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New Times for Cereal


April 2003
Cover Story

New Times for Cereal

By Donna Berry
Contributing Editor

Traditionally, folks dumped it in a bowl, poured on the milk and ate their cereal at the family breakfast table. The monotony of this ritual, along with less morning mealtime because of get-up-and-go lifestyles, turned many consumers, particularly adults, off of breakfast cereals during the ‘90s. However, perhaps thanks to the sitcom “Seinfeld,” any-time-of-day cereal eaters came out of the closet, and today, consumers no longer view cereal merely as a morning dish.

According to research conducted by the Kellogg Co., Battle Creek, MI (the survey sampled 400 adults ages 30 to 35 years old), although nearly three-fourths (72%) of breakfast eaters enjoy cereal only in the morning, more than one-fourth (26%) of people snack on it at other times of the day. What does these consumption habits represent to cereal manufacturers? One word: opportunity. It’s a new time for cereal, and the endless formulating possibilities bring good news to a food category that, just a decade ago, was shrinking.

Cereal, luckily, still for kids
Regardless of the ample opportunities each day to enjoy cereal, marketers must remember that for many, cereal is still for breakfast. And breakfast is the most important meal of the day: Studies show that breakfast eaters experience improved strength and endurance in the late morning and possess a better attitude toward work or school, as compared to their non-breakfast-eating peers. Skipping breakfast causes blood sugar to stay too low to concentrate. Breakfast also helps kids perform at peak capacity.

In a six-month study of about 100 elementary school students in Boston, researchers found that children who consumed less than half of the energy recommended for breakfast had significantly poorer attendance, punctuality and grades at school. They also had more behavioral problems. After getting breakfast at school for six months, their attendance, math grades and behavior improved.

The good news with kids is that, as consumers, sweet, brightly colored, boldly flavored cereals will forever be attractive to them. The advertising, promotions and other marketing gimmicks associated with kids’ cereals serve as the final hook for making them a mainstay consumer segment. And even though a serving of many kids’ cereals contains as much sugar as some candy bars, in many parents’ minds, cereal is one of the best disguises for delivering vital nutrients to their children. A few years ago, scientists with the USDA Agricultural Research Service Children’s Nutrition Research Center at Baylor College of Medicine, Houston, showed that ready-to-eat breakfast cereals fortified with a moderate amount of calcium could significantly boost kids’ calcium intake.

What’s new with kids’ cereals these days is not so much the product as the way it is marketed. For example, in February, Kellogg debuted the latest addition to its line of Disney cereals: Chocolate Mud & Bugs™. Inspired by “The Lion King,” when milk is added to the crunchy rock-shaped cereal, kids can stir up muddy chocolate milk and spoon up colorful marshmallow bugs. It’s interactive eating because they are digging for food just like the characters Pumbaa and Timon.

When you look closely, that cereal is really nothing more than not-so-perfectly round chocolate puffs and standard cereal marshmallows simply shaped like bugs. But kids don’t know this, nor do they probably realize that it’s made with whole grains and fortified with 11 vitamins and minerals — but most parents do.

The standard package, then some
After all, according to Len Johnson, director of food technical services, Roche Vitamins Inc., Parsippany, NJ: “Ready-to-eat cereals are the most common fortification vehicle, and have been since the 1940s. In fact, it is more common to fortify than not to fortify.”

A standard 11 vitamins and minerals typically are used for fortification: vitamins A, C and D, iron, zinc and the six Bs — thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, B6, folic acid and B12. For some manufacturers, a 12th nutrient — calcium — has become part of the standard fortifying package.

“Unlike other foods, such as enriched bread, there is no government regulation or standard of identity that puts a limit on how much of each nutrient can be added to cereal, nor which nutrients can be added — it’s discretionary,” says Ram Chaudhari, Ph.D., senior executive vice president of research and development, Fortitech, Inc., Schenectady, NY. “However, manufacturers must be prudent. You do not want to take the chance of overfortifying, which can lead to toxic levels of certain nutrients. After all, who really wants to have all nutrients at 100% levels from one serving of cereal?”

