kind—it acquired an estimated 40% stake in 2017—and urged Kind to go organic, as independently-owned Clif did 16 years ago. (During the NBA finals a few months later, Clif released a commercial featuring a Willy Wonka–esque, mustachioed narrator strolling through fields with “organic” signage and a fanciful snack-bar factory before claiming, rather obliquely, that Clif makes “our rectangular food good and nutritious, not full of poison.”)
Kind’s June commercial, set on the airplane, “pointed out that we felt that was a little bit duplicitous for them to position themselves as these harbingers of great health when in fact the product is a sugar bomb,” Lubetzky says.
The ongoing feud demonstrates how much is at stake in the fight for snackers’ allegiances, how much uncertainty persists in food-labeling and nutritional guidelines, and how a few words here and there can dictate which bar will be left standing.
The changing definition of “healthy”
By the time he started Kind, in 2004, Lubetzky had already founded several successful companies. Most were designed to solve social problems but not necessarily achieve grand scale. PeaceWorks, for instance, is a consumer-packaged-goods company that encourages cooperation and cultural understanding among neighbors in conflict zones. One of its products is Meditalia, a line of tapenades and pesto that sources olives from Palestine, jars from Egypt, and tomatoes from Turkey.
Kind was different. “First and foremost, it was a product that was filling a need that I had,” Lubetzky says. “I was frustrated with my snacking options and wanted something healthy and tasty.” The result was a nut-based bar with fruits or spices, sheathed in a translucent wrapper to show off those basic ingredients. Lubetzky added a catchphrase: “Do The Kind Thing—for your body, taste buds, & the world.” The social mission was, he admits, promoted “only as an afterthought.” At one point, it included asking people to sign a monthly good-deed pledge to unlock a bigger donation (early signatories also got to send friends free bars). He knew that the basic ingredients—nuts, dried fruit, honey, drizzled dark chocolate—were relatively healthful in moderation. He never thought about whether consumers needed more guidance.
Then in March 2015, the FDA issued Kind a warning letter. It must discontinue using the term “healthy.” What Kind considered a philosophical statement, the agency believed was an implied nutrient-content claim.
Some of Kind’s recipes allegedly had too much fat to meet the FDA’s “healthy” standard. Products couldn’t exceed 3 grams of total fat or 1 gram of saturated fat per serving. Most nuts do that simply by being nuts. When Kind looked into it, the company found that the FDA’s own information hinged on outdated dietary science. The FDA didn’t differentiate between foods with good-for-you fats—almonds, salmon, and avocado—and those with bad-for-you ones, like beef, lard, or cream. Meanwhile, the guidelines ignored sugar, giving some colorful cereals, chocolate puddings, and frosted toaster pastries a pass.
In response, Kind filed a citizen petition asking the FDA to rethink its logic so that products with more than half of their fat coming from heart-helpful sources (monounsaturated and polyunsaturated) could attain the “healthy” designation. The FDA shifted its stance in late 2016, although Kind’s petition “was just one of the reasons we decided to move forward with proposing new guidance, not the sole reason,” says FDA spokesman Nathan Arnold in an email to Fast Company.
Separately, the FDA passed a rule in mid-2016 requiring companies doing more than $10 million in sales to disclose the level of added sugar in their products on labels by January 2020. Kind became the first major bar maker to do so, well ahead of the deadline—it was labeling its products’ sugar content by August 2016. This came after the company reformulated seven bars in its Fruit&Nut line to contain less sugar, largely by switching from sweetened to unsweetened fruits and reducing the sugar in yogurt coatings.
Kind bars contain relatively few ingredients, which is an advantage when it comes to food-label regulation—and one that the company has found other ways to harness—although Lubetzky takes care not to frame things like that. (He prefers to frame Kind’s mission as promoting truth throughout the grocery store.) Kind filed another citizen petition with the FDA last March to fix what Lubetzky sees as an additional problem with nutrient-content claims. The FDA’s current standard measures the quantity of a beneficial ingredient but not the overall quality of the product containing it. By this rationale, sugary drink makers can claim to be a great source of Vitamin B or C, and candy makers can say they are “fat-free” while still offering something inherently bad for you.
Under Kind’s proposal, companies would only be able to make health claims if their products contain a meaningful amount of obviously nutritious ingredients like whole fruits, whole grains, or nuts to start with. There would be a clear cap on ingredients like added sugars and trans fats, both of which would have to be disclosed on the package. Kind itself would be affected, because three of its coconut-based bars would exceed the recommended saturated fat content. But it’s unclear whether the FDA will respond. “At this time the FDA has focused on the term ‘healthy’ and how to define it. We may decide to look at other nutrient content claims in the future, but no decisions have been made to do so,” Arnold tells Fast Company.
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Any resolution on this matter may take years. In the meantime, Lubetzky is continuing his efforts—and broadening their scope. He’s now thinking about protein in general. In May, the nonprofit True Health Initiative, a research and advocacy group, announced the findings of a recent Kind-funded study that compared the health and environmental impact of cultivating protein sources like beef, chicken, soy, beans, and nuts. On a per-gram basis, raising beans requires a lot less land, energy, and resources than cattle while generating less waste and greenhouse gases. Beans are linked to lower cholesterol, blood pressure, and insulin levels.
