Few food categories have been impacted by COVID-19 the way breakfast cereal and snack bars have given a massive shift toward eating breakfast at home.

According to Innova Market Insights’ 2021 Lifestyles and Attitudes Survey, 37% of Americans said they were eating breakfast “more in home” versus just 6% who said they were eating breakfast “more out of home.”

Breakfast cereal wins in this scenario while snack bars (which tend to be eaten away from the home) struggle. To some degree, that’s how the new product launch trends played out in 2021.

Cereal and energy bar launches in the USA experienced a steep 27% decline for the period from January to November 2021 versus the same period in 2020, per the Innova Database of new products. Cold cereal launches eased 6.8% during the same period.

Hot cereal launches grew at a 19.5% pace, though from much smaller base numbers than either of the other two categories noted above.

What’s Hot in Cold (Cereal)
Indulgence and nostalgia were top new product innovation themes in cold cereal in 2021.

Kellogg’s tapped America’s love of fast-food with its Wendy’s Frosty Chocolatey Cereal, inspired by Wendy’s famous Frosty chocolate milkshake. Kellogg’s Little Debbie Cosmic Brownies Cereal appealed to fans of the popular Little Debbie snack cakes.

General Mills channeled consumer love for the Reese’s confectionery brand with Reese’s Puffs Cluster Crunch Cereal. Limited Edition Swiss Miss Cocoa Puffs Hot Cocoa Cereal debuted last fall to snare hot chocolate lovers. Chocolate was a winning formula for Kellogg’s new Special K Dipped Chocolatey Almond Cereal.

Snack bar brands decided the grass is greener in ready-to-eat cereals. RxBar went that route with Rx Cereal while Clif Bar touted Almond Butter as an ingredient for its Blueberry and Almond Butter Cereal. Elsewhere, Kind Protein Cereal touted its high protein content and its Caramel Almond flavor delivers 10g of protein per serving.

Cascadian Farm (General Mills) emphasized climate concerns with its Cascadian Farm Climate Smart Kernza Grains Cereal. This limited-edition launch contains kernza, a perennial grain with deep roots that help store carbon in the ground and prevent soil erosion.

“Plant-based” has emerged as a new claim for breakfast cereals. One recent example comes from PLANTSTRONG by Engine Two, an Austin, Texas, plant-based foods company. It branched into cereals with a Plantstrong Granola, which is billed as “100% plant-based.” Spring 2021 saw HighKey, an Orlando, Fla., specialist in low-sugar, low-carb cookies, introduce a Plant-Based Protein Cereal in four varieties.

Perhaps not surprisingly, plant-based claims for cold cereals exploded in 2021 with more than 14% of all launches making a plant-based claim, up from 4.6% of launches making these claims in 2020.

Keto claims cooled a bit in 2021 but still continue to resonate. Last year, this category saw launches from Nature’s Path Organic Foods, Richmond, B.C., and Love Grown Foods LLC, Denver. Nature’s Path introduced Ketola Crunch Cereal and Love Grown launched a namesake line of Keto Granola.

One sign of the relative attraction of the hot cereal category was innovation from top cold cereal and snack bar brands.

General Mills extended its Trix, Cinnamon Toast Crunch, Lucky Charms, and Cocoa Puffs brand into hot cereal with Instant Oatmeal extensions – each with special toppings. Snack bar-inspired innovation came from Kind Protein Oatmeal Hot Cereal and RxBar’s Rx AM Oats.

Snack (Bars) to Satisfy
Cereal and snack bar innovation was down in 2021, but not out. Mondelez offered CaPao Quinoa Squares, a bar made with upcycled cacaofruit to help curb food waste. The launch was one of the first bars to bear the relatively new “Upcycled Certified” on-pack logo.

Late 2020 saw General Mills join the keto trend with :ratio Keto Friendly Crunchy Bars. Each bar has just 2g of net carbs.

Innova tracking data show the keto claim has risen to where more than 5% of all cereal and energy bar launches in the USA used the terms “keto” or “ketogenic” in the product name or brand in both 2020 and 2021. Just 0.6% of launches did so as recently as 2018.

In another health-related move, General Mills introduced Good Measure bars, whose packaging notes that they have “little impact on blood sugar” (an unusual claim). This bar has 3g of sugar per serving.

But the cereal giant also moved in the opposite direction with bars inspired by its iconic Trix and Cocoa Puffs brands. To show that old brands can learn new tricks, General Mills added Protein Bar varieties under its Golden Grahams and Cinnamon Toast Crunch brands.

Bakery brands also eyed snack bar opportunities in 2021. Dave’s Killer Bread (part of Flowers Foods) introduced three varieties of organic snack bars in select test markets. They include Oat-Rageous Honey Almond, Cocoa Brownie Blitz and Trail Mix Crumble, each with 22g of whole grains. Kodiak Cakes LLC, Park City, Utah, also introduced Protein-Packed Chewy Granola Bars.

Established bar brands innovated in 2021. RxBar (Kelloggs Company) added a Plant Bar with plant-based protein from almonds, pea protein, and more. Clif Bar went the route of “less is more” with Clif Thins boasting 100 calories and 5g of sugar per bar. Larabar (General Mills) went indulgent with a Fudge Brownie Snack Bar.

Bars traditionally offer a springboard to new functional opportunities and 2021 bar innovators were bullish on stress reduction. SMPL Brands LLC, New York, N.Y., offers a smpl Calm Bar with a blend of magnesium, ashwagandha, and lemon balm to “soothe everyday stressors.” MyAir USA Inc., Tel Aviv, Israel, offers a range of functional bars including a Stressless Routine Calm Green+ Bar, which includes dates, nuts, and sage for “calming effect.”

Global demand for new ways to “de-stress” is spiking during this time of COVID-19. According to Innova’s Nutrition and Health Survey, the percentage of global consumers ranking food or beverage products that can de-stress, relax or calm as a most desirable health and wellness function doubled from 9% of global consumers in 2020 to 18% of global consumers in 2021.

Brain health is another functional opportunity to watch. Ingenuity Brands’ Brainiac Brain Bar addresses the opportunity with a bar fortified with omega-3 fatty acids, choline, lutein, and probiotics.

Tom Vierhile is vice president, Strategic Insights, North America for the Netherlands-based Innova Market Insights and has more than 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.