Typically, the target for the average consumer’s intake of nutrients at each meal should be one-fourth, or slightly less, of the day’s requirement, assuming three meals and one snack are consumed. This is why many fortified cereals contain nutrient levels equivalent to 20% to 25% of the Daily Value (DV). “There are times when marketing a product with 100% DV of certain vitamins and/or minerals makes sense,” Diane Hnat, senior marketing manager for the food industry unit of Roche Vitamins, says, “and developers need to be aware of appropriate market forms in those cases. Your nutrient supplier can also help with some of those difficult choices.” However, product designers need to consider more in the equation than just nutrition.

“After a cereal manufacturer decides which nutrients to add, the levels at which they are to be added and the desired shelf life for the cereal, the product developer must make sure the nutrients do not negatively affect the odor, flavor or color of the cereal,” Johnson says. “They also must be stable over time and sufficient overage must be added to compensate for losses in processing and storage.” Hnat also observes that product designers need to be cognizant of the forms of minerals added, as some are more reactive than others.

Chaudhari notes: “Nutrients are fine chemicals. They can react with the actual cereal or even among themselves.” He says that manufacturers “can minimize those interactions by adding the nutrients at different stages, which vary by formulation and process. For example, nutrients can be mixed into the sugar coating and applied to the flake, rather than added to the flake directly. Some nutrients can even be sprayed on right before packaging and not go through any processing at all.

“Another option is to use microencapsulated nutrients,” Chaudhari continues. “With iron, which can cause discoloration as well as metallic off-flavor, cereal manufacturers should either choose a less reactive form of iron or one that is encapsulated.”

Pete Zambetti, national sales director for nutrients, Balchem Encapsulates, New Hampton, NY, agrees that iron is a challenging nutrient to add to cereal and highly recommends using a microencapsulated form to mask off-flavors.

Vitamins A and D “are generally not added to the cereal mix because of temperature and oxygen sensitivity,” Johnson says. “In fact, even spraying these vitamins onto the finished cereal may make them more susceptible to oxidative degradation.”

This can be minimized, according to Johnson, if adequate protection is built into the spray system. “Such protection is most readily provided by an appropriate antioxidant system and a carbohydrate oxygen barrier in the spray system,” he says. “An effective antioxidant system is butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT), or a blend of this with butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA), included in the nutrient blend by the supplier or processed separately into the liner. The simplest and most-common oxygen barrier is sucrose, or in some cases high-dextrose-equivalent corn syrup. Sucrose should constitute at least 10% of the spray formula and generally less than 25% is used. ”

Vitamin E, as alpha-tocopherol or mixed tocopherols, can be another effective antioxdant. These forms of the vitamin are not typically added to cereal for fortification purposes; usually their addition protects other vitamins from oxidative degradation. For example, ingredient statements on Cheerios® from General Mills Inc., Minneapolis, say, “Vitamin E (mixed tocopherols) added to preserve freshness.” However, in this product, vitamin E is not included on the Nutrition Facts label, because once these forms act as antioxidants, the resulting compounds can no longer serve as nutrients.

Rather than added into the spray, vitamin E can be built into the plastic liner. “Antioxidants can be used in plastic packaging to prevent damage associated with the effects of processing, heat, long-term storage, and exposure to air and atmospheric pollutants,” says Zambetti. “Vitamin E built into the plastic package preserves the taste, quality and shelf life of cereal.

“Another nutrient that has always posed problems for cereal manufacturers — which is why they don’t make it part of the standard package — is vitamin C,” Zambetti says. “Vitamin C cannot survive high-heat processing, nor the typical one-year shelf life of most cereal. However, Balchem has recently made a breakthrough with microencapsulation technology, making vitamin C stable for cereal applications. We already have a commercial version that is suitable in nutrition bars.”

Microencapsulated vitamin C for cereal has not been commercialized yet, but Zambetti believes this will happen within the year. “This technology will also allow us to encapsulate highly unstable wellness ingredients, such as omega-3 fatty acids, another nutrient where encapsulation is very promising,” he says.

An important note for organic cereal manufacturers: “Because most micronutrients are not available organically, or they are just too expensive to use in cereal, it is not likely that a fortified cereal will be labeled 100% organic according to the new USDA guidelines,” Chaudhari notes. “The next level of organic, which is simply ‘organic,’ is the best option.” The term “organic” can be used on products containing at least 95% organically produced ingredients by weight (excluding salt and water).

Gender and age opportunity
While many manufacturers are now fortifying with calcium, other opportunities exist to appeal to a growing population segment: one that’s ready to embrace a new generation of cereals loaded with wellness ingredients, often specific to women’s or men’s health.

