At the beginning of 2020, nobody could have predicted a reversal of fortune for breakfast cereal makers.
Years of tepid sales quickly reversed with a COVID-19 pandemic that forced consumers into new work-at-home and eat-at-home routines. This certainly helped boost packaged breakfast food sales.

Though many Americans returned to the home breakfast routine, product launches were muted in 2020. Per the Innova Database of new products, cold cereal launches dipped 6.6% and hot cereal launches fell 11.2% during the first 11 months of 2020, versus the same period in 2019. Cereal and energy bar introductions also were flat.

Early in 2020, General Mills planned to revive cereal sales with Morning Summit, a high-end flake cereal with clusters of almonds and dried fruit carrying a then unheard-of price of $13 a box. Aimed at lapsed breakfast cereal eaters, the product was a solution to a problem COVID-19 would later solve.

Visits to foodservice outlets plunged early in COVID-19, though some brands found ways to play in both spaces. Post added the Dunkin’ brand with coffee-inspired cereal flavors, such as Caramel Macchiato. Nearly 65% of American adults drink coffee each day and almost 90% of U.S. households consume cereal, per Dunkin’.

Indulgence was hot in 2020. General Mills’ Hershey’s Kisses Cereal moved a favorite candy into the breakfast bowl. General Mills did the same with Jolly Rancher Cereal. Indulgence worked for Post Hostess Twinkies Cereal while Kellogg added Mashups, which paired Frosted Flakes and Froot Loops cereal in the same box. Kellogg’s Llama Loops Cereal added the fun of glittery sparkles. 

Kids’ options widen in January 2021 when General Mills debuts Sesame Street Cereal with number- and letter-shaped pieces. The back of each box opens up like a book with dual-language (English and Spanish) short stories with Elmo.

Cereal trends that blossomed in 2020 included grain-free options. Per the Innova Database, grain-free cold or hot cereals launches tripled from 2018 to 2020, though from a small base. 

Leading the grain-free parade were Seven Sundays Real Cinnamon Grain Free Sunflower Cereal (made with cassava and sunflower protein), Forager Project Organic Grain-Free Chocolate Os (made from casava root and navy beans), and Back to Nature Grain Free Granola Crunch (made from dried coconut, banana chips, etc.). 

Keto was trendy in 2020 with new “keto” or “ketogenic” hot or cold cereal introductions nearly doubling the count from 2019. Snacks Generation, New York, N.Y., introduced NuTrail Low Karb Keto Nut Granola. It’s sweetened with erythritol and monk fruit extract and has just two net carbs per serving. This year, General Mills adds Wonderworks Keto-Friendly Cereal with 1g of sugar per serving.

Sugar reduction innovation is helped by sweetener innovation. Allulose and monk fruit are new sweeteners used for Kashi GO keto-friendly cereal, a January 2021 entry from Kellogg that also is grain-free. Cereal launches tabbed as “sugar free” were up in 2020, though still number a handful. “No added sugar” has emerged as a much more popular health claim for cereals.

Nutrients on the watch list include protein and turmeric (known for its anti-inflammatory and blood sugar management properties). Nature’s Path Organic Golden Turmeric Superfood Granola and Trader Joe’s Ginger Turmeric Granola flew the turmeric flag. Meanwhile, Kroger’s Protein Granola Clusters brought a stronger protein focus to granola. Other interesting debuts included new SeeReal sprouted cereal from Food Nerd Inc., Buffalo, N.Y. Each of three varieties (Fruity Fantasy, Dark Chocolate, Banana Bread) features broccoli sprouts and other sprouted organic ingredients.

Back in the mainstream, Kellogg’s tweaked tradition and introduced Raisin Bran Toasted Oats and Honey, debuting January 2021. This one takes traditional Raisin Bran and adds crisp, whole-grain toasted oats and real honey.

Cereal as a snack is rising. Kellogg’s debuted Jumbo Snax: supersized versions of Froot Loops, Corn Pops, and Apple Jacks. “With 30% of cereal eaten outside of breakfast, we believe Kellogg’s Jumbo Snax make snacking easier” noted Erin Storm, marketing director of Kellogg All Family Cereal.

