If there really is a “war on sugar” taking place in the food industry, somebody forgot to tell breakfast cereal makers.

Last year brought a dizzying array of new presweetened products as cereal makers doubled down on sweet offerings to capitalize on snacking behavior and nostalgia.

Cereal makers are reacting to market changes. According to Nielsen, sales of adult cereals dropped 7% in 2017 while sales of children’s cereals (including presweetened varieties) dipped by only 1%. This split set the stage for presweetened innovation.

A wave of new presweetened cereals inspired by popular baked goods and desserts including donuts, cookies, and ice cream populated store shelves in 2018. Kellogg’s Donut Shop Cereal (in flavors like Pink Donut and Chocolate Donut), Kellogg’s Magic Cupcake Unicorn Cereal, General Mills Cookie Crisp Birthday Cake Cereal, and Malt O Meal Cold Stone Creamery Cereal illustrated the trend. 

The Post brand was especially prolific, launching Post Nilla Banana Pudding Cereal (inspired by the Nilla Wafers cookie), Post Golden Oreo O’s Cereal, Post Chips Ahoy! Cereal and a pair of cereals inspired by popular Hostess breakfast pastries: Post Hostess Donettes and Post Hostess Honey Bun Cereals. The latter pair are said to be great with milk or straight from the box.

Even brands that routinely top the presweetened sales charts doubled down on sugar. General Mills Lucky Charms Frosted Flakes Cereal paired two of the top presweetened cereal brands on the US market in a single offering. This “mash-up” trend also gave us Cinnamon Toast Crunch and Peanut Butter Chocolate Blasted Shreds. 

General Mills also added a Chocolate flavor and a Magic Unicorn Marshmallow flavor to its Lucky Charms line. Kellogg followed suit with a Vanilla Latte flavor of its Kellogg‘s Frosted Mini Wheats, a Wild Berry flavor of Kellogg’s Fruit Loops, and a Maple flavor of Cheerios Cereal. Even “better for you” brands like Kashi went sweet with Cocoa Crisp Organic Cereal, a chocolate-flavored offering that features chickpeas as an ingredient.

A more subtle and perhaps less guilt-inducing way to cater to sweet flavor loving cereal lovers was to add new fruit or spice flavors. General Mills added a Limited Edition Peach flavor of Cheerios, Kellogg a Banana flavor of Kellogg’s Raisin Bran, and Quaker Oats a Strawberry flavor of Life Cereal. 

On the spice front, cinnamon was the top dog for General Mills Cheerios Oat Crunch Cinnamon Cereal while turmeric highlighted Nature’s Path Golden Turmeric Organic Cereal. Turmeric turned out to be one of 2018’s breakout superfoods. In cereal, the spice helps milk turn a gold color for a new twist.
Generally speaking, “better for you” functional cereals took a back seat to presweetened offerings in 2018, though the year may eventually be remembered for the launch of Kellogg’s Hi! Happy Inside Cereal for Digestive Wellness, a granola-type cereal. 

Happy Inside is not only high in probiotics and fiber; it is also rich in prebiotics. But will that resonate with consumers? Survey research indicates awareness gaps that could be a heavy lift for Kellogg. According to a recent Harris Poll of over 2,000 U.S. adults, 29% said they know about probiotics, but just 15% say they know about prebiotics.

Granola cereal itself has been trending as it tends to be more versatile than other types of cereal, making it suitable for a wider range of usage applications. Granola is great for snacking, as a topping for yogurt and ice cream, or served in the traditional manner.

Clif Bar Energy Granola

Bar maker enters breakfast category with on-trend granola offerings.

Big news in granola included Clif Bar’s new Clif Energy Granola, a line inspired by favorite flavors of the brand’s nutrition bars. Flavors like Blueberry Crisp and Cinnamon Almond deliver 8g of plant-based protein and 25g of whole grains per serving. The launch will challenge incumbents such as General Mills’ Nature Valley which launched Honey Almond Butter Granola during the year.

One noteworthy trend in granola has been a move away from grain. Baobab-infused Effi (Eco Friendly Foods Initiative) Probiotic Chickpea Granola Clusters break new ground with what is said to be the first legume-based granola. Chickpeas contain both soluble and insoluble fibers that help improve gut health.

Nature’s Path Grain Free Granola in flavors like Vanilla Poppy Seed is “Paleo friendly,” referencing the increasingly popular Paleo diet. The product is one of the first granolas to claim to be sweetened with coconut sugar, a newer and more natural type of sugar now trending in the natural and organic space.

Picking up packaging tips from oatmeal, granola went the single-serving route with Goh-Goh Cereal Granola in cups for on-the-go consumption. But what really separates this one from the pack is its air-dried whole milk ingredient, enabling one to enjoy the product hot or cold simply by adding water.