Lost between Generation X and the nation’s senior population is a consumer segment that could fundamentally change the marketing landscape of the food industry, states Garrity Communications, Ithaca, NY, in its recently published report entitled “Marketing 2020: Meet the Tweeniors.” From now through 2020, Americans age 55 to 70 are poised to become the fastest-growing and most free-spending segment of the U.S. population. Too old to be categorized as middle aged, too young to be seniors (in their perspective), the emerging demographic is wedged in between. They are “Tweeniors,” a term coined by Garrity Communications.

“Everyone knows about the aging population, but if all you see is the ‘graying of America,’ you’re shortchanging the most significant marketing opportunity of the next 20 years,” says Charleen Heidt, director of research and account services at Garrity Communications. “This age group is wealthy and active. They are highly interested in maintaining a vibrant lifestyle and are extremely aware of nutrition and health. They want food specific to their nutritional needs and personal tastes, and are willing to pay for it. Tweeniors are still quite busy, and any ready-to-eat product that provides a complete, nutritionally balanced meal is considered a perfect food to them. Cereals developed with this groups’ nutritional needs in mind should fare very well.”

Linda Gilbert, president, HealthFocus International, Atlanta, concurs that this segment of the population is a prime candidate for foods formulated to meet specific nutrition needs. “The Baby-Boomer women are the first generation of females to have to live with the long-term effects of menopause, particularly bone loss and hormonal fluctuations.”

General Mills has developed a breakfast cereal that appeals to this consumer segment. Described as a low-fat nutritional cereal for women, Vanilla Almond Oat Harmony™ is supplemented with calcium, antioxidants, soy, iron and folic acid.

“Cereals formulated for women’s health tend to focus on bone health and energy,” says Hnat. “Along with calcium, other nutrients typically added include magnesium and vitamin D, both of which are necessary for proper calcium absorption. In fact, cereal is one of the few foods in the marketplace that can be fortified with vitamin D. Iron, which is part of the standard 11 nutrients for cereal fortification, is often boosted in cereals that are designed for women, as iron helps keep energy levels high. For men’s health, levels of the B vitamins tend to be increased and there are more being associated with cardiovascular health, a major concern for adult males.”

Johnson adds, “For both men and women, eye health is very important. Since early 2001, the carotenoid lutein, which is being studied and associated with eye health, has been Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) for application in ready-to-eat cereals up to 500 mcg per serving. The dry beadlet form is typically designed for use in cereal. It can be included in the customer’s standard nutrient blend.”

Lutein is naturally found in dark-green, leafy vegetables; unfortunately, most people typically do not eat enough of these vegetables to increase the protective deposits of lutein in the tissues of the eye. Research shows that low ocular levels of lutein could contribute to age-related macular degeneration (AMD). Research conducted at the University of Utah School of Medicine, Salt Lake City, showed that AMD patients who began taking lutein supplements (4 mg or more per day) were able to return low ocular levels of lutein back to normal. With AMD being the leading cause of irreversible blindness among adults 50 years and older, this is good news, especially since fortifying foods with lutein is now possible. Research also suggests that lutein deposits may reduce the formation of cataracts and retinal diseases.

Zeaxanthin, another eye-health carotenoid, is awaiting GRAS acceptance in food. Hnat says that “we expect acceptance within the next few months for up to 100 mcg per cereal serving, as lutein and zeaxanthin should be used in applications at a five-to-one ratio.”

Some manufacturers of better-for-you cereals have also started adding botanical ingredients to their product lines. For example, Kashi Co., La Jolla, CA, recently rolled out Heart to Heart™, which the company describes as a nutrient-enhanced cereal that promotes heart-health. Panels on the front of the box state that the cereal contains soluble fiber, grape-seed extract, green tea, vitamin E, a variety of B vitamins and other antioxidants. Back panels explain the possible health benefits of consuming these ingredients.

