Hard to Swallow
Peter Rahal has not eaten lunch when we meet at his office in Chicago on an afternoon in early December. But the 32-year-old doesn’t eat lunch most weekdays, and he does not want to. Rahal tells me he doesn’t have much of an appetite when he’s at the office. Eating interrupts his focus. And besides, he says, lunch, especially work lunch, “doesn’t bring any value.”
“Value”—having, bringing, communicating, delivering it—is the lens through which Rahal sees the world. Or, at least, it’s the lens through which he sees his own success. Rahal is the cofounder and CEO of RXBar, a fruit, egg white, and nut-based nutrition bar in minimalist packaging that he engineered with his childhood friend Jared Smith in 2012, and started distributing in local CrossFit gyms in 2013. In 2017, the company was acquired by Kellogg’s for $600 million, and now consumers can find the bars, which come in 14 flavors, everywhere from grocery stores to gas stations.
Rahal thinks he was successful because a product like RXBar “delivers a lot of value.” Protein-loaded snacks are popular right now in part, he says, because “protein communicated its value.” When I ask him what makes him feel a sense of accomplishment, his answers include: results, power, responsibility. Doing big things. Learning. And “money, as shallow as that is.”
When I tell Rahal that this is very honest of him, he shrugs. “It’s a reflection of value creation,” he says, which is, he points out, “connected to my other values.”
The way Rahal tells it, his company’s trajectory to earning around $200 million in net revenue last year makes sense. He says he invested his time in protein bars because they’re easy to make; the process takes little equipment and few ingredients. He and Smith—who left the company in early 2018—marketed the bars at CrossFit gyms because other brands weren’t doing that. They saw a niche, and they filled it. But RXBar’s massive success didn’t come out of nowhere. It took decades of market warm-up before someone like Rahal would want to make and sell a dense, brown, slightly sticky puck of pulverized dates and nuts; before average Americans would want to eat one, perhaps every day, perhaps multiple times a day, even without stepping into a gym; before a company like Kellogg’s would shell out hundreds of millions of dollars to own a protein-bar company.
Protein and energy bars are a uniquely American food category—born of military-industrial innovation, incubated in the sports world, and metastasized by a work culture in which health comes second to productivity. Bars are pure utility; consuming them doesn’t satisfy hunger so much as deaden it. When you really think about what they are—their distance from what we might consider any kind of “dining experience”—the ubiquity of the form can seem like a triumph of abstraction. Of speed. And, clearly, of capitalism, with a market now valued at around $3 billion.
Sitting across from me at a conference table, Rahal rips open an individual-serving-sized packet of chocolate peanut butter, his company’s latest offering. He squeezes a dollop straight into his mouth. “Time’s really important,” he says, contemplating the packet. “If a product can save you time, you’re going to kind of fall in love with it.”
Protein and energy bars may now seem so ubiquitous as to be mundane. But they once represented loftier goals—those of exploration, expansion, and progress. One of the first people ever to be filmed eating an energy bar was wearing a space helmet while he did it, in an American television ad released circa 1970. It shows a white man in a white astronaut suit unwrapping what looks like an anemic Tootsie Roll, strangely dexterous with the wrapper despite his bulky space gloves. He leans back; without taking off his helmet, he sticks the unwrapped rod through a port in the front of it and into his mouth.
The product was called Space Food Sticks, and it came in six flavors: chocolate, caramel, mint, malt, orange, and peanut butter. A voice-over explained that the sticks had been developed by Pillsbury for United States moon missions; it promised “lasting energy, to feel alive,” and announced that you could find one at your local supermarket, “next to the instant-breakfast section.”
Space Food Sticks were the first government-sanctioned energy bars to be sold in supermarkets. They were also a flop: they were off the shelves by the mid-1970s. Even so, their arrival was a watershed moment for American snacks, though the “snack” in question looked barely edible. Created as a contingency food‚ something designed to keep astronauts alive in case of an emergency, Space Food Sticks descended from a long line of military-industrial food-tech adoption and innovation.
Early American colonists and traders had eaten pemmican, an indigenous food made from compressed meat and rendered fat, and by the 1890s the American military was trying to increase pemmican’s appeal by adding chocolate. In the late 1930s, the military hoped to invent a kind of fortified chocolate bar that would be palatable enough for its troops but not so palatable that soldiers would eat them for fun. Just in time for World War II, the Hershey Company took up the challenge—and the lucrative defense contract—and invented the “D ration”: extremely dense chocolate bars wrapped in sets of three, containing a total of 1,800 calories. Hershey made a less melty Pacific-theater edition, too, called the Tropical Bar; and in 1990, it debuted the Desert Bar, engineered to withstand Kuwaiti heat. (This one was also sold to the public, but not successfully.)