Post followed suit in January 2021 with Post Pebbles Crisps and Honeycomb Big Bites cereal snacks while General Mills readied Cinnamon Toast Crunch and Golden Grahams Remix Snacking Mix for a 2021 launch. Brands already in the “cereal as snack” niche doubled-down. Kellogg’s made its Rice Krispies Treats Homestyle Bars 50% bigger than the traditional product.

One of last year’s more interesting trends involved snack bar brands jumping into ready-to-eat breakfast cereals. Clif Bar introduced a Granola Banana Nut Crunch while KIND Healthy Snacks showcased almonds as the lead ingredient in a Cranberry Almond Cereal. KIND (purchased by Mars last November) also moved into hot cereal with KIND Oatmeal, also almond-rich. Chicago Bar Company LLC also continues to expand both with RX A.M., Oats Cups and new varieties (Cinnamon Spice) of RX A.M. Oats Packets.

Sometimes what’s hot is cold. Hot cereal offerings continue to blur with new additions in the overnight oats category. Last February saw Cedars Foods acquire brekki Overnight Oats and then bolster the brand last March with six new 5.3oz varieties that add ancient grains as well as fruit. Another newcomer is Overnight Oats LLC, Brooklyn, N.Y., and its Ohhts! Overnight Oatmeal in three distinct flavors: Heavenly Angel Food Cake, Wholesome Banana Bread and Creamy Coconut Custard. Elsewhere, Quaker Oats (PepsiCo) added Rolled Overnight Oats for overnight oats recipes.

New heat-and-eat options included Kozy Shack Maple & Brown Sugar Creamy Oats and Kodiak Cakes Oatmeal Power Cup. Happi Foodi, Nutley, N.J., expanded its freezercase offerings with Wild Blueberry Steel Cut Oatmeal in a microwave-and-eat oatmeal bowl.

Collagen is penetrating more food categories, and hot cereal made the list. Luv Snacks Inc., Napa, Calif., says its Colloatgen Coconut Lemon Poppy Seed Oats are collagen-infused oats with 18g of protein per serving.

Oatmeal may be filling, but it is not terribly convenient. How about bite-sized oatmeal snacks? Still growing his young business is Nahum Jeannot, founder and chief operating officer of GoOats, Falls Church, Va. His namesake product is an oatmeal-in-a-ball snack and he appeared last fall on television’s reality show “Shark Tank” to promote his four-item line.

A Look Behind Bars
Cereal and energy bar innovation tends to outpace that of cold cereal and 2020 was no exception. Per the Innova Database, U.S. cereal and energy bar launches came in about 70% higher than launches of cold cereals for the period from January to November 2020.

Cereal makers like Kellogg’s even targeted this trend with new bars aimed at cereal lovers. Kellogg’s Cereal Bars in Froot Loops and Frosted Flakes flavors “satisfy that craving for a cereal crunch while on the go and throughout the day,” the company says.

General Mills’ Cinnamon Toast Crunch Soft Baked Bars went in a “softer” texture direction with a more bakery-like bar. General Mills also took a soft approach to Nature Valley Soft Oatmeal Round in a Banana Chocolate Chip flavor. Likewise, its Pillsbury brand introduced the Birthday Cake Bar, a 100-calorie snack bar/bakery bar hybrid.

Speaking of soft launches, it’s clear that texture influences innovation. The biggest texture change in snack and energy bars since 2017 involved flagging interest in chewy bars. Chewy remains the top bar texture, but innovation declined at a 17.5% average annual rate from 2017 to 2019, per the Innova Database. Meanwhile, creamy and soft bars have picked up the slack.

Bimbo Bakeries USA introduced Thomas’ Pick Me Ups Soft Baked Oatmeal Squares in a Chocolate Chip flavor. Texture innovation works for Nature Valley Protein Crunch Bar, a January 2021 launch pegged as “ideal for between meal cravings with ingredients like creamy peanut butter, and crunchy nuts in a whole grain oat bar.” Similarly, Chicago Bar Company LLC (Kellogg’s) introduced RXBAR Layers, billed as the ultimate combination of nut butters and protein bars.

Other innovations showcase new forms. KIND Snacks recently introduced KIND Thins, three new slim, reduced-calorie bars (100 calories or less) that feature a layer of sliced and diced nuts paired with a sweet chocolatey or caramel coating layered on the bottom. Meanwhile, it could be said that other food formulators are having a ball in new product development. Innova Database records show that launches of ball-format cereal and energy bars nearly doubled in 2020 versus 2019. 