“Heart disease is a multifactorial condition,” says Jeff Johnson, director of nutrition, Kashi. “We created (this cereal) to address heart disease from many different aspects, beyond just cholesterol reduction.” A 3/4-cup serving provides 5 grams of dietary fiber, including 1 gram of soluble fiber from oats. It has 100% DV for folic acid and vitamins B6, B12 and E. The B vitamins are essential to the breakdown of homocysteine, an amino acid formed in the metabolism of protein in the body. When excess homocysteine accumulates in the blood, it may increase cardiovascular-disease risk. Along with 100% DV of vitamin E, a serving also contains 50% DV of vitamin C, both powerful antioxidants that protect healthy cells from free-radical damage, which may lower heart-disease risk. Most unique in Heart to Heart cereal are the grape seed and green tea extracts. The polyphenols and bioflavoids in these extracts may help protect against cholesterol build up on vessel walls, thus supporting heart-health.

Formulators considering adding botanical ingredients to cereal formulations should review the level of scientific support for the ingredient’s safety and the legality of any label claims. They also need to address the botanical’s status as a food ingredient. In recent months, FDA has expressed concern over improper use and claims regarding botanicals and has issued warnings to companies with questionable products. Ensuring FDA compliance before a product goes to market saves later compliance costs and a company’s reputation.

The trendiest ingredients
In addition to vitamins, minerals and other nutrients, some of the most noteworthy ingredients making their way into breakfast cereal — both hot and cold varieties — are fiber, flax, fruits, nuts and soy. Here’s why they are healthful, as well as why cereal is an ideal carrier:

Fiber. Most consumers know that whole-grain cereals pack more nutrition than those made from refined grains. After all, whole grains include the germ and bran portions of the grain kernel, which are rich in fiber and B vitamins.

The U.S. National Academy of Sciences recently established the first Dietary Reference Intakes (DRIs) for dietary fiber as 38 grams per day for men and 25 grams per day for women. The current median intakes of dietary fiber for men and women are 17 and 13 grams per day, respectively, presenting an incredible opportunity to fortify foods (particularly grain-based foods) because consumers are already familiar with them as a source of fiber.

A recent dietary study conducted at Cardiff University, Wales, United Kingdom, shows that people who enjoy a high-fiber diet are happier, more energetic and think more quickly. Specifically, the study showed that a diet including whole-grain cereals has a marked effect on mental health.

Fiber comes in two primary types: insoluble and soluble. Each possesses unique functionalities.

Insoluble fibers are the more-common fiber ingredients and traditionally have been the type used to boost fiber content in cereals and breads. Insoluble fibers help prevent constipation and diverticulosis, and, in animal studies, have been shown to reduce the risk of developing colon cancer.

A rather new insoluble-fiber ingredient with application in cereal is derived from the pulp of the carob fruit. Commercially available as Caromax™ from Nutrinova Inc., Somerset, NJ, manufacturers can add carob fiber to all types of cereals as either a classical dietary-fiber component or as a functional ingredient.

Carob fiber has some interesting health-promoting properties. Clinical trials have shown that carob-fiber-enriched foods can significantly reduce blood-cholesterol levels — especially low-density lipoproteins (LDL, or bad cholesterol) — without adverse reactions. Furthermore, carob fiber contains substantial amounts of insoluble and soluble polyphenols, which have strong antioxidative potential. Carob fiber protects the cereal against oxidative degradation, and also has been shown to improve cereal’s texture and color. Try adding carob fiber to cereal formulations with other dry ingredients at levels of 5% to 10%.

Another source of insoluble fiber is resistant starch. “Resistant starch is so named because it is resistant to the effects of digestive enzymes and is not digested in the small intestine,” says David Huang, market development manager at National Starch. “When consumed, it functions more like fiber than starch.”

Many dietary-fiber sources bind water, which, during processing, can have a negative effect, and on the final product, can exert a gritty mouthfeel and a characteristic fiber taste. “Novelose™ resistant starches have low water-holding capacity, small particle size and bland flavor, so they facilitate processing and improve a cereal’s appearance, texture and mouthfeel,” Huang adds. “Fiber levels can be boosted in cereals and the consumer would never know it from a visible or sensory point of view.”

Within the soluble-fiber category, the source can create noticeable health differences. For example, the soluble fiber found in oat bran and psyllium has been shown to bind dietary cholesterol as it passes through the gastrointestinal tract, helping the body eliminate cholesterol and lower blood-cholesterol levels, thus reducing the risk of heart disease. This soluble fiber can also trap carbohydrates, slowing their digestion and absorption, and helping prevent wide swings in blood-sugar levels throughout the day.

