Saturday, September 24, 2016

Review: 2016 Pumpkin Spice Cereals

Fall is now officially here, so it is finally appropriate to review the three new pumpkin spice cereals that have hit the grocery aisle in recent weeks. Pumpkin spice has quickly become the trendy flavor for this time of year, almost to the point of overkill. Nevertheless, at least so far, this has come to be the foundation of comfort foods preparing us for the cooler, darker days ahead.

Last year I reviewed the first ever such cereal, Kellogg's Frosted Mini-Wheats Pumpkin Spice. I was thoroughly impressed, and it remains one of the highest rated cereals I have ever reviewed. Apparently Kellogg has re-released this cereal this year (although I have not seen in any stores yet), but my intent this time is only to review the newcomers to the market: General Mills Pumpkin Spice Cheerios, Kellogg's Special K Pumpkin Spice Crunch, and Quaker Life Pumpkin Spice. This will be one review, but of these three cereals.

Taste. Of course, the whole point of these cereals is the taste. People crave the pumpkin spice flavors (usually comprised of such spices as nutmeg, allspice, ginger, cinnamon, and cloves), and these products had better deliver. The challenge that cereal makers have is creating a recipe that highlights the special flavors, but without being overwhelming. For the most part, these three cereals do that, finding a good balance using varieties of existing high-profile cereals on the market. If I close my eyes and taste, the pumpkin spice theme definitely is there, but to varying degrees. Probably the most disappointing is the Cheerios, as in my assessment the cloves are much too pronounced (and I'm not crazy about cloves). The Life edition provided the greatest surprise, with a strong kick of spice on first bite. The Special K seemed to have the best balance of flavors, with the leftover milk in the bowl providing a great treat in itself. One other point of interest, the Cheerios was the only one of the three listing actual pumpkin puree as an ingredient. RATINGS: Special K (5), Life (4), Cheerios (3).

Texture. In many ways texture should not be a big surprise since two of the cereals (i.e. Cheerios and Life) are almost identical to their originally flavored sibling. The woven Life squares are lightly crunchy, but soften as they bathe in milk. Cheerios the same. The Special K version emphasizes "crunch," which is largely achieved by a light sugar coating of the flakes. Overall, it is the latter that shines - the crunchy flakes hold their own even after sitting in milk for 10 minutes. RATINGS: Special K (5), Cheerios (3), Life (3)

Experience. These cereals are all about the experience, which includes the taste, but incorporates so much more. As indicated earlier, they tap into our emotional needs as we enter autumn. So, to a certain degree they all achieve this, with their fall colors and images on the boxes. But, it is Cheerios that really stands out. The predominately orange box stands out, and more importantly the cereal itself (partly due to the fact that they use real pumpkin) has an orange tinge. Life and Special K don't go these extra miles. RATINGS: Cheerios (5), Life (4), Special K (4)

Nutrition. This discussion sometimes kills the fun, but in the end food should provide nutritional value, pumpkin spice cereals included. Life Pumpkin Spice comes closest to retaining the value of original Life: slightly more protein than many cereals, and a reasonable amount of sugar. The other two definitely work on sweetness, almost hitting 30% of weight in the form of sugar. Beyond that, they all emphasize whole grains, are fortified with vitamins and minerals, and are free of artificial flavors. RATINGS: Life (4), Special K (3), Cheerios (3)

Overall. If you want the full pumpkin spice immersion this fall, then incorporating one of these breakfast foods will be worth it. In the end, they all come out pretty close, but none can beat out Mini-Wheats Pumpkin Spice. If you have to choose from these three new ones just one go with the Special K. I would encourage you, however, to try all three, because, remember, these are limited edition cereals. In a few months they will no longer be available and you might miss the opportunity. Of course, by that time you will also be so tired of pumpkin spice in your life that you'll be ready for something different! RATINGS: Special K (4), Life (4), Cheerios (4).

(Review protocol here)

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Could milk-coated cereals be the future?

