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Breakfast Cereal, Kid-StyleBreakfast Cereal, Kid-Style

June 1, 1999

21 Min Read
Breakfast Cereal, Kid-Style

Food Product Design

Breakfast Cereal, Kid-Style
June 1999 -- Design Elements

By: Elizabeth Mannie
Contributing Editor

  Placing a bowl of breakfast cereal in front of the kids in the morning is as American as apple pie. In fact, cereal was rated fourth in a list of the top 100 American foods as published in "Best Foods of the Century," a 1998 article in the Boulder Daily Camera. Breakfast cereals are indeed one of the most important sources of vitamins and other nutrients for children, and they constitute an important category for food designers and manufacturers as well. Boxes in the basket  The shelves are jammed with cereals that play to the parents who buy the cereals and the children who eat - or refuse to eat - them. This provides manufacturers with a wide range of design options.   The back-to-basics trend involves many areas of food, including breakfast - comfort foods have their place in the cereal bowl, too. There's two extremes to this pendulum - the wholesome, low-fat, high-fiber and nutrient-fortified cereal type usually appealing to adults, and, at the other end, the totally indulgent, high-sugar, brightly colored cereals usually appealing to kids.   There are the moms and dads who want to feed their kids nutritious foods that contribute to healthy growth and development, but without the fights that ensue over eating enough vegetables. Fortified breakfast cereal may not have all of the nutritional benefits of five to nine servings of fruits and vegetables, but it contributes to increased nutrients in a lot of children's diets.   "Breakfast cereals are well-suited for nutrient fortification, which is where two great opportunities for manufacturers lie," states Paul Paslaski, senior marketing manager for Roche Vitamins, Inc., Parsippany, NJ. "Generation X, now 25 through 34 years of age and becoming parents, is the market segment which consumes more fortified foods than any other group per capita. Generation Y, under 18 years of age, is a larger group than the baby boomers and still growing, where the baby boomers are starting to die. With the baby boomers' huge capacity to drive change in every industry over the years, imagine the potential influence of this up-and-coming Generation Y."   Kids like eating breakfast cereal because it has appealing flavors and textures, and it's fun. Cereal comes in all shapes, colors and sizes, and is fashioned after favorite cartoons and desserts. For instance, in past years the market has been introduced to My Little Pony cereal, Fruity Pebbles®, Urkel-Os and such popular cereals as Cinnamon Mini Buns, Chocolate Cookie Crisp and Oreo O's. Cereals have popped up looking like mini waffles and banana nut bread. Another marketing trend in breakfast cereals is the seasonal or holiday products. Also, special-edition products target movie fans with products such as Jurassic Park Crunch.   The RTE cereal market also extends to more than just breakfast. Snacks for kids often include cereal that is eaten plain out of the box, or that is made into some type of dessert bar. Any number of cereal packages display recipes for desserts and snacks using their contents. Many of these recipes have become classic traditions in households that use them, and some companies have even begun producing the snack recipes as products themselves. Rice Krispies Treats and Chex® Party Mix are prime examples. In addition to snacks and desserts, crumbled cereal often tops casseroles or coats fried foods.   Tony the