Nurture Inc., Devon, PA, recently introduced a highly concentrated oat fiber. “OatVantage™ contains 10 times more oat beta-glucan than other oat-bran ingredients,” says Gregory Stephens, vice president of sales and marketing. “When OatVantage is added to foods, such as cereal, consumers may receive the cholesterol-lowering benefits of oat-bran soluble fiber at a far more convenient dose level than previously possible.”

An individual serving of a non-oat-based cereal formulated to contain 1.5 grams of this concentrated oat fiber will deliver 750 mg of oat beta-glucan, enabling use of the FDA heart-health claim: “Soluble fiber from foods such as oats, as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol, may reduce the risk of heart disease.” The amount of beta-glucan soluble fiber needed daily for an effect on cholesterol is about 3 grams.

Another soluble fiber with application in cereal is inulin, which has been shown to reduce blood-triglyceride levels, increase calcium absorption and improve digestive health via prebiotic stimulation of friendly gut bacteria. “Inulin passes through the small intestine and enters the large intestine undigested, where it selectively nourishes beneficial bacteria,” says Barry Schwartz, marketing manager, Orafti Active Food Ingredients, Malvern, PA. “The Raftilose® Synergy 1 ingredient is a special combination of inulin and oligofructose that is clinically proven to boost calcium absorption by 20%.

“With extruded cereals, inulin can be added at concentrations up to 30% with no loss of expansion,” Schwartz continues. “The cereals are typically crunchier and exhibit an increase in bowl life (does not get soggy when milk is added), as compared to cereals without inulin. With granola or cluster cereals, inulin can be added at levels up to 5% in combination with other sugars. The mixture helps bind the ingredients together.”

Flax. Shiny, reddish-brown flaxseeds — a little larger than sesame seeds — are harvested from the blue-flowered flax plant. “Flaxseeds have a crisp and chewy texture, and a nutty flavor profile, making it ideal for application in hot and cold cereals,” says Thomas Payne, president, Thomas J. Payne Market Development, San Mateo, CA., consultants to the food industry. “The two commercial forms of flaxseed — whole and milled — can be used as either a topping, in an inclusion or as part of the cereal.”

Flaxseed is very low in saturated fatty acids, and very high in omega-3 fatty acids, which are associated with retina and brain development in infants. In adults, omega-3s have been shown to reduce the risk of certain cancers, hypertension, cardiovascular disease and stroke.

“What makes flaxseed stand out in the fiber area is that it contains generous quantities of both soluble and insoluble fiber,” adds Payne. Dietary fiber accounts for about 28% of the dry weight of full-fat flaxseed, with about one-third being soluble and the other two-thirds insoluble.

Fruits and nuts. Raisins have long been the traditional packaged-cereal fruit. “Not only do they add flavor, color and texture, they contribute to overall iron, thiamin, magnesium, potassium and copper levels,” says Payne. “Raisins also contain dietary fiber, including soluble fiber, as well as phenolic compounds, several of which function as antioxidants because they have been shown to slow the potentially damaging cell oxidation process.”

According to the Kellogg survey, fruit is the top choice among nonliquid cereal toppings, with nearly 38% of people getting some of their “5 A Day” quota by adding fruit to their flakes, loops or puffs. Consumers appear to understand that deep-colored fruits, such as those from the berry and cherry families, are rich in health-promoting phytochemicals such as anthocyanins and phenolics. These antioxidants are associated with protecting against chronic diseases, including cancer.

New research out of the Agricultural Research Service Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University, Boston, shows that blueberries, when fed to laboratory rats, boost brain power. Lab rats fed blueberry supplements equal to 1 cup daily in humans had an increased birth rate of brain cells in the region responsible for memory, as compared to rats not fed the blueberry supplements. The blueberry-supplemented rats also did better in memory tests than did their counterparts.

“Blueberries had previously been shown to have a beneficial effect on eyesight, memory and other aspects of aging,” says Payne. “Tuft researchers have also shown that a 1/2-cup of blueberries provides a daily dose of antioxidants, which may act to protect the body against damage from oxidative stress, one of several biological processes implicated in aging.”

The “big three” cereal manufacturers — General Mills, Kellogg and Kraft Foods, Northfield, IL, with its Post brand — have recently added berries to one of their mainstay cereals. General Mills offers Berry Burst Cheerios in two varieties: Strawberry and Triple Berry (strawberries, blueberries and raspberries). Kellogg’s Fruit Harvest either comes with strawberries, blueberries and sliced almonds, or with cinnamon-flavored apple slices and sliced almonds. And lastly, Post added a strawberry version to its Honey Bunches of Oats® original Honey Roasted and With Almond varieties.