Then came the PowerBar. It was the first civilian-bred energy bar—the bar that really started it all, with a name that would become a generic term among consumers for the whole category. Invented in 1986 by Brian Maxwell, a Canadian living in Berkeley, California, and his then girlfriend, Jennifer Biddulph, the PowerBar was the direct result of a specific energy-and-stamina-oriented need: Maxwell, a long-distance runner, wanted a snack that would stop him from “bonking,” or hitting the wall during a marathon. He and Biddulph teamed up with a food scientist named William Vaughan and, after several formulations, came up with a working recipe. With ingredients like oat bran, maltodextrin, and milk protein, the PowerBar was far from a granola bar, a more “natural” product that had been co-opted from hippie culture by the processed-food industry back in the early 1970s. The PowerBar was dense. It was corn-syrupy. It was extremely convenient. And it was marketed aggressively to athletes, with accompanying sponsorships and flashy packaging that made the bars look most at home next to a pair of running shoes. By 1997, PowerBar was making sales of around $95 million a year.
“Time’s really important. If a product can save you time, you’re going to kind of fall in love with it.”
It also inspired imitators. One of the best known to hit the market after the PowerBar was the Clif Bar, which arrived in 1992. Then came the Balance Bar. By the late ’90s, PowerBar—once the only game in town—was feeling the heat, and tensions arose. Maxwell once sniffed to one reporter that the Clif Bar, which was sweeter and had a higher fat content than the PowerBar, had “the nutritional equivalent of a graham cracker”; later he called it “an expensive cookie.” In 1998, Clif Bar, created by Gary Erickson and Lisa Thomas, sued PowerBar for ripping off the mountain-climber image on its packaging. The same year, PowerBar sued Balance Bar for claiming Balance products were “proven” to help with athlete recovery. The receptionist at PowerBar headquarters in Berkeley started answering the corporate hotline with “Good morning, PowerBar, the number one energy bar. How may I direct your call?" In 1999, the kids in The Blair Witch Project carried PowerBars in their backpacks, and Jesse Ventura, new governor of Minnesota, served PowerBars at his inaugural ball.
“If this were World War II, Balance Bar and Clif Bar are England and the US,” Clif Bar cofounder Erickson told Sports Illustrated that year. “PowerBar is Germany. They have a let’s-wipe-them-out approach to us.”
While the bar makers were sniping at each other, something else was happening: consumers, even nonathletic ones, were buying and eating a lot of bars. The products had evolved since the days of Space Food Sticks: instead of small, round rods, most were rectangular, although still unappealingly and unavoidably brown. Their textures ran the gamut from sort of crispy to sort of gluey. They were sweet in taste but somehow not enjoyable. And yet, between 1997 and 1998, their US sales increased 67 percent, for a total of around $200 million. They were just so convenient, and they were marketed as healthy (they were for athletes!)—hitting such a precise point between the axes of virtuous and easy that they were perfect for a nation obsessed with efficiency. In 1999, Chicago Tribune writer Leah Eskin opened an article about energy bars by acknowledging their cubicle-dweller appeal, writing, “Nothing says workaholic like a desk stocked with PowerBars.”
When I reach Eskin by email this January, she confirms that yes, by the time she was writing her story, nutrition bars had already made the leap from the gym to the office and were just as ubiquitous in both settings as they are now. “I don’t think much has changed in the energy bar landscape—just more crowded!” writes Eskin, who still works as a food writer for the Tribune and other outlets. “The culture of the time focused on athletes—who presumably ‘needed’ quick, portable nutrition—and everyone else who wanted to seem just as buff and busy.”
Whether they could actually help anyone achieve better fitness or health outcomes is another question. Energy and protein bars have been dogged by accusations of “health-washing” since the start; doctors and other critics have pointed out that some bars contain as much sugar as a candy bar. A Clif Builder’s protein bar in peanut butter chocolate, for example, contains the same amount of sugar as a regular-size Kit Kat: 21 grams. Many protein bars lack essential fiber and vitamins. Some, especially early variations, lack any protein at all. (Rahal politely corrects me when I call PowerBars protein bars; they are, he says, “if you want to get technical, energy bars.”) The makers of bars containing substantial amounts of protein—usually from whey or soy—have struggled to make their products taste less musty.
