Food makers, consumers and regulators have sparred back and forth over what constitutes “healthy” in food labeling for years. Last year, the makers of Kind Bars battled over their snacks’ nutrition merits. Recently, the Food and Drug Administration even asked people to weigh in on a new standard for "healthy" food.
But for Pittsburgh-based nutrition bar company NuGo, the focus is simple.
“Taste comes first,” said David Levine, president of NuGo Nutrition.
Started in 2001 in Oakmont, the brand has grown and is sold nationwide and in Canada, New Zealand and Israel. That wide reach is something Levine said makes the company a player in the $8 billion nutrition bar industry.
Levine, an avid runner, said the company starts with the basics. NuGo uses a pure, branded dark chocolate with natural cocoa butter, fruits, pretzels and nuts. Some manufacturers replace the cocoa butter with palm or vegetable oil, which contain saturated fats.
In addition to meeting FDA and USDA standards, NuGo also offers gluten-free, vegan, high fiber, high protein and low sugar options, and the company tries to take into consideration the dietary restrictions of many religious consumers.
Levine’s friend and running partner, 45-year-old Jason Kushner said he isn't all that concerned with counting macronutrients or calories. He just wants a bar that supports his frequent runs through Squirrel Hill.
“I’m not as careful as maybe some other people about what I put in my body,” he said.
Feedback from consumers like Kushner is something Levine has relied on when creating his nutrition bars. That’s how he came up with the idea for NuGo Slim bars, which are low in sugar and carbs with 15-18 grams of protein each. He steered clear of maltitol and other artificial sweeteners that can cause bloating or gastric discomfort in some customers.
That difference in taste is something 48-year-old Greg Colker, an avid fitness buff, said he can distinguish.
“It tastes so good that I wonder how it could actually be healthy,” he said.