Some Like it Hot

Convenience also drove hot cereal innovation. GF Harvest Oatmeal in a “GoPack” paper pouch ships flat, but folds into a cup for a quick and easy breakfast. Mush Overnight Oats comes in a rectangular tub complete with its own spoon under the lid for an on-the-go breakfast or snack.


Hot cereal innovation tracked many of the nutrition trends taking place for ready-to-eat cereal and granola, including enhanced energy, probiotics, limited ingredients, and flavor innovation.

Picky Oats Performance Oatmeal can “enhance a workout performance” and uses unusual ingredients like beets for its Can’t Beet Chocolate flavor. Earnest Eats Protein Probiotic Oatmeal Breakfast blends ancient grains like quinoa and amaranth with organic, whole rolled oats, puffed quinoa, grass-fed whey protein and probiotic cultures.

Quaker Oats went the limited ingredient route with its Simple & Wholesome Multigrain Hot Cereal in flavors like Buckwheat & Flax (with just five ingredients). The company also referenced trending ready-to-eat cereal flavors with its Peanut Butter & Honey flavor and Coconut & Caramel flavors of Quaker Instant Oatmeal.

Wild Friends Nut Butter Oats was able to tap growing interest in alternative nut spreads by packaging a plastic sachet of “super butter” on each lid of its plastic cups for a new mix-in flavor experience. Almond Cashew and Peanut Blueberry were flavor highlights.


Raise the Bar

Snack bars saw a flood of innovation in 2018, but growth varied widely by segment. Breakfast and cereal bars led the growth parade, with dollar sales up 9% for the 52-week period ended October 7, 2018, per Information Resources, Inc. Nutrition and health bar sales were up 3.5% over the same period while granola bar sales fell around 3%.

The top innovation theme in bars was protein. Everyone’s favorite macronutrient is forcing category leaders like General Mills to adjust. The company launched Protein One Protein Bar “by the makers of Fiber One” during the year, offering a “trifecta of calories, protein, and sugar” wrapped in a “hook of permissibility.”

General Mills has been stung by the rise of protein in the bar space. The firm’s U.S. snack bar sales dipped 5% in the first half of 2018, a performance the company blames on slowing sales of its Fiber One bars.

General Mills Protein One Bars
General Mills creates new protein sub-line beside Fiber One.

Protein One will contend with new challengers including J.M. Smucker’s Jif brand. The latter’s Jif Power Ups Chewy Granola Bars are packed with peanuts and granola, featuring “the taste kid’s love” in flavors like Chocolate with Peanut Butter.

Kid-friendly bars offer an on-ramp for new consumers. ThinkKIDS Protein Bars from ThinkThin claim to be a good source of protein for kids, but with 45% less sugar than usual. Kind Kids Chewy Granola Bars may not be high in protein, but they are gluten-free and “have 25% less sugar than the leading kids granola bar.”

Nuts are a natural protein source and snack bars have long relied on peanuts for a protein boost. With peanut allergy concerns growing, almonds are gaining ground on peanuts. Clif Bar Nut Butter Filled Energy Bar in a Blueberry Almond Butter flavor illustrated this reality. Gatorade Recover Whey Protein with Almond Butter Protein Bar has also tabbed almonds, though in a supporting role.

Novel protein sources offered a change-of-pace. Ancient Nutrition Bone Broth Superfood Protein Bar debuted as the “first bone broth protein-inspired bar range on the market” in flavors like Salted Chocolate Almond. Oskri 3 Egg Whites Protein Bar not only uses egg whites as an ingredient, but is gluten-free and suitable for the Paleo diet.

The Paleo diet itself is changing the face of innovation in snack bars and it is no wonder, given its popularity. According to the International Food Information Council Foundation’s 2018 Food & Health Survey, 7% of Americans said they follow the Paleo diet.

Kitchfix Grain-Free Granola Bars are said to be “Paleo-friendly,” using nuts, coconut oil, and seeds as ingredients. Also trending on the low-carbohydrate front is the Ketogenic diet. Rich Piana 5% Nutrition Knock the Carb Out Keto Snack Bar uses egg whites as a protein source for Keto diet aficionados.

Bar makers continue to experiment with new textures to appeal to variety-seeking consumers. Nature Valley Soft-Baked Filled Squares offer a creamy peanut butter filling. Clif Bar Fruit Smoothie Filled Energy Bar has a smooth texture with a twist, using classic smoothie ingredients including fruits like acai, strawberry, banana, and more. 

Going in almost the complete opposite direction was Kellogg with its Special K Protein Snack Bar in a Caramel Pretzel Cashew flavor. Pretzels not only add a crunchy texture to snack bars, but also position snack bars as a savory snack alternative. Also emphasizing a crispy texture were Quaker Breakfast Flats Crispy Snack Bars in a Blueberry Nut flavor.

Originally appeared in the July, 2019 issue of Prepared Foods as Sweet Dreams.