All three lines provide the taste and experience of eating fresh berries by using freeze-dried fruit. Freeze-drying helps the berries maintain their original appearance, texture and nutrition. The apple pieces are vacuum-dried using a patented method that locks in natural color and aroma, and delivers a fresh taste. When milk is added to these cereals, the fruit rehydrates and tastes like the fresh, real thing.

Nuts are a natural complement to fruit, especially in cereal. Research shows that most nuts are a rich source of monounsaturated fats, which have been shown to help lower LDL levels and, thus, help decrease the risk of coronary heart disease. Nuts give cereal crunch, enhancing sensory attributes. They can be added diced, sliced, slivered or as meal in a coating system.

Almonds, by far, are the most common nuts included in cereal. However, product designers can provide variety by expanding the repertoire For example, hazelnuts, with their rich, indulgent, exotic character, are starting to show up in more upscale, adult cereals. “Hazelnuts are a natural fit in the breakfast-cereal line,” says Bonnie Gorder-Hinchey, a culinary director representing the Hazelnut Council, New York. “Their slightly sweet, nutty flavor pairs well with the different grains and enhances the wholesome perception of the cereal.”

Soy. Since the 1999 approval of the health claim linking soy protein with lowering cholesterol levels and, thus, reducing the risk of heart disease, a plethora of soy-containing cereals have entered the marketplace. Some state the FDA-approved claim on their package. To be able to do so, the product must provide 6.25 grams of soy protein per serving, which is one-fourth of the effective level of 25 grams per day. However, others do not, because the claim is limited to only those products containing soy protein. Many of these cereals use other soy ingredients, such as naturally concentrated soy isoflavone ingredients.

“The germ of the soybean contains a large amount of phytonutrients. In fact, it has about 20 times more the amount of key better-for-you components, as compared to the rest of the bean,” says Walter Wilms, North American food account manager, Acatris Inc., Minneapolis, MN. “This means you can formulate a soy-based food with 20 times less soy ingredient and still get the same amount of beneficial components.

“Soy protein as an isolate or concentrate contains protein and low amounts of isoflavones,” continues Wilms, “but SoyLife®, which is a 100% natural food ingredient made exclusively from the germ of the soybean, contains a minimum of 15 mg of isoflavones per gram, plus protein, folic acid, omega-3 and -6 fatty acids, vitamin E, lecithin, saponins, and phytosterols.”

Although marketers cannot make a soy-protein claim when cereals contain such a soy isoflavone ingredient, they can state soy isoflavone levels. “Most consumers who buy better-for-you foods understand the benefits of consuming isoflavones and find this information just as, if not more, useful than a health claim,” Wilms says.

Labeled as soy germ flour, the milled version “works best in cereals, both hot and cold, with the isoflavones very stable in extrusion processes,” Wilms says. The unmilled version “is more applicable in granola-type cereals, as well as other coarse cereals where visual ingredient verification and/or crunchy texture is important. Typically manufacturers formulate cereal in order to provide 0.5 to 2.0 grams of SoyLife per serving,” he concludes. “At this level, there are no sensory drawbacks, and impressive soy isoflavone content claims can be made on labels.”

Staying sweet with no sugar
When it comes to making breakfast cereal tasteful, sugar, in its many forms, seems to be the easy answer. Sugar contents usually range from 10% to 40%, making cereal an obvious candidate for sugar reduction or replacement. However, few efforts have been made to add sweetness to cereal without calories or carbohydrates.

Recently, researchers successfully substituted sugar on cereal rings with the polyol isomalt. Discovered in the 1970s by Palatinit GmbH, Mannheim, Germany, GRAS isomalt is made from sucrose and looks much like table sugar. “It confers a mild sweetness to foods, enhancing especially subtle fruity, nutty or malt flavors, which is one reason why it works so well on cereal,” says Bodo Fritzsching, technical services department, Palatinit.