Scientific research and development is always trying to discover new and better ways of doing things, and this applies to food science as well. An interesting and relevant project coming out of the U.S. Department of Agriculture might form the future for food products. They have been working on milk-based packaging for food, that could also be used to spray on foods such as cereal to form not only a protective coating, but added nutrition as well.

In this video from the American Chemical Society the technology is explained, and they mention how they have tried this on Wheaties. One of the benefits they noted is that the milk protein coating actually keeps the cereal crunchier; but there are many yet answered questions: What is the nutritional value? How does it taste? And, probably most important, will consumers accept this as a new way to eat cereal?

Regardless whether this works or not, it is great to see innovations that could potentially revolutionize the way we eat, cereal included. The future could be less packaging waste, more convenience, and less soggy cereal!

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Cereal by the numbers

I came across an interesting article this week on the website, data-driven thoughts, the work of data analyst, Erik Rood. He explores a wide-range of topics, all centered around looking deeper into the numbers.

A few months ago Rood tackled the issue of our favorite breakfast food in his article, "The golden age of cereal." The most fascinating insight from this analysis is that "nearly half of all cereals last less than 5 years before being discontinued." In other words, manufacturers are trying all kinds of recipes and ideas, but most do not succeed. In fact, the pace of new cereals introduced is increasing, illustrated by the fact that "the majority of cereals have been launched in the past ~10 years (over 1/3 of all cereals."

The article is brief, without too many more great discoveries, although his table of cereals and the time that they have been on the market, is a great resource. Rood also offers a few reflections based on this data as to how cereal companies might reverse declining trends.

Check it out. It's a short, interesting read!

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Customization still available in the U.S. with MyCerealMix

A few months ago I pointed out that yet another custom cereal maker, MixMyOwn, shut down. This is at least the fourth such company to quit, unable to match the success of this format in Europe, namely mymuesli of Germany.

Just when I thought that this approach was dead on this continent, I was made aware of another one, MyCerealMix, that has recently cropped up to try their hand at this innovation. The company claims that it is possible to make your own cereals "from 30+ all-natural ingredients. No added sugar, nothing artificial. It's easy, healthy and delicious." Similar to the others, you start with a base and add various things such as nuts, seeds, freeze-dried fruits, and "super foods" to come up with your own concoction. Your mix is shipped in a windowed, resealable, foil pouch.

I reached out to the company, and founder Tobias Patella was kind enough to fill me on more details and answer some questions I had. He told me that this all started as a result of his own paleo/primal eating lifestyle, and he wanted to see cereals that were all-natural, but could be personalized to individual preferences and needs. Although they have a website where people can put their recipes together, and they utilize social media to spread the word, they got started an old-school way, simply handing out flyers in southern California and giving out samples at gyms. As far, as what makes MyCerealMix different than the others who have failed at this, Patella said that, "we are differentiating our product by guaranteeing that all of our ingredients are 'better for you. By offering a truly healthy offering for all consumers that look for an alternative to the sugary-loaded cereals you'll find everywhere else."

On the one hand, I remain convinced that the custom cereal concept is a valid one, and somebody is going to make it work in the U.S. People want personalization in life, and this offers that. On the other hand, however, I wonder whether they will have the startup capital and other resources to make their brand competitive in a challenging marketplace. Will they will be able to distinguish themselves adequately as a brand, and not just through customization?

We'll be watching!

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Review: General Mills' Tiny Toast

As I've pointed out before, this blog is not focused on cereal reviews, but the industry and phenomenon of breakfast cereal. Nevertheless, every once in a while a particular cereal comes across my breakfast table that is of such significance that it deserves a careful look and taste test.

The new Tiny Toast cereals from General Mills provide a perfect occasion to grab a bowl (or two, in this case) to provide my impressions of what they bill as their "first new cereal brand in 15 years," an over-hyped claim in my opinion. These received much attention when released a couple of months ago, and General Mills is hoping that they will generate some of the same kind of excitement that some of their other "toast" cereals enjoy, namely Cinnamon Toast Crunch and French Toast Crunch.

