Expert Talk: energy bars the healthy way

In this Expert Talk, we will take a look at healthy sports snacks and energy bars. We talked to Niki, an entrepreneur who runs her own business under the name of ‘Ni’s’. She told us about the importance of flavours and the ingredients that will keep you energized during and after exercise. Niki also shares her thoughts on developing a small business in the health-food sector. Pics: Ni’s

In your opinion, what’s an ideal snack for sports?

First of all, it’s all about the ingredients, which should include carbs, proteins and fats. And secondly, I believe they should taste good which often is not taken into account. To a certain degree I understand that, because when they are in high performance mode, running up a hill for instance, most people don’t care about the taste. They just need energy quickly. But when you’re hiking or cycling, taste does play an important role. During the research phase for my own bars, I often asked people if they really liked the standard industrially produced energy bars, and they would often respond in the negative.

What ingredients are key?

The body simply needs energy during sports. Carbs and sugar are ingredients that our body transforms into energy. As I only use natural ingredients, my main carb source is fruit sugar, which you can find in dates or bananas for example. Long-lasting natural carb sources are oat or rice flakes. The carbs in industrially produced bars are specifically designed to be easily absorbed by our bodies, whereas more natural sources may take a bit longer. The other key ingredient is protein, because it plays an important role in muscle growth and regeneration. Natural sources of protein are nuts or certain fruits.

Infographics of all the ingredients of an energy bar
How to make your own energy bar. © Elements of Sport

How do you know about nutrition?

I’m currently enrolled in a training programme to become a nutritionist. During the initial research phase, I read nutritional science books and cookbooks. I also got advice from a sports nutrition scientist. I was really curious to learn about the basic nutritional needs of our body for doing sports.

Why did you create your business, Ni’s?

My goal was to create a healthy snack based on natural ingredients that tastes good and delivers energy. I was not aiming at high-performance level sports, as I’m not an expert in this field. It’s not about recreating a typical energy bar, which gets tons of carbs into the body as quickly as possible. Nevertheless, we did match the calorie intake to a standard bar.

My partner was the main source of inspiration in the beginning. He is a passionate cyclist and does a lot of sports. That’s how I came across energy snacks. There are tons of different bars that are produced on an industrial level. When I got into cycling too, it was always me who wanted a high-quality snack. I saw my friends eating up to five energy bars a week that were not only full of artificial ingredients and flavours but also contained lots of industrially produced sugars and carbs. That can’t be healthy, I thought. Healthy food has always been my passion. Even when I was a little girl, my grandma taught me about the importance of healthy and fresh produce from our own garden. So I wanted to pass this passion on to the people around me and do things differently.

Wanting to shake things up, I researched the market and discovered that hand-made quality bars were still a niche product in Austria at the time. I experimented with flavours and ingredients and shared my snacks with friends. They really enjoyed them, and so I had the idea to turn this into a small business. That was about 2 years ago. Only recently I decided to end it.

Talk us through the process of creating your flavours.

Sure. The developing phase took me about one and a half years, before I came up with the final four flavours. In the beginning, I experimented a lot and tried many combinations, some of which also involved butter and jam. Those bars were really filling. But storing them turned out to be difficult. There never was a complete failure with any of the recipes, but I continuously changed ingredients, and so reaching the perfect combination was a gradual progress.

At first I experimented at home. After registering my business, I needed to work in a professional kitchen. So I joined ‘Herd’, a kitchen-sharing start-up in Vienna. For the first few months, I did all that in addition to my job. When I received funding from the AMS (the Public Employment Service Austria), I quit my job and dedicated myself fully to Ni’s. Honestly, I would not have been able to work on Ni’s part-time. It was just too much for one person. You not only have to manage production and distribution, but marketing and finances as well. There were times when I did reach my personal limits.

Close-ups of energy bars

Your bars are all vegan and raw?

