Ready-to-eat (RTE) cereal makers channeled their inner Mark Twain in 2012, as in “the reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated,” with the category celebrating a comeback year on the new products front. Prognosticators have been pronouncing the RTE cereal market dead, or at the very least diseased, for years, but 2012 proved the critics wrong, as one of the strongest new product launches in decades helped usher in a stellar year.

Flush from success in overseas markets like the UK, Italy and more, Kellogg’s Krave cereal was introduced to U.S. consumers in 2012 and quickly rose through the ranks to become what has been deemed the most successful cereal launch in the category in the last 20 years. The brand leverages the chocolate flavor to new heights with its chocolate-filled cereal “pillows,” for a unique taste sensation and a flavor profile that also enables the brand to be marketed as a snack. Indeed, Kellogg launched Krave in Limited Edition Halloween Packs last October as an alternative to Halloween candy.

The concept behind Krave was to excite and recapture lapsed cereal users with an offering high in indulgence and low on apologies. The success of this approach helped set the tone for 2012, as introductions of new RTE cereal products rose 15% over 2011’s tally in the U.S., according to Datamonitor’s Product Launch Analytics.

Pre-sweetened cereals were another trend-setter in 2012, demonstrating that while consumers may say they want healthful cereals, they also want products that hit the right flavor notes. In some cases, these flavors tap those that are popular in other categories, like soft drinks or desserts. That was the case with Bokomo Otees Ice Age Cereal in a Cream Soda flavor, a 2012 launch from South Africa.

Cinnamon proved to be the flavor of choice for a number of cereal introductions in 2012, including Kellogg’s Cinnamon Almond Raisin Bran, Kellogg’s Frosted Mini-Wheats Cinnamon Roll Little Bites, Cap’n Crunch Cinnamon Roll Crunch, Chex Apple Cinnamon Gluten Free Cereal and Quaker Apple Cinnamon Crunchtime. Private labels also jumped on the cinnamon bandwagon with Target’s Market Pantry Cinni-Mini Crunch, Topco’s Shurfine Cinnamazing Crunch and Piggly Wiggly’s Bunch O’Cinnamon Squares.

Early indications are that cinnamon will prove to be a big story in 2013, too. Among the new launches waiting in the wings at Kellogg is Brown Sugar Cinnamon Jacks, said to have a “huge taste” that also flavors the milk. Cinnamon has a bright future, because it is a rare beast in the world of flavors, i.e., a flavor that tastes indulgent but with surprising health properties.

In fact, researchers at Ball State University recently discovered cinnamon may help reduce blood glucose levels after eating. According to the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the addition of 6g of cinnamon to hot cereal in test subjects reduced blood glucose concentrations by more than 20% over a two-hour period after eating. The ability of cinnamon to flatten the normal glycemic response may provide hope to people with type 2 diabetes, though more study is needed.

While pre-sweetened cereals grabbed headlines in 2012, there was news on the health front outside of whole-grain cereals—which have become ubiquitous. High-protein cereals rose from 3.3% of new launches in 2011 to 6.3% of introductions in 2012. Organic offerings also climbed, accounting for 18.2% of launches vs. 11.5% of debuts in 2011.

The protein focus is newer for RTE cereal than for cereal bars, where the claim is widespread.  Target’s Archer Farms Simply Balanced High Protein Cereal lists textured soy protein as the first labeled ingredient and offers 14g of protein per serving. Seitenbacher’s new Protein Museli Breakfast Cereal one-ups that, delivering 15g of natural protein per serving in a “high fiber power breakfast cereal.” Protein’s link with the concept of “power” could be promising for cereal.

Arguably, the more prominent trend in healthful RTE cereal offerings in 2012 was ancient grains, and many of the top ancient grains happen to be rich in protein. That is the case with Cascadian Farm Ancient Grains Granola, which has 4g of protein per cup and counts ancient grains like quinoa, spelt and Kamut brand Khorasan wheat as ingredients. 

If there was an award for ancient grain of the year, it would go to chia, which seemingly popped up everywhere in 2012, from snack bars and cereals to beverages and even toothpaste. Nature’s Path Qi’a Chia Buckwheat & Hemp Cereal was one of many 2012 launches to feature chia, in this case grouped with buckwheat and hemp in a product billed a “superfood breakfast cereal.” 

Chia teamed up with quinoa and amaranth for Purely Elizabeth Ancient Grain Granola Cereal, a new gluten-free cereal. The Blueberry Hemp flavor is sweetened with coconut palm sugar, a relatively new natural sweetener just beginning to proliferate in the health and natural products channel.

