Friday, February 22, 2013

Review: General Mills' Honey Nut Cheerios Medley Crunch

General Mills' Cheerios is one of the most popular cereal brands on the market today, and the company knows it. From the original oat O's they extended the brand to now include 13 varieties, the latest being Honey Nut Cheerios Medley Crunch. What makes this particular formula unique is that of all the current offerings it is the only one to include more than O's. Medley Crunch is a blend of the popular Honey Nut Cheerios, whole grain flakes, and clusters made with almond slices. So, how well does this new Cheerios stack up with the the others?

Most of the variance among Cheerios has been around taste, and they have an impressive array of varieties from which to choose, including chocolate, Dulce de Leche, peanut butter, and cinnamon burst. Medley Crunch seems to have been developed for more than just taste since at this level they are sticking with the tried and true Honey Nut Cheerios base, which have a sweet edge to them. I have never been overly excited about the taste of Honey Nut Cheerios, and adding the flakes and clusters doesn't really improve on it. The cereal is pleasant to the palate, but for me not a standout.

Texture is one area in which I am sure General Mills was trying to accomplish something special. And the idea of adding extra components certainly gives this cereal extra crunch, and gets beyond the limp texture of conventional Cheerios in milk. That said, this cereal is best right out of the box, and in this way makes for strong snack food. But, let it soak in milk and all the fun begins to disappear. The actual O's are still there and eventually degrade into their usual mush. Certainly the flakes and clusters stand up better, but in the end you have nothing more than three distinct cereals floating around your bowl.

Medley Crunch was not designed to stand out in any unique way, but provides consumers an alternative within the comfort of a very well-known and trusted cereal brand. And, that's about it. There just isn't much to get excited about here, unless you like the idea of having a cereal mix and don't want to be troubled creating your own.

I have never understood the nutrition hype behind Honey Nut Cheerios, and this Medley doesn't change my opinions. General Mills knows that the oat base behind Cheerios is nutritious and that there is some research which supports the role of the soluble fiber in oats in reducing cholesterol. For that reason they have utilized Honey Nut Cheerios as the vehicle to convey that message. Even the box of the new Medley Crunch has the heart shape with the words "Can Help Lower Cholesterol". So, this must be a health cereal. Right? Not so quick. First of all, the amount of soluble fiber is not that significant (the Nutrition Facts say "less than 1g" per serving). And, the high sugar content of this cereal (almost 30% of total weight) is far too high for this to be considered truly nutritious. Sure, there are no artificial flavors or colors, and it contains the typical fortified vitamins and minerals, but nutrition-wise this cereal is not as significant as the marketing would like you to believe.

As you can see from my comments and ratings above this is a fairly average cereal from my perspective. It's by no means a bad choice, but neither is this going to be a knock-out. I suspect in a year or two it will be replaced with yet another innovative Cheerios variety. As it stands now, this is a cereal lacking a clear identity, one of the hazards when you create a mix. Nevertheless, if you like your Cheerios, and want a slightly different texture for a change it's worth trying.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

The British retreat

There has been considerable buzz in recent weeks over the 50th anniversary this month of the "British Invasion", the craze of rock and pop music from the United Kingdom that found its way to the U.S. When it comes to breakfast cereal, the Americans can take credit for the invasion going the other direction. Britons enjoy a hearty breakfast, and cereal is almost as popular there as it is in the U.S.

For the most part companies usually tailor their products for different countries and regions, taking into account cultural and taste preferences. While the U.K. has many of the same cereal brands and varieties, they are not always the same. For example, a recent report in the Daily Mail showed that major cereal brands in Britain contain 30% more sugar than their U.S. counterparts. This has raised particular concern because English children are among the fattest in Europe. It appears that while U.S. formulas changed over the years because of public pressure, the recipes in Britain have remained largely unchanged. But, this is not likely to continue. For instance, market analysts estimate that sales of Kellogg's Frosties (i.e. Frosted Flakes in the U.S.) have dropped over 18% in the last year largely because of negative publicity in the U.K. concerning sugar in cereal. There has even been a proposal to ban sugared cereals altogether.

The point in all of this is that times are changing. The days of hyper-sweetened cereals are coming to an eventual end as consumers vote with their wallets. This trend has already been well underway in the U.S., and is now taking place in other major markets like the U.K. This British retreat from the cereals of the past is one further indicator that the place of cereal in our lives is changing. At one time cereal was marketed, especially to children, as a fun experience. In an age of health and environmental concerns, and belt-tightening we are losing much of that. The focus today is on health and value, and we are losing much of the emotional element behind our daily breakfast bowl.

Only time will tell what impact this will have on our love affair with cereal.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Review: Kellogg's Frosted Mini Wheats Crunch

Already this year a number of new cereals have been introduced, but the one that caught my attention most is new Mini Wheats Crunch from Kellogg's. The reason is simple: It appeared to be a knock-off of Quaker's Oatmeal Squares, which I must confess is my favorite all-around cereal. So, a cereal that tries to match my personal fave must be examined, if only to determine which is the best of the best. I do not want to spend too much time comparing new Crunch with Quaker's successful brand, but the comparisons are too obvious to ignore. The Kellogg's cereal has the same shape, highlights a brown sugar flavor, and even comes in a blue box. The recipe itself is somewhat similar, except that whole wheat is the number one ingredient with oats a close second, whereas with Oatmeal Squares the order is obviously reversed. The question for us is: Is this innovation or just a mere copy-cat effort?