The ball format is a favorite of The Honest Ball Co., Boise, Idaho, and its Protein Balls. Alive Foods Ltd., Auckland, New Zealand, broke into US distribution with its Revive Café Frooze Balls Plant-Forward Energy Balls and Protein Power Ball. After a 2019 debut, peanut butter maker Crazy Richard’s, Dublin, Ohio, expanded its US distribution of Wholly Rollies Protein Balls in the supermarket freezercase. Elsewhere, Betty Lou’s Inc., McMinnville, Ore., introduced cbdelights balls with 15mg of CBD per serving.

Because the bar aisle is so crowded, manufacturers continue looking for new category landscape. Last spring saw KIND North America announce a host of new items designated for the freezercase (KIND Frozen), refrigerated case (KIND Nut Butter Bar), chocolate aisle (KIND Bark) and the broader snack mix aisle (KIND Clusters). Last year also saw Dannon introduce The Cultured Snacking Co. brand and a line of refrigerated Probiotic Snack Bars, each with yogurt and up to 11g of protein.

Speaking of probiotics, it’s clear that health and better-for-you nutrition also starred in many new products. 

Avocado Riot Inc., New York, N.Y., introduced three Barvocado Energy Bars, avocado-based bars rich in superfoods such as moringa, matcha, sunflower, and maca. Alpha Nutrition LLC, Marina del Ray, Calif., introduced the MCT Bar with MCT oil to improve memory, cognition, clarity and metabolism. Sacred Sins LLC, Miami, introduced its What The Function (WTF) bar. Its Beauty Bar uses collagen and hyaluronic acid to benefit the hair, skin and nails. Ntidote Life also introduced three functional bars including Golden Turmeric variety billed as an “anti-inflammatory bar.” 

More mainstream processors also targeted the energy bar market. General Mills’ Nature Valley brand launched Nature Valley Packed, a “sustained energy” bar with three textures—creamy, crunchy and chewy. Varieties are Peanut Butter & Cranberry and Almond Butter & Blueberry. For its part, KIND closed last year with KIND Energy, three new bar with oats the leading first ingredient and 35% less sugar than the category’s top seller, the company said.

Another better-for-you trend involves plant-based cereal and snack bars. According to the Innova Database, launches of cereal and snack bars making a “plant based” claim nearly tripled between 2017 and the first 11 months of 2020. Almond butter also starred in Justin’s Refrigerated Almond Butter Plant-Based Protein Bars, which feature 40% less sugar than other refrigerated bars, says the brand.

Keto dieting also was a popular innovation theme in 2020 and a sign that fat has evolved from villain to hero. Buddha Brands, Montreal, closed last year with the launch of four Hungry Buddha Keto Bars. Elsewhere, General Mills introduced :ratio, a new keto friendly line including five yogurts and two crunchy bars (Lemon Almond, Toasted Almond). This new year saw Kellogg’s Company introduce Kellogg's Special K Keto-Friendly Snack Bars in two flavors (Chocolate Almond Fudge, Peanut Butter Fudge) and with 1g of sugar and 2g net carbs per bar.

One emerging diet trend involves intermittent fasting. Last year saw a few bar makers address this trendy diet including the Fast Bar Intermittent Fasting Bar from L-Nutra Inc., Los Angeles. One Fast Bar variety is Nuts Plus Cacao Chips, which combines cacao chips and almonds, pecans, and macadamias to manage hunger. Officials say the product is “scientifically formulated to continue to keep your body in a fasting state.” 

Time will tell if this trend grows in 2021, but the news is bullish for intermittent fasting. Per the International Food Information Council, intermittent fasting topped clean eating and the ketogenic/high-fat diet as the most common diet followed by Americans in 2020. 

Tom Vierhile is vice president, Strategic Insights, North America for the Netherlands-based Innova Market Insights and has over 20 years of experience in new consumer packaged goods reporting and analysis. Tom holds a bachelor’s degree in marketing from St. Bonaventure University and an MBA from the State University of New York at Buffalo.  Follow him on Twitter at @TomVierhile.