The latest wave of products, like RXBar, were born and bred in a culture of “wellness,” and brands are racing to shed allegations of unhealthiness. When public-radio host Guy Raz interviewed Rahal on his podcast How I Built This in 2018, Raz marveled at how anyone could see the moneymaking potential in the protein-bar market—which he called “possibly the most crowded sector in the food business.” Now brands try to distinguish themselves by constellating between various claimed dietary benefits; Lärabars (minimal ingredients but little protein), EPIC meat-and-fruit bars (paleo but not vegan), GoMacro protein bars (vegan but bland), and EXO cricket-protein bars (enough said) are among the brands that have come to market over the past decade and a half. Bars have even become a way to sneak more radical, even contrarian ideas about nutrition onto the market. Two cofounders of the algae-bar start-up Nonfood, artist Sean Raspet and writer Lucy Chinen, tell me that they see the protein-bar format as a way to introduce consumers to algae as an ecologically sustainable staple food.
“In some of the ideas we had, when we were doing five things that were new, it got to be so people wouldn’t know what to do with it,” says Raspet, who worked as a flavorist for the notorious liquid-meal start-up Soylent before starting Nonfood. “Because the ingredient is quite different from what people are used to, it’s probably better to have it in a frame that’s already familiar—like a protein bar.”
Notably, unlike the gym-rat offerings of the late 1990s, the new protein and energy products are careful not to dictate a correct time or circumstance in which they should be eaten. Even RXBar, the brand bred in CrossFit gyms, eschews sporty messaging on its products. This is intentional. “We don’t prescribe a lifestyle in terms of an activity or aspirational-based brand,” Rahal tells me. “We’re a brand about: We’re just candid. We’re honest.” With no requirement for a special occasion to eat a bar, and a virtually limitless selection of brands, a person could theoretically try a different one every day for weeks on end.
In the late 1930s, a correspondent for the Federal Writers’ Project, part of the New Deal Works Progress Administration’s effort to employ out-of-work writers, wrote a paean to the Horn & Hardart Automat. The cafeteria chain, which opened its first New York City location in 1912 and peaked in popularity around the time the piece was written, was famous for its self-serving option: instead of ordering from a human at a lunch counter, patrons could drop a coin into a dispenser and pull one of a variety of premade dishes—soups, cakes, and more—out of a little window. “This type of self-serving eating place is the result of deep probing into the needs of the five-minute metropolitan center,” wrote the correspondent, Edward O’Brien. “Here, the man-in-a-hurry is worried by no middle men; his relationship with his fodder, over which he may gloat, ruminate, or despair, is strictly private. He selects, pays, eats, and departs, leaving no tip, uttering no sound.”
The Automat was only the latest solution to this “deep probing” on behalf of New Yorkers starved for both lunch and time. By the late 19th century, the city’s growing ranks of office clerks flooded downtown Manhattan at midday, sprinting to a kind of restaurant called a “quick lunch” and scarfing down sandwiches at singleton seating that looked like kids’ school desks, complete with attached table and armrest. Some workers (not women) were lured in by saloons, which offered cheap meals with beers, while blue-collar laborers were more likely to bring food from home or grab something from a street vendor. As early as 1909, corporate offices found a way to keep employees closer to their desks: companies like Metropolitan Life Insurance served meals to employees in office dining halls on a strict 35-minute lunch break, encouraging them to stay chained to their workplace. By the 1960s, spots like the Automat were on the decline as rents rose and more and more office spaces incorporated their own cafeterias because—as a New York Times story put it in 1969, with a logic now echoed by Silicon Valley—“company executives feel the money is well-spent on facilities that cut down on long employee lunch hours.”
The American labor movement had lobbied and protested for an eight-hour workday for over a century before Congress finally mandated one in 1940. But the US Department of Labor still does not require employers to give their workers a meal period, paid or unpaid. That’s up to individual states, and in 30 of them, adults are not entitled to any kind of lunch break—even if they work a manual job, even if they work full-time—although some states do require break time for minors. In Arizona, the District of Columbia, Georgia, Idaho, Mississippi, Montana, New Mexico, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, and Wyoming, nobody, not even minors, is entitled to a break. Factor in the increasing numbers of Americans who are precariously employed contractors, temps, and freelancers—i.e., those working 94 percent of net jobs created between 2005 and 2015—and a lunch hour begins to sound like an impossible luxury.
“Here, the man-in-a-hurry is worried by no middle men; his relationship with his fodder, over which he may gloat, ruminate, or despair, is strictly private.”