It is worth noting that new Crunch is part of the Frosted Mini Wheats family, yet another attempt by a cereal manufacturer to build their portfolio around particular, successful brands (such as Special K, Cheerios, Honey Bunches of Oats, etc.). But in this case the connection is somewhat misleading. Crunch, despite whole wheat as the number ingredient and it having a light frosting, does not look or taste like the other Mini Wheats varieties. This does not make it bad, just out of place.

As far as taste is concerned, my initial impression was positive, but I detected a hint of maple flavor coming through. This caught me a little off-guard as I wasn't expecting it since it is labelled as a "brown sugar" flavor. Upon closer examination of the box I discovered that the reason might be the fact that the cereal does contain both natural and artificial flavors. The latter probably explains the odd taste, and is somewhat disappointing for me. Other than that the cereal holds it own on taste, but would probably be much better with a more authentic, natural flavor.

For me and my love of Quaker Oatmeal Squares, texture was going to be a big test. If there is one area in which the Quaker brand has its own oddity it is texture. Out of the box and immediately in the bowl with milk Oatmeal Squares are too hard and crunchy - it is only after sitting for 20 or more minutes that they are to die for. Kellogg's may have found one way to beat the competition, as Crunch is a much lighter woven square, and easier to chew out of the box and shortly after you smother it with milk. Yet, even after 5 and 10 minutes it still retains sufficient crunch, living up to its name.

Eating Crunch left me a little frustrated. In many ways this is like eating any generic or store-brand knock-off cereal. It might be a decent breakfast cereal, but you're always thinking about the original that you could be eating. Apart from the Crunch lettering which is energetic and wants to jump off the box, the whole experience is diminished by Kellogg's lack of creativity. There are enough subtle differences with this cereal that they could have given it its own identity. Why did they feel the need to copy so much?

While not heavily promoted as a health cereal, Crunch is also not intended to be a high-sugared, novelty cereal. The Mini Wheats brand, while not shying away from the frostings, tries to convey a wholesome image based around whole wheat. Crunch is generally nutritious with a full 6g of protein, 5g of fiber, and the standard fortified vitamins and minerals. The one area that leaves it a little suspect is sugar content. In my view, a healthful cereal should contain no more than 20% of its weight in sugars. Crunch is around 27%. And, forgive me for yet another comparison, overall the brown sugar variety of Quaker Oatmeal Squares edges out Kellogg's Crunch here.

Comparisons aside, Kellogg's Crunch is a relatively wholesome cereal that most everyone will enjoy as an alternative to many of the cereals common in the market today. I question whether it will have longevity as a product SKU, but if you enjoy a crunchy cereal with a touch of frosting sweetness this is worth adding to your grocery cart next time you go shopping.

(Review protocol HERE)

Sunday, February 03, 2013

Classic Review: Kellogg's Corn Flakes

As I've previously indicated, the Breakfast Bowl is expanding to regularly include reviews of cereals, not  just news and reflections on the cereal industry. These reviews will usually be of interesting, new cereals that have hit the market, but from time to time I will also conduct a review of a "classic". There are some cereals that are mainstays, not only to our breakfast tables but our culture as well. Reviewing these venerable classics provides an important point of comparison to the many newer innovations that are coming out today.

For this, the very first, Breakfast Bowl review I will begin with none other than Kellogg's Corn Flakes, the original, modern breakfast cereal. This Battle Creek classic ultimately inspired every other cereal that has ever been produced, and is a fitting place to start exploring the world of cereal.

Corn Flakes is so well established and ubiquitous that it is fair to say that everyone is familiar with and has tasted it. So, my taste opinions may not be that valuable. Nevertheless, there is just one word that comes to mind when I eat Corn Flakes: bland. Sure, the toasted corn contains a hint of flavor, but really there isn't much to them by themselves or in milk. For years people have added sugar and other things such as fruit to their cereal, and Corn Flakes is the perfect explanation why. It needs something to enliven the taste. Most cereals today have a much broader taste profile, lessening the need for table additions. But, Corn Flakes is so lacking!

Texture is also not a high point for Corn Flakes. The flakes are light and easy to consume, but their lightness also makes them vulnerable to the effects of liquid. After 5 minutes they meet the criteria of soggy cardboard, but in 10 minutes the flakes still hold together but are nothing less than limp. I know it's hard for Kellogg to tamper with such a well-known formula but improving texture would make a difference. I remember from year's back when General Mills made their own Corn Flakes, a much crunchier flake that endured milk much better.

Despite being far too common, eating Corn Flakes is an experience, even if just by reminding one that this is the grandfather of all cereals. There is a sense that you are connecting with important history when you pour a bowl. Kellogg emphasizes this on the box when they claim that these are "The Original and Best." Even Cornelius Rooster, who's been the mascot for over 50 years, is there retaining the tradition behind this brand. In many ways Kellogg doesn't have to upgrade the experience, but from time to time they give Corn Flakes a lift with special boxes, such as last year when they released a plethora of boxes featuring Olympic athletes.

Corn Flakes had its origins as a health food at the Battle Creek Sanitarium. Although connected with a certain degree of quackery, the Kellogg's formula caught on. But, how does it stack up by today's health standards? OK, but not great. Being fat free may appeal to some, as does the relatively low amount of sugar compared to most cereals today. But, the lack of appreciable fiber, protein and micronutrients do little to make this a nutrition powerhouse.

How can one be overly critical of a cereal that's been around over 100 years? If it were introduced today Corn Flakes would quickly die as a brand as it cannot match many of the options available today. But, its historical significance embedded in our psyche is enduring. Of course, Kellogg regularly introduces flavor varieties and box promotions to keep it fresh - a strategy that works. Overall, despite being relatively uninteresting, Corn Flakes remains a standby that one cannot ignore.

 (Review protocol HERE)