Consumer fads might be fleeting, but fruit is one ingredient that never goes out of fashion. Lynda Searby looks at how fruit is lending consumer appeal to the flagging cereals market
The ubiquitous raisin is a familiar sight in breakfast bowls, and dates, bananas, apples and apricots aren't uncommon either.
But in recent years, the role of fruit in cereals has shifted up a gear. Fruit is no longer allowed to lurk wallflowerlike among flakes and nuts, but is being promoted prominently in cereal concepts. Manufacturers are getting bolder and more adventurous with fruit, using it to make statements and infer or assert certain health benefits.
Perhaps the most striking example of this brave new approach is Kellogg's Special K Red Berries rice and wheat flake cereal. Although they only account for five per cent of the overall content, dried raspberries, strawberries and cherries are the hook on which the cereal's entire positioning hinges.
The arguments for including fruit in cereal formulations are compelling: Fruit adds contrasting texture and colour as well as a healthy dimension, which is particularly important given that health has become a key tenet in the NPD strategies of most cereals manufacturers.
Jeff Harmening, vice president of marketing with Cereal Partners Worldwide — a joint venture of General Mills and Nestlé — says: "Our strategy is to clearly communicate the already positive health benefits of cereal as well as to take an already healthful product and make it even better by the inclusion of further healthy ingredients and reductions in other ingredients of consumer concern, like sodium and sugar."
This focus on health reflects pervasive market pressures. The cereals markets in the US and the UK are slow moving and saturated. In the past five years, sales have fallen by seven per cent in the US, according to Mintel. While the outlook is not quite so bleak in the UK, TNS figures estimate that the RTE (ready-to-eat) sector, which represents 76 per cent of the cereals market, is growing by just 2.1 per cent a year.
In a bid to inject dynamism into an otherwise stagnant market and deflect criticism from media, government and pressure groups, manufacturers have turned their attention to health. For mainstream cereals manufacturers on both sides of the Atlantic, this has meant reformulating to reduce salt and sugar levels, and emphasise or increase whole-grain content.
But there is also evidence that fruit can offer a route to improving the health profile and consumer appeal of cereals.
US-based Nature's Path is one manufacturer that has grasped the fruit mettle. The company's organic and functional cereals are growing by 20 per cent annually, and it cites fruit as a 'driving selling feature'.
"We promote organic fruit in many of our cereals," says David Neuman, vice president of sales and marketing with Nature's Path. "Many so-called natural cereals use non-organic fruit in their products and most of that fruit is sprayed with chemicals."
So which fruits are making it big in cereals? Kellogg's, Nestlé and Post/Kraft have all incorporated cranberries into formulations. However, until recently, manufacturers using dried cranberries could not make claims about the berry's anti-adhesion mechanism, as scientific evidence was restricted to the juice, purée and concentrate forms of the berry. The results of a study carried out by researchers from Brigham and Women's Hospital (BWH) in Boston using Ocean Spray Craisins have changed this. The study confirmed that sweetened dried North American cranberries exhibit the anti-adhesion mechanism that prevents urinary tract infections.
Cranberries are not the only berries finding favour with cereals manufacturers. Emma Raper is technical sales executive, cereals and cereal bars, with J O Sims, a UK-based fruit ingredients supplier. She says that in the UK, forest fruits such as strawberries, raspberries and redcurrants are on the rise, and there is an emerging trend toward blueberries and blackcurrants.
These observations are borne out in some of the fruit-based entrants to the global marketplace. In the UK, Kellogg's markets Purple Berries Special K, containing five per cent sweetened freeze-dried blackcurrants, blackberries and blueberries. In January, New Zealand-based Hubbards Foods introduced Berry Berry Lite reduced-fat muesli — a mix of wheat flakes, puffed rice, corn flakes, rice flakes and finely diced oats with berry pieces.
In the US, Nature's Path's Optimum Power Breakfast includes freeze-dried organic wild blueberries, Organic Optimum Zen contains organic dried cranberries and its two organic mueslis blend plum raisins with freeze-dried blueberries and raspberries.
Freeze-dried fruit is the format most widely used by cereals producers, according to Raper.
"Freeze-dried fruit maintain their visual impact in the end product, plus they have an intense flavour and retain the structure of the original fruit. Dried fruit such as apple, apricot and cranberries also work well in various formats in cereals."
However, there are some fruits, such as açai and pomegranate, that simply aren't available in dried form. So does this mean that these 'power' fruits, which are flying in the beverage category, are prevented from crossing over into cereals?
Not according to Rodger Jonas, new business development manager at PL Thomas, a US-based supplier of plant origin ingredients. He says of açai and pomegranate in cereals: "It remains to be seen how hard and fast they are going to go, but they should be going in."
Indeed, in March, Nature's Path launched two new antioxidant-rich granola cereals with pomegranate and açai: AçaiApple Organic Granola and Pomegran Plus with sour cherry.
Jonas says it is possible to add fruits like açai and pomegranate to cereals in either extract, concentrate or oleoresin form. For example, PL Thomas offers P40p Pomegranate 40% punicosides extract, whose advantage over competitive pomegranate products is said to originate in the fact that it is standardised to water-soluble punicosides and not solvent-soluble ellagic acid. Including the extract in cereals enables claims relating to its antioxidant content, which is derived from the polyphenols present in the fruit's seeds, husk and juice.
Fish oil in cereals?
In theory, the omega-3 fatty acid DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) is the perfect cereals ingredient. Its role in brain and eye development confers considerable benefits to children, who are some of the biggest consumers of cereals.
Despite this, there is no commercially available cereal containing DHA, owing to a number of technical obstacles. "To incorporate EPA- and DHA-rich omega-3 oils into breakfast cereals, you have to protect it from air and heat or it will dramatically affect the taste and odour profile of the finished product," explains Jan Haakonsen, vice preseident of sales and marketing with Denomega, a Norwegian producer of marine-source EPA- and DHA-rich omega-3 oils.
Denomega has come up with a solution that uses emulsion technology to create a 'wet' microencapsulated product. This technology is already being used in a commercially available cereal bar, and Haakonsen hints that its application in cereals is not too far away.
US-headquartered Martek Biosciences, which extracts its DHA from micro-algae, has overcome shelf-life and stability issues by developing a microencapsulated oil that it says is amenable for this type of process and shelf-life expectancy.
However, it's not just the technical challenges that are blocking the path of DHA into cereals — there are also less-tangible barriers to contend with, such as consumer acceptance. Ruben Abril, director of product development with Martek, says, "A DHA cereal will be a huge leap in the traditional cereals world."
It might be some time before DHA-rich omega oils make their debut in cereals, but other omega essential fatty acids can already be found on cereal packets.
Nature's Path, for example, markets FlaxPlus Flakes, FlaxPlus Raisin Bran, FlaxPlus Pumpkin Granola and Flax N Oats Hot Oatmeal, in which flaxseed is a source of omega-3.
Another US manufacturer, Zoe Foods, produces whole-grain flax cereals under the Zoe's O's Cereals brand. "We use ground flaxseed because it provides ALA (alpha-linolenic acid) omega-3s, and as a whole food it provides fibre and protein," says Janet Morgenstein, the company's director of marketing. "Additionally, some people prefer the taste of ground flaxseed to the taste of omega-3 oils. Using ground flaxseed means that the seeds are cracked so the omega-3s are bio-available. If you eat whole flaxseed, you cannot chew through the seed, which means it is equivalent to eating insoluble fibre."
Morgenstein admits that incorporating ground flaxseed oils into the cereals was not easy, but says taste and shelf life issues were assuaged via a combination of manufacturing processes, natural sweeteners and vitamin E.
Cranberry seed oil offers a more palatable source of omegas-3s, 6s and 9s than flaxseed and fish oils. Decas Cranberry Company claims its OmegaCran cranberry seed oil has a more desirable flavour and aroma than other oils, as well as being more stable, which means it can be used in combination with other oils to help stabilise them or round out the flavour.
The downside is that cranberry seed oil is more expensive than other oils, but Decas insists that it is at an acceptable price point for cereals manufacturers.
Decas has also gone one step further and introduced sweetened dried cranberries fortified with OmegaCran.