In 2016, the New York Times Magazine published “Failure to Lunch,” in which the reporter, Malia Wollan, posited that the reason why so many workers are now eating lunch at their desks is because office culture encourages ceaseless productivity. “Taking time off for lunch has increasingly become a sign of idleness,” she wrote. “In an economy where the standard task is sitting in front of a computer, lunch is less intuitive and far more optional.”
“Optional,” of course, implies the agency to make a decision. When a workday leaves no time for meals, office workers—much like the NASA astronauts of yore—may feel the need for their own contingency foods. Vanessa Rissetto, a New York–based registered dietitian nutritionist, tells me that when she asks clients to submit food journals, she finds that around 30 percent of them are eating energy or protein bars to replace full meals. She thinks this is partly out of convenience and partly because many of her clients who work in offices don’t feel like they can leave their desks to get lunch. Those who can are the people in power.
“The culture is that since nobody is getting up to eat, you can’t just sit and pull up a salad while everybody else is looking at you,” she says. “I have been in meetings where people are like, ‘I know you guys aren’t eating, but I need to eat.’ But that’s always the senior vice president of something—like, yes, you can do that, but the rest of us just have to wait.”
People who rely on bars aren’t just capitulating to an unhealthy work culture, Rissetto adds; even if the bars they consume contain protein or fiber, they may be missing antioxidants and minerals, which could have effects down the line. She’s most concerned that the bar life warps our relationships to eating. “You’re not learning about food, and you’re not really helping yourself,” she says. “So you’re going to have to try to change that up.”
But as the lack of regulation around work breaks shows, sometimes it’s not just office etiquette that delays mealtime. Another registered dietitian nutritionist, Brooklyn-based Maya Feller, points out that some workers who turn to nutrition bars as substitutes for actual meals are those who really can’t leave their stations, like subway drivers or hospital workers. Working women with kids are under time constraints as well. The culture of so-called wellness and work-life balance is an exclusive one, she says, and blue-collar workers still tend to have the fewest options when it comes to meals.
Which is why she’s loath to tell her clients, many of whom have medical conditions and come to her on insurance, to cut out energy bars completely. What if they don’t have an alternative? “Because some of them are meal replacements, you really have to make sure that, if you take the energy bar away, you’re giving them something that’s not going to take 60 minutes to prepare,” she says. “It will never measure up.”
When we speak in December, Peter Rahal tells me that RXBar—with its “No B.S.” tagline and slick packaging—does intentionally target young office workers, people who register convenience and simple ingredients as markers of, well, value. And yes, he’d like to expand: RXBars had already spread to Canada, and new distribution to the UK by the end of 2018 would put his products in Europe for the first time. This could lead to sales in other parts of the continent, too. But he’s not sure that all European countries would make good markets for RXBar. “There’s a reason why protein bars don’t work in southern Italy or southern Mediterranean culture,” he says. Why would you eat a protein bar when you’re used to taking long lunches? What does “protein” even mean in those markets, he wonders. After all, his products were born in a very particular place.
“In the United States, in our culture here, we want to improve,” Rahal says. “We want progress, we want growth, and it’s a beautiful part of the culture. And so the idea of a two-hour lunch doesn’t happen here. Everyone is racing for growth and progress. It’s really progress: it’s a beautiful word.”
I ask Rahal what might be the trade-off to all that growth and progress, and it occurs to me I might be asking him about himself. The RXBar CEO gazes into the middle distance. “There’s no living in the moment. There’s no smelling …” he stops and looks at me. “There’s discontent. Or malcontent. Like it’s never enough. When is it enough? What is life about? These are deep philosophical things, but to me everything is different. Every human story is different. What are your values? What are your motivators? And really understand those, and the origin of those, because if those aren’t being met, you’re going to be miserable.”
In 2012, when Rahal was 26, he was subsisting on protein bars and protein shakes and coffee, and he felt great. He was, he says, “blinded by passion” as he started his company, hustled new products to the patrons of CrossFit gyms, and discovered his “motivators.” Now he’s 32 and the owner of a multimillion-dollar company that, despite its success, will lay off 20 percent of its workforce a couple weeks after we speak. Rahal had an assistant who ordered lunch for him until, eventually, he asked her to stop. He didn’t even care what she ordered; he just didn’t want to decide what to eat. I tell him that I suspect this is the same reason why a lot of people choose protein bars: whatever the reason, they just need to get some fuel inside them. Rahal shrugs.
“It’s feed,” he says.
I stutter. “Uh …”
“It’s feed,” he insists.
“It’s feed,” I say. And I realize he isn’t wrong.