Yes, but that only happened by accident. I’m not vegan myself. I use dates for sweeteners, as I’m not really into honey. The fat comes from nuts and coconut flakes, so I don’t need to use any extra oils.

Any key ingredients you really wanted to add to your recipes?

Right from the beginning, I knew I wanted to use dates as the base. They are a great source of energy and mineral nutrients. Dates are also easily digestible, which I found was a huge problem for many people with industrially produced bars. I wanted to use nuts as the protein source, and to make the bars more filling. Besides, their taste is amazing. I also decided to include oats, because they are a brilliant source of carbs. Lots of other bars, whether they are paleo or low-carb, don’t use oats. Those were the basic ingredients. Everything else I added to enhance the taste and nutritional benefits, for instance flaxseed for healthy fats, or raw cacao for minerals and anti-oxidants.

Anything else you would consider important for a good energy bar?

Especially in sports, the packaging is important. The energy bar should be compact and easy to unwrap, while the wrapping should be compostable. Also from a legal perspective, the packaging was tricky. As soon as you go commercial, you need to be transparent about all the ingredients and comply with the rules and standards just like the big players. That also meant that changing ingredients was impossible.

How did you manage production as a one-woman show?

All my energy bars were handmade. I also wanted them to be fresh, so I didn’t produce enormous quantities in one batch. The maximum amount I was able to produce were 500 to 600 bars a day, which all had to be weighed and packaged, too. You can imagine that those were very long days ;). But your work routine improves along the way, and you optimize certain procedures. The days I didn’t produce bars, I had to deliver them to shops or work on marketing my products. I also did workshops or went to trade fairs. I even had a pop-up shop with other small companies for a short time. Retrospectively, that was also the best way to get consumer feedback, because selling online means you don’t really have any contact with your customer.

Did you ever consider growing your business?

I wouldn’t have been able to do that on my own. There were a few meetings with investors, but it turned out that I was simply too small for them to consider me seriously. You need to be scalable. With my business concept and price margins, I was simply unable to compete with the bigger players who produce bars at a tenth of the cost. Employing staff wouldn’t have changed that. as the profit would have gone into their salaries. Outsourcing the production process wouldn’t have been an option either, as I didn’t want to compromise on the quality of my products.

Mixing all ingredients together.

 

Is it difficult to run a start-up?

The health food sector definitely is tough competition. I had to register and obtain a confectioner’s license and meet the same standards as my large-scale competitors. There are many small businesses who believe in high-quality foods, are enthusiastic about their products and who really want to change things. Since I started my own business, I really learned how expensive ingredients and production can be if you do not want to compromise on the quality of the final product. To be honest, I don’t really know if most of those small companies are profitable or able to generate a significant income. Healthy food is fundamental for a healthy body, but you need to look at the business side of things as well if you want to succeed as an entrepreneur.

On the other hand, food concepts need up to 2-3 years in order to work well. You need enough cash to survive this critical phase. I think things get easier when you grow bigger, in the sense that you are able to order raw ingredients in larger quantities at a lower price.

What are your plans now?

I know now that my real strengths are product development and recipe development. That’s what I’m passionate about. But they are only one side of the business and because all those other aspects just grew far too important, I decided to end this adventure. I’m not sad at all. I’m really glad I embarked on this journey as I learned lots and lots of things, and I definitely want to keep the brand. At the moment, I’m still researching and considering what to do next. There are lots of possibilities, maybe a workshop, a cookbook. Let’s see J

Last but not least: any recommendations for an easy healthy snack?

To be honest, there are so many recipes out there. You can easily make your own energy balls without needing any special kitchen gadgets. You can also snack on dried fruit as an energy source.

My advice would be not only to focus on getting energy while you’re training, but also to think of refuelling your batteries after a workout. I prefer buttermilk for that, because it’s a good source of protein and minerals, refreshes and keeps you full at the same time. You can also start your day with porridge for breakfast two hours before working out. That will definitely supply you with healthy energy.

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