Isomalt is a mixture of two disaccharide alcohols — gluco-mannitol and gluco-sorbitol. It is characterized as a bulk sweetener and substitutes for sugar in a 1:1 mass ratio. Common applications include hard candies, chewing gum, chocolate and various pharmaceuticals, but now it has opportunities in cereal. Not only did the isomalt-sweetened cereal taste just as good as the sugar-sweetened cereal, but researchers identified other benefits, including a better crunch and an extended bowl life, as compared to sugar-sweetened rings.

The cereal rings consisted of a basic recipe of 69.3% wheat flour, 15.0% oatmeal, 2.1% malt, 0.6% salt and 12.0% bulk sweetener — either sugar or isomalt. “In addition to being a part of a cereal formula, isomalt can also be used in a sweetening glaze on cereal,” Fritzsching says. “Being low hygroscopic, isomalt also improved the cereal’s shelf life. The isomalt-sweetened cereal remained virtually unchanged after six months of storage, whereas the sugar-sweetened samples were reduced by 18% of their bite force.”

Besides the product properties and production benefits, isomalt offers consumer benefits, including the fact that it provides around 2 calories per gram, unlike sucrose’s four. Isomalt also does not promote dental caries nor increase blood glucose or insulin levels.

Another option for lowering sugar levels in cereal while still maintaining some sweetness is to use oligofructose, which, like inulin, is a source of insoluble fiber. “Oligofructose provides 30% of the sweetness of sucrose,” says Schwartz. “Oligofructose won’t cause an insulin response and can thus reduce the glycemic index of formulated cereals. At the same time it helps reduce sugar levels, oligofructose also improves taste and texture. In extruded cereals, oligofructose can be added at concentrations up to 15% to increase bowl life and crunchiness. Some decrease in expansion occurs, but the product has a uniform cell structure and pore size. It can also be used at levels of 10% to 15% in coatings for flakes, and levels up to 15% will bind particles in granola and clusters, increasing crunchiness and bowl life.”

Undesirable changes
With all the wonderful ingredients that go into making today’s packaged cereals, could there possibly be anything questionable regarding their healthfulness and safety? The answer is yes — trans fatty acids and acrylamide.

Trans fatty acids occur when an unsaturated fat is hydrogenated to improve stability. Most naturally occurring unsaturated fatty acids are in the cis isomer form, which is when hydrogen atoms are on the same side of the double bond. When atoms are on opposite sides, they are in the trans isomer position. This change in atom positioning is undesirable from a health standpoint, as trans fatty acids are associated with increasing total and LDL cholesterol levels.

Because most breakfast cereals are low in fat, many containing no fat at all, the trans-fatty-acid issue is not a concern for the cereal industry as a whole. However, cereals such as granola or cereals containing granola-like nuggets, can be quite high in fat.

“We’ve reduced the fat content of Raspberry Heritage® granola by 21% and SoyPlus™ granola by a whopping 38%,” says Arran Stephens, president, Nature’s Path Foods Inc., Delta, British Columbia, Canada. A 1-cup serving of Raspberry Heritage now contains 7 grams of fat, of which 0.5 grams is saturated. SoyPlus contains 9 grams of fat, of which 1 gram is saturated.

The company’s chief food scientist, Parimal Rana, points out that fat is integral to granola’s taste profile. “The difficulty in reformulating these recipes lay in maintaining the taste profile while reducing the one ingredient that produces a significant part of the flavor,” Rana says. The company neutralized lower fat levels by boosting the other elements of the flavor and extending the toasting time of the oats.

Nature’s Path uses canola oil, which is trans-fatty-acid free. However, many cereals that include a fat ingredient tend to use partially hydrogenated oil for stability and flavor. If FDA decides to require food manufacturers to quantify trans-fatty-acid content on a separate line on food labels — with many in the food industry believing that a ruling is imminent by the end of the year — cereal manufacturers may decide to reformulate and replace trans-fatty-acid-containing fats with better-for-you fats.

There is even less certainty regarding the impact of acrylamide on the cereal industry, if, in fact, there is any concern at all. In June 2002, researchers from the Swedish National Food Administration and Stockholm University reported that they found acrylamide in a variety of fried and oven-baked foods. This chemical is carcinogenic in rats, and although no human carcinogenicity has been shown in epidemiological studies, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classifies acrylamide as “probably carcinogenic to humans.” This past January, about six months after the Swedish acrylamide scare, researchers in the United States and Sweden said they found no correlation between high intakes of acrylamide in food and cancer, reports FDA.

