Beyond bars: Product innovation and food safety at Clif Bar & Company

Beyond bars: Product innovation and food safety at Clif Bar & Company

Shaunti Luce is Senior Innovation and Technology Manager at Clif Bar & Company. Her role on the food safety and quality assurance team gives her unique insight into food safety, production processes and innovation at Clif.

In our recent conversation, we discussed how she ended up at Clif Bar, the importance of knowing the science behind the products, how Clif Bar & Company is growing their product line, and what sets them apart as an organization.

Life before CLIF Bar

Luce began her career in food testing labs, exposing her to an array of sampling methods, food commodities, and food safety issues. Though the majority of her role was transactional testing, she was able to accompany the sales team on customer visits and factory tours, introducing Luce to the many moving parts of the food industry.

At her second laboratory, Luce took on more of an advisory role, combining her experience in testing with consulting and research. It was here that she learned the value of collaboration – defining key goals, then working with chemistry or sensory teams to accomplish them. 

“[That role] also allowed a lot of traveling internationally, to see how different countries handle food safety issues and concerns,” Luce says. “Even just seeing their testing methodologies was really helpful and set me up nicely for my current role.”

After six years at Clif Bar – two of which have been spent working from home – she’s still passionate about her role.

“People see ‘innovation’ in my title and assume that I lean towards that,” Luce says. “I do work on the innovation side, meaning I work with our cross-functional teams as we roll out new products, but [my job] is very much food safety focused.”

Prioritizing food safety

As a leader in both food safety and innovation, Luce continually anticipates potential risks with current ingredients, future ingredients, and manufacturing partners — along with how to mitigate and manage those risks.

Key among the risks is moisture. Without enough moisture, products can become dry, brittle, tasteless, or otherwise unappealing. But too much water often leads to quality or food safety issues like microbial growth and mold. 

“We need to understand how much water we put in – people don't always think about that,” Luce says. “They think, ‘Oh, well is there water in the recipe?’ There might be, but there's also water coming in with certain types of ingredients. You have to look at the full picture.”

Using the right metrics 

Water activity is, and always has been, an important data point for Clif Bar. With water activity meters in their innovation center, their research and development kitchens, and their commercial bakeries, Clif Bar is able to key in on water activity levels at all points of the production process. This allows their safety team to understand their products and maintain proper food safety and quality measures.

“Understanding what the water activity levels are is a key attribute for the majority of the products that we make, because we tend to make low moisture foods,” Luce says. 

Analysis begins at the ingredient level. Luce and her team work with their suppliers to understand what data points they collect and report. They require that key metrics like water activity and moisture content be included on the certificate of analysis with each ingredient lot. 

The metrics on the certificates of analysis remain important throughout the entire process, from initial mixing to final packaging. Frequent checks ensure that each lot is within the set parameters for physical, chemical, and microbiological attributes.  

“I’d like to see a trend of looking at moisture content and water activity in conjunction, rather than just moisture,” Luce says. “Unfortunately, I think a lot of times people don’t fully understand what water activity is. They think, ‘Well, we’re checking moisture, so we’re covered.’ And it’s not the same thing.”

Beyond bars: Branching out

When the company started, the flagship CLIF Bar was marketed to endurance athletes. They’ve since expanded their product line – energy bars, protein bars, breakfast cereals, energy gels and chews, some products meant just for women, some just for kids. 

“Sure, Zbars are formulated for kids, but that doesn’t mean only kids can eat them. LUNA Bars were tailored for women, but men like them just as much,” Luce says. “At one point we had T-shirts that said Real Men Eat LUNA Bars. It really just depends on what the occasion is.” 

Each foray into a new food category brings welcome new challenges for Luce and her teams. 

“We've done [bars] for so long that we've got that dialed in,” she says. “As we work outside of the bar category, we have to get more creative and educate ourselves on new processes and new equipment. It's a fun thing to do.”

While they cater to a broad range of occasions and audiences, the most recent addition to the line is the first that isn’t meant for people at all: a plant-based pet snack.

“It just makes sense. It's in our DNA,” Luce says. “Clif has a history of being very pet friendly, and you think about the number of families that added a pet during the pandemic – I think it was a really natural transition to go from human food into pet food.”

The Clif Bar culture

Clif Bar is unique. Beyond the plant-based foods and the dog-friendly office, the organization prioritizes others before themselves. 

“We have five aspirations,” Luce says. “We are sustaining our people, sustaining our communities, our planet, our brands, our business. In that order.”

With these aspirations as the target, they allow for authenticity. From the foods they produce to the company programs they provide. As Luce says: 

“We walk the walk, we talk the talk, and we get to be ourselves.”

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