“We argued in our paper that there are no healthy people on a ruined planet,” says David Katz, the founder and president of THI. “You really can’t talk about the healthfulness of food for people without considering environmental impact. So we proposed a metric that considered both.” The effort sparked a Change.org petition asking the FDA and the Secretary of Agriculture to formally consider these adjustments.
It’s not just about “how to sell more Kind bars,” Lubetzky says. “This is a much bigger topic.” Still, almonds fare pretty well under the new math. For companies that use animal-derived proteins, the verdict might not be so favorable. “Daniel would be a really lousy CEO if he spent a lot of time supporting projects that were likely to be bad for his company,” Katz adds.
Meanwhile, Kind is resolute in its decision not to go organic. As Lubetzky sees it, the more healthful ingredients in his recipes are already quite expensive, and spending what it would cost to go completely organic just wouldn’t be worth it for anyone. “The premium ingredients we use, like heart-healthy whole almonds, are more expensive and more healthful than organic brown rice syrup or other ‘organic’ inputs in competitor items,” Lubetzky says in an email to Fast Company. “We choose to invest in the most nutrient-dense, wholesome ingredients for our products and our community,” he adds, pointing out that the low dollar-per-pound rate for almonds is already far higher than the roughly half-dollar per pound rate for organic sugar.
“At some point, we’d price ourselves out of the market without bringing significant incremental value to consumers. While we respect the use of organic ingredients by others, particularly when consuming fresh fruits like peaches—more often than not, companies in our space misuse ‘organic’ or other claims to make something appear more healthful than it really is.”
Battle of the bars
A decade ago, Kind had less than a 1% share of the national snack-bar market. Today, that number hovers at 11%, making it the third-largest brand, behind Clif Bar and Nature Valley, which have 12% and 14%, respectively. Last year, Kind hit nearly $800 million in U.S. sales, according to industry research firm Euromonitor. Lubetzky hopes that the international reach of part-owner Mars (which did not take over daily operations) will help Kind reach more than a billion people globally within the next five years.
Lubetzky insists that he never wanted to take on his competitors directly in Kind bars’ advertising and that he even considered the idea of head-to-head criticisms distasteful. But “people were not connecting the dots” about the bars’ nutritional differences, he says. Research the company did around its latest campaign taught them that “people prefer when you’re being specific” and aren’t put off by a little snark at other companies’ expense.
This past spring, the company launched an online database sharing all the obtuse names for sweeteners that competitors may be using. It makes head-to-head comparisons between Kind’s sugar content and that of other offerings. For instance, Kind’s top-selling flavor, Dark Chocolate Nuts & Sea Salt, contains about 5 grams—which is 13% sugar by weight—whereas certain varieties sold by Nature Valley and Clif can contain double that and then some. (Nature Valley’s Oats ‘n Honey has 11 grams or is 26% sugar; Clif’s Chocolate Chip flavor has 21 grams and is 31% sugar.) Competitors including Larabar, RXBar, and Kellogg’s Nutri-Grain are also compared directly with sugary ice creams or cookies.
Kind publicized this data at a pop-up store in Manhattan; Clif promptly sent brand reps to the site and used it for giving away its own free product. The companies have continued to argue online through social media.
“Food is about more than being kind to yourself,” Clif’s married co-CEOs Gary Erickson and Kit Crawford say in an email to Fast Company. The duo believes in making “wholesome foods” (a term not regulated by the FDA) in a way “that also benefits the planet and the people who grow and make it,” and they consider organic “the essential place to start.”
Depending on the recipe, many Clif bars contain between four-and-a-half and six teaspoons of sugar, according to research by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, while Kind’s range from one to two teaspoons. But the company makes a point of largely targeting endurance athletes who might need a quick hit of glucose. (It’s definitely how the product started.) The bars are also readily available to Americans who consider office work its own endurance sport. “We’re focused on building a portfolio that has something for anyone—whether you are running a triathlon or running a family,” the co-CEOs add. “Our job is to help people understand the when and why.”
CSPI rendered some solid advice for casual eaters in 2016, when it ranked many Kind offerings among its “better bites.” It qualified this by saying that there was no “best” when it comes to the snack bar. “It’s a calorie-dense food, so that’s sort of the negative for all bars,” says CSPI senior nutritionist Lindsay Moyer. “And likewise, bars actually compete with real food.”
Over the last several years, Kind has unveiled plenty of new offerings, including oat crunch bars, nut-butter-filled bars, protein bars, and pressed fruit bars, along with a frozen bar and its own take on fruit snacks with no added sugar. Lubetzky may soon have a bar for any occasion, but he has consistently claimed he’s not pushing them for every meal. His new commercial simply urges consumers to “Be Kind to Yourself,” which appears to encourage comparison shopping. Which, Moyer hopes, will include apples, carrots, and various other fruits and vegetables. No “healthy claim” required.
This story is part of Fast Company’s special coverage of “The New Business of Food,” in which we explore how changes in culture, technology, and the environment are altering the food industry’s entire metabolism. Click here to read the whole series.