The exact chemical mechanism by which acrylamide forms is being researched. Current theories involve reactions of carbohydrates, proteins or amino acids, lipids and the possibility of other food components acting as precursors. The Maillard reaction may influence acrylamide formation. High temperatures promote the reaction and the level increases with the time of heating. Therefore, given the formula and process by which it is made, cereal typically can contain measurable levels of this compound.

Two months after the Swedish study, a joint consultation of the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) was held. The organizations provided recommendations and next steps to better understand the risk to human health posed by acrylamide in food, which can be viewed at mary reportFinal.pdf. In general, WHO/FAO reinforces the old principle of consuming a well-balanced diet and moderating consumption of fried and fatty foods.
FDA drafted its own action plan on Sept. 20, 2002, ( Edms/acryplan.html), and in December, published preliminary findings of acrylamide values in common foods (www. FDA cautions that the data does not show the distribution of acrylamide in foods, nor does it address unit-to-unit or brand variation. To give an idea of what heating does to acrylamide levels in food, FDA lists values for a retail frozen french fry. In the uncooked form, the value is 49 ppb. When baked, the value jumps to 356 ppb. One brand of untoasted bread had a value of 34 ppb. Once toasted, it leaped to 364 ppb.

For cereal, FDA lists a value of 266 ppb for Cheerios, 176 ppb for Lucky Charms, 52 ppb for Frosted Flakes, 156 ppb for Raisin Bran and 47 ppb for Rice Krispies. (To compare, foods in which acrylamide is not formed — such as frozen green beans, gelatin dessert, quick-cooking tapioca pudding, fish sticks, canned tuna and baby formula — had measured values of less than 10 ppb.)

FDA has taken no official position on acrylamide, as no one really knows for sure if the acrylamide levels found in foods cause cancer in humans. The results revealed this January spurred comments such as, “We found absolutely nothing to support the theory of increased risk,” which was reported in the Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter. However, many researchers following the acrylamide issue caution that it is too soon to jump to the other extreme and say that conclusions that acrylamide is harmless should not be made. Hopefully, continued research will gain the needed insight to determine if there are long-term ramifications with eating large amounts of heat-processed, carbohydrate-rich foods.

Taste and quality remain key
Consumption habits and nutrition content aside, taste and quality remain key deciding factors as to which cereal box not only gets put into the shopping cart, but also gets consumed, again and again. Taste is a matter of personal preference that correlates to the ingredients in the cereal. Quality, including bowl life and physical appearance (i.e., flake breakage, granola clusters, etc.) is an attribute that manufacturers can influence.

For example, starch ingredients can help improve the texture, mouthfeel, bowl life and shelf life of cereal. “Traditionally, manufacturers added 5% to 10% high-amylose starch to cereal in order to make it a little harder. This helps keep the cereal crunchy in the bowl once milk is added,” says Huang. “However, cereals made using extrusion cannot include high-amylose starch, as the high shear and high heat encountered during extrusion causes the starch to break down.

“Cross-linked starches provide resistance to shear and excessive heat,” Huang adds. “These starches resist granular disruption and prevent over-expansion. They will provide extruded cereals with textural variance ranging from soft crispiness to hard crunchiness.”

Specialty starches for cereal can be either corn- or tapioca-based. “Tapioca starches have a bland flavor and work best in non-corn-based cereals that are highly flavorful,” says Huang. “Corn-based starches complement the natural corn taste in cereals made with corn flour.”

Starch can improve granola, too. Consumers typically prefer more clusters rather than loose ingredients, with the latter a sign of the product being old, of poor quality or abused during distribution. “Granola cereals are typically a mixture of oats, sweetener, fruits, nuts and some fat. When starch is added with the other dry ingredients, it effectively binds granola, creating desirable clusters,” Huang concludes. “With whole-grain, biscuit-style cereal, specialty starches act as a binder and processing aid to form the web of shredded grains.”

Cereals are evolving with consumer lifestyles and nutritional needs. It’s a new time for cereal, and it’s not just for breakfast anymore.

Donna Berry, president of Chicago-based Dairy & Food Communications, Inc., a network of professionals in business-to-business technical and trade communications, has been writing on product development and marketing for nine years. Prior to that, she worked for Kraft Foods in the natural-cheese division. Donna has a B.S. in food science from the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. She can be reached at

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