Two other RTE cereal trends are worth noting from 2012. “Value for the money” continued to be an important consideration for financially stressed consumers. Post Foods found a clever way to reach out to these consumers with Post Good Morenings cereal in a “Mega Pack” box which, at 22oz, was considerably larger than the average cereal box.  Packaging took a cue from laundry detergents that list the number of loads on the packaging: Good Morenings listed the number of bowls of cereal per box—20—in the case of the Waffle Crunch flavor.

The other cereal trend of note in 2012 was portability/snackability. Single-serving cups were on-trend for brands like Kellogg’s Krave, Quaker Life and Cap’n Crunch’s Crunch Berries that collectively promise a quick breakfast, with no clean-up. Cereal as a snack was achieved with Quaker Life Snack’ems in snack-size, stand-up pouches that “will not tip over” and are “great for on the go.”

Hot cereals are also cashing in on the single-serving format, influenced by the success of hot oatmeal in fast-food outlets, such as McDonald’s and Starbucks. Oatmeal, in fact, is the third-fastest growing item on breakfast menus, says Datassential, which finds that oatmeal is on 15% more breakfast menus today than it was back in 2008.

As a convenience item, oatmeal made news in 2012, with Quaker Real Medleys that promise “an oatmeal experience beyond your expectations”—multigrain hot cereal featuring chunks of real fruit or nuts. Since the cup pack is a serving container, there is no mess or bowl to clean. To serve, just add water and microwave. Apple Walnut Oatmeal is one of the four flavors offered.

The world of cereal bars was a busy one in 2012, though many cereal bars do not necessarily target breakfast. Introductions of cereal bars rose 26.3% in 2012, compared to 2011’s totals, according to Datamonitor’s Product Launch Analytics. 

Protein was the hot claim for cereal bars, with 37.7% of 2012’s launches making a high-protein claim, up from 23.8% of launches that did so in 2011. Gluten-related claims were also popular, with 29.9% of 2012’s cereal bar introductions making a “gluten-free” or “no gluten” claim, up from 15.6% of introductions that did so in 2011.

Many of 2012’s breakfast bars made a point to avoid calling themselves “bars.” Given the hundreds of new bars that debut each year, this may be a pragmatic strategy, as borrowing cues from bakery products buys some distance from the morass that bars (energy, breakfast, protein, snack and more) have become. 

That explains introductions like Quaker Soft Baked Bars, in flavors such as Cinnamon Roll, billed as having 6g of fiber and protein per 140-calorie bar. Similarly, Kashi Soft-Baked Squares in Almond and Chocolate flavors are made with whole grains and deliver 4g of fiber per 160-calorie square. General Mills joined in with its Fiber One brand, extended to 90 Calorie Brownies in 2012 that provide 20% of the daily value of fiber. Another development to watch is breakfast biscuits, as Kraft’s BelVita offers similar benefits as breakfast bars, in a biscuit format.

On a more conventional note, granola bars have proven adept at capitalizing on hot ingredient trends. A case in point is Earnest Eats Chewy Granola Bars, which offer a “superfood grain blend” of whole oats, amaranth and quinoa. These grains are not only trendy; they also claim to provide “slow-release energy,” plus protein, fiber and phytonutrients. New in Brazil, GranPure Savory Crunchy Granola extends the concept by adding vegetables to a crunchy, quiche-flavored granola bar featuring carrots and spinach, plus seven whole grains—including quinoa and flax seed.

Turning to 2013, oats may be an ingredient to watch in breakfast bars, thanks to the continued attraction of gluten-free products. Not only gluten-free, but also egg- and dairy-free are Vans Natural Foods Simply Delicious Baked Oatmeal Breakfast Bars, a 2012 launch in flavors like Cherry Pumpkin Seed and Cranberry Almond.

Kellogg’s Pop-Tarts Oatmeal Delights did not claim to be gluten-free, but the toaster pastries illustrate the growing interest in oats and oatmeal in hand-held, “on-the-go” friendly formats. Oatmeal Delights come in flavors such as Frosted Mapley Brown Sugar and are made with whole grains.

The dawning of a new year always offers the potential for surprise, and one could be renewed interest in low-carbohydrate products. Atkins Nutritionals, the company that helped start it all, is revving up its new product engines in 2013. Atkins Day Break, a line just extended to include frozen breakfast products, like Tex-Mex Scramble, as well as a Morning Snack/Light Breakfast Bar, is a launch to watch.

Another potential surprise in 2013 is the concept of a drinkable breakfast extending beyond weight-loss drinks. Kellogg seems to be betting on that, with its new Kellogg’s branded Breakfast to Go Shake. High in protein and fiber, it suggests that the future of breakfast may not be a bowl or a bar, but a bottle.