Tiny Toast comes in two flavors, blueberry and strawberry, and both will be considered in this one review.

So, how do these new cereals actually taste? In short, pretty good. With the increasing commitment of General Mills (and other companies) to use only natural flavors, newer cereals are much more pleasant and muted, than the blasts of flavors that come from artificial ingredients (let alone the powerful whiff of chemical scents that erupt from the bags of newly open cereals with artificial flavors). The blueberry and strawberry flavors here are evident, although I like the strawberry better. Blueberry Tiny Toasts actually bordered on lacking in taste.

An obvious distinguishing point of this brand are the tiny little toast pieces, and they are pleasant to consume - light, and only mildly crunchy out of the box. In other words, they go down easy, but have substance. They also hold their own in milk, although after ten minutes they start to get a little gummy.

Breakfast cereal is about so much more than just the cereal itself, and with Tiny Toast General Mills has created a brand with some personality and that is tied in with their previous toast varieties. Just the idea of eating tiny toasts is fun, and the cartoonish look of the box and logo contribute to that impression. But, despite the design and "Match the Hashtag" game on the back, this cereal is not intended just for children. The pictures and statements on the front that these contain real fruit, remind everyone that these are somewhat serious eats too.

If this is somewhat serious, then what about the nutritional qualities of Tiny Toast. Despite the claims of natural flavor, natural colors, fortified vitamins and minerals, and "First ingredient: whole grain," these cereals are nutritionally meh. There is only 2g of protein, and 1g of fiber, and the percentage of sugar by weight is over 30%. Not that I was expecting more, but don't be fooled - this is not for those looking for a nutritional powerhouse.

Overall, even with the fanfare, Tiny Toasts are an interesting addition to the General Mills lineup, and in the short-term should garner consumer attention; but I really do not see anything special here. They have something to offer as an experience, but in a year or two will likely follow the fate of many new cereals that have come and gone over the years. By all means, try them for yourself, and let me know if they become a favorite of yours, or just a little occasional variety for your morning breakfast bowl.

Tuesday, August 09, 2016

Moving the cereal aisle to the produce section

Recently there were reports that Kellogg cereals were starting to show up alongside fruits and vegetables in Meijer's grocery stores. So far this seems limited to the Midwest grocer, but it could very well be a way for Kellogg to reposition cereals in a new way by associating them with fresh and healthful foods. Of course, adding fruit to your breakfast bowl has long been a way to enhance your cereal, but now the connection is being made more deliberately, perhaps even to the extent of suggesting that you can enhance your produce with cereal.

This is likely a marketing test for now, but it will be interesting to see if cereal companies continue trying these types of efforts to raise the profile of a food that is in need of rejuvenation.

(Source: Quartz)

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Surprise! The flavor this fall is Pumpkin Spice

For the past few years, the favorite flavor of fall has been pumpkin spice. What started as the traditional pumpkin pie has now been utilized by food manufacturers in everything from Starbucks' lattes to Oreo cookies. Surprisingly, consumers have not yet tired of the fad, and its popularity continues to rise.

Even cereals have got into the pumpkin spice craze, most notably last year with Kellogg's Frosted Mini-Wheats Pumpkin Cereal, one that we rated highly. For 2016 we are likely to see many more options featuring this comfort food sensation.

Earlier this year, reports emerged that General Mills would be introducing Pumpkin Spice Cheerios this fall. I can confirm from the company that this limited edition flavor will start showing up on grocers' shelves in August. They are claiming that it is "made from real pumpkin puree and a delicious blend of cinnamon, nutmeg and clove" and is "free from artificial flavors and colors from artificial sources."

While this is the only confirmed launch so far, there are strong signs out there that Kellogg and Quaker are getting into the action as well, although neither company responded to my request to confirm this or to provide more information. Online photos from Influenster and CandyHunting show a box of Pumpkin Spice Crunch Special K. Similarly, Influenster and CandyHunting reveal a Pumpkin Spice Life as well. These look legit, but we'll have to wait and see if these actually end up for sale.

UPDATE 8/1/16: Kellogg's officially announced the Special K item today, and also indicated that Frosted Mini-Wheats Pumpkin Cereal is returning this fall as well. They are introducing other fall flavors among various food products, including a Special K Apple Cinnamon Crunch.

Of course, you might not be craving pumpkin spice right now in the middle of summer, but soon enough the weather will cool down and the leaves will fall, and your breakfast bowl will be a place to celebrate!

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

New Look at Kashi

Kellogg owned cereal-maker Kashi recently unveiled a fresh new look intended to reflect "its belief that food should not only taste good, but do good." The new design includes its revised logo, and packaging that is contemporary and simple in appearance. The boxes certainly stand out for their clean look, avoiding most of the visual clich├ęs common on cereal boxes such as a bowl of cereal, and excessive design elements. Instead the focus is on ingredients and cereal itself at the most basic level. The back of the boxes feature stories of "how the food was made and where it comes from – including employees, farmers and friends of Kashi who had a deep impact on it."

For quite sometime Kashi has struggled to find itself as a natural and health-conscious brand in the Kellogg portfolio, while becoming more and more mainstream in its distribution. Packaging has always been a big part of cereal's success and place within our culture, and this new look, while basically simple, should give the brand new life, if applied consistently across its product line. In my opinion, it's also a far superior effort than the cartoonish appearance of the new Annie's cereals recently launched by General Mills.

What do you think of the new look?

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Kellogg seeks innovation via startups

Without sounding like a broken record, the key to the resurgence of cereal is innovation. We have also seen that much of that innovation is coming from small companies, eager to try new things, but often without the adequate resources to do so. The large companies are often too entrenched in their ways and culture to really effect creative change.

Silicon Valley has long been the hotbed for tech innovation, fueled by venture capitalists investing in the wild (and sometimes crazy) ideas of entrepreneurs. The cereal industry, desperately needing an injection of life, is now trying the same thing. Last fall we indicated that General Mills launched 301 INC to do just that. Not to be outdone, Kellogg is the latest to join the trend.

Kellogg recently announced the formation of eighteen94 capital (1894) to "to make minority investments in companies pursuing next-generation innovation, bolstering access to cutting-edge ideas and trends. The investment mandate includes start-up businesses pioneering new ingredients, foods, packaging, and enabling technology." Approximately $100 million will be invested.

To be fair, 1894 is not just about cereal, but food innovation more broadly. But, hopefully some of this rub off on a cereal industry needing some fresh ideas

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Annie's cereals now available nationally

If you look around the "natural" section of the cereal aisle of many U.S. grocery stories you will probably see the new Annie's organic cereals. They are widely available nationwide now, and come in three varieties: Berry Bunnies, Cocoa Bunnies, and Frosted Oat Flakes.

On the surface this might seem like a relatively insignificant development, especially since "health food" branded cereals are a small and niche, albeit growing, market. Upon closer examination, however, this is a significant story because it involves one of the major players: General Mills.

The story started back in September 2014 when General Mills announced that they would be acquiring Annie's, which had become a well-known player in natural and organic foods targeted to families. Recognizing the growing interest in more nutritious foods among consumers, General Mills saw an opportunity to expand its offerings by adding a recognized and respected brand to its portfolio. Annie's is, however, far more than cereal - they make a wide range of food products. In fact, cereal is not one of their traditional strengths. They first tried back in 2007, but quickly discontinued the line. General Mills, a leader in cereal, wanted them to try again, hence the current three new ones first announced back in February, but only now widely available.

Of course, Annie's is not General Mills' only line of more natural cereals, as they already have the Cascadian Farms brand. But, in this time of frustrating cereal sales, companies are attempting whatever they can to change their fortunes. General Mills is hoping that the Annie's brand will be part of the solution.