Food and Nutrition

These New Bars Are Vegan, Protein-Packed, and Made With Upcycled Ingredients

Emily Laurence

Real Food Bars co-founders Sean and Anna Sullivan; Art: W+G Creative
Walk into virtually any grocery store or drugstore and you'll find almost an entire aisle dedicated to protein bars. Keto bars, Paleo bars, bars that promise to taste like cupcakes...there's certainly no shortage of options when it comes to ingredients and flavors. But one new brand is standing out from the rest as the very first bar that's both vegan and made with upcycled ingredients, aka edible ingredients that normally are thrown out by manufacturers and consumers.

As consumers are learning more about not only what's in their food but where it comes from, there's been a movement to support more brands that are getting creative and using ingredients that would otherwise end up in landfills. Fortunately, more brands than ever are moving in this direction, a movement that led to Well+Good naming upcycled products a 2021 Wellness Trend.

Texas-based Anna Sullivan found that this innovation was decidedly lacking in the protein bar space, leading her to launch Real Food Bar ($35 for 12) with her partner Sean. Sullivan says thinking about where the food she ate came from has always been on her mind. "I grew up in a family of farmers dating back to a family farm we still own that's over 100 years old," she says. "Some of my fondest memories are going to my grandparents' farm and picking the vegetables from my grandma's garden."

Sullivan says she grew up watching her grandma cook with everything from the garden, including the scraps. "We didn't call it 'upcycling' back then; it was just being resourceful," she says. "I suppose that's where it became ingrained in my DNA to not waste food."

As an adult, she started to think about how to use fruits and vegetables to make protein bars, researching what ingredients were the most nutrient-rich and how to best to retain their nutrient density. "I started with dehydrated kale because it has one of the highest nutrient density scores of any vegetable, and the act of dehydration or freeze-drying retains over 90 percent of the nutritional value," she says. "When I found a way to upcycle imperfect produce, it was a no-brainer—it was just the right thing to do." With that, Real Food Bar was born.

Sullivan says she partners with farmers across North America, using their "ugly" (meaning it has superficial imperfections that don't affect taste or health) or surplus produce as ingredients for the bars. "Shortly after the rise of COVID-19, suppliers started receiving calls from farmers that they had no buyers for their fresh fruits and vegetables. We work with them to transform [their] fruits and vegetables into plant powders through a patent-pending air-drying process that locks in nutritional value and spurs positive environmental change," Sullivan explains. "The plant powders taste great in our bars and provide a full serving of greens."

What are the best protein bars according to a registered dietitian? Watch the video below to find out:

Besides making good use of would-be food waste and providing a full serving of greens, Sullivan says it was also important to her that the bars have enough protein and healthy fats to actually hold someone over between meals—or to serve as a well-rounded breakfast for people on-the-go. For this, creamy cashew or peanut butter is used, which also adds a subtle sweetness. Sullivan adds that the request for being 100-percent vegan came straight from customers. "We used to use honey in the bars as a sweetener, but [many people] told us that having a vegan bar was important to them, so we tweaked the recipe," she says.

On average, each bar has 15 grams of protein and 11 grams of fiber, all sourced from plants. As for the sugar content? It clocks in at an average of eight grams a bar, about half of what's found in many other bars on the shelves.

It took two years to get the bars exactly what she wanted in terms of taste, nutrition, and sustainability, but they were finally released in February 2021, available for purchase online and at Whole Food stores in Central Texas, where the brand is based.

Real Food Bar certainly isn't the only nutrient-rich protein bar on the market, but it just might be the most sustainably-sourced one. It turns out we did need one more option to choose from after all.

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