Snap, crackle and function—breakfast goes mainstream

Functional breakfast cereals are not a new concept. After all, the Kellogg brothers were adding vitamins to their Corn Flakes more than a century ago, and Kellogg's continues to do so. It is not alone. Most cereals, even those that are not considered healthy, have a fortification component, even if this means little more than the insertion of a few rudimentary vitamins and minerals.

These cereals are formulated with nutrients that target specific sectors of the population, without sacrificing taste:
A newer development is niche products, in the past considered the domain of health foods stores and specialty outlets, now moving into mainstream supermarket and grocery outlets. Inspired by increasing numbers of sophisticated consumers seeking morning foods that address their particular needs, breakfast cereal manufacturers are responding by introducing products and ranges that target a mass audience whilst flagging themselves very much as health foods.

And why not? The 'breakfast occasion' is, after all, generally regarded as the day's most important meal. It is the meal that breaks the night's fast and kick-starts the day. As Aileen Thompson, European director of communications at Kellogg's notes, "People who eat a healthy breakfast tend to be slimmer, smarter and more alert." They also tend to be healthier, and it is this realisation on the part of health-conscious consumers that is contributing to an expanded breakfast cereal market.

So while a major breakfast player like Kellogg's is ever so keen to emphasise its rank as a mainstream brand ("We don't position any of our cereals as functional foods," says Thompson), it's interest in the functional sector is clear. Kellogg's might be 'about taste, convenience and fun,' but as the umbrella brand for a North American-based subsidiary, Kashi, which is almost exclusively functional—and that means healthy in content and healthy in image—Kellogg's at least has its foot in the functional foods category.

Function—and taste
Brands such as Kashi are illustrative of the inroads being made by functional cereals into the mainstream. Others in North America include General Mills' Harmony, Nature's Path, Quaker's Take Heart, the Peace Cereal range and the wholly organic Cascadian Farm products, while brands like Bio Familia are gaining a stronghold in Europe.

These products are formulated with a range of nutrient-enhanced ingredients that allow the products to be targeted at specific sectors of the population, without sacrificing taste—a typical problem in the past. "These kinds of products are coming out of mom-and-pop stores and claiming mainstream shelf space," says Steve Snyder, marketing and sales director at Cargill. "It used to be that you would have a bin full of granola and you would scoop some into a brown bag and that was the healthy cereal, but now [those former bin products] taste better, and they are much more accepted."

Ingredients suppliers are responding to the situation by tailoring their wares to the breakfast sector, leading to a greater range of options for formulators and, ultimately, consumers.

"People are saying, 'I want a cereal for me, not just one cereal for the whole family,'" Snyder observes. "Now there's a women's health product for mother, there's a heart-health product for dad, and there's a calcium-boosted product for the kids."

For Cargill, this consumer stimulus has led to supplying isoflavones and soy proteins, and in addition, the company is developing a phytosterol ester ingredient it aims to market this year.

Another ingredients supplier, California- based San Joaquin Valley Concentrates, is finding success with its grape seed extract Activin, an antioxidant. According to General Manager Steve Anderson, the key to its success, and to any ingredient's success in the breakfast market, is getting the bioavailability and taste mix just right and being able to reproduce such a mix with commercial reliability. Having achieved this, the company has been able to gain GRAS status and meet National Nutritional Foods Association guidelines for good manufacturing practices. "We are working with the Food and Drug Administration on GMPs to get their approval as well," says Anderson.

He adds: "Activin provides not only antioxidant value for a health benefit, but it contributes a positive flavour aspect, too. Activin is a tannin, so it can be bitter or astringent at higher concentrations. This can be a positive contribution depending on the product that it is going into."

Balance is paramount
In general, many questions have to be answered about functional doses and flavour thresholds, Anderson points out—to "make sure they are consistent with what we see in our health studies." That done, it is then up to food manufacturers to ensure they get their own balance right when constructing the breakfast cereal, he says.

"Once we hand over the ingredient, it is really up to the food manufacturer to work on the matrix and the delivery system," he notes. "In the end it comes down to taste. If you don't have good taste, then you are not going to sell the product. So for ingredients, you want them to taste good, or not taste at all—to have a neutral contribution."

Other ingredients, such as omega-3s and prebiotics, have come into vogue, especially in the US, where their fibre content can be exploited on breakfast cereal packaging via approved heart health and other health claims. ICI-owned, New Jersey-based National Starch and Chemical Company makes one such ingredient, known as Novelose. A resistant starch, it is finding its way into a host of breakfast products, which its US Business Development Manager in Nutrition, Rhonda Witwer, says is the result of an elongated education campaign undertaken by National Starch.

"We had a product that is a dietary fibre that helps lower the glycemic response of foods and promotes intestinal health, but the public knew next to nothing about it. So we had to stir up some interest in it," she says. "We targeted nutrition specialists and pointed to the fact that resistant starch had World Health Organisation backing."

A broadening of public interest in health claims helped garner further interest in Novelose among food manufacturers. "Many products now boast of multiple health benefits," Witwer says. "Now you will see logos or icons on products that relate to digestive health and heart health and memory and concentration—multiple benefits."

The Belgian company Orafti produces natural prebiotic, fibre-delivering ingredients and inulin derived from chicory roots (Cichorium intybus). Called Raftiline and Raftilose, they are finding their way into a range of flakes, granola, muesli and extruded products in European markets. Aside from the nutritional benefits of the inulin-based ingredients, Orafti is keen also to market the fact the ingredients can improve the texture and bowl life of end products.

Orafti promotes its ingredients via its Beneo platform, set up to educate the public about the benefits of inulin and its offshoot, oligofructose. Beneo then comes to represent a point of recognition for consumers concerned about intestinal health via a logo that appears on cereal packaging in Belgium, Switzerland and Spain, the countries where Orafti operates.

Familia a.c.e. balance, a cereal produced by Swiss-based Bio Familia, incorporates inulin and has benefited from the public recognition of Beneo. This has proven particularly useful in a European climate where health claims are restrictive. The cereal also contains dried cranberries but is free from milk components as well as from almonds and hazelnuts, wheat, barley, rye and spelt, all of which can be allergenic.

Denmark-based Arla Foods has developed an ingredient, Tagatose, which tackles a problem common among cereals—their high sugar content. Tagatose is an all-natural bulk sweetener that is low-calorie (1.5kcal/gram), low-glycemic, prebiotic and tooth-friendly. The ingredient has received GRAS approval in the US and is about to be submitted for approval in Europe, Australia and New Zealand. Arla hopes to have it commercially available in the spring of this year.

Constant innovation needed
The interest shown by these, and other, ingredients suppliers is hardly surprising when the growing breakfast cereals market is considered. Cereals now account for a quarter of all breakfast-occasion spending in the US and the UK, according to market surveys by Mintel. If only functional breakfast cereals are considered, the US market stood at $5 billion in 2001, while the European market came in at around $2.7 billion.

In the UK, functional varieties accounted for about 18 per cent of the total amount spent on breakfast cereals, and 26 per cent of the total amount spent on functional foods.

Encouraging figures, but far from signifying a position that will allow breakfast cereals, functional or otherwise, to rest on their laurels. As Kellogg's Thompson says: "People are looking for taste and variety. There are many competitors. You don't have to have cereal. You can have yoghurt, fruit and bread. So for us to get into that consumer basket is a constant challenge. Ultimately it comes down to taste and culture and consumer need."

It seems that more and more consumers want a little more than a plain, baked bran flake when they sit down to breakfast in the morning. And maybe in the not-too-distant future, brands like Kellogg's will be happy to fly the functional flag rather than setting up a subsidiary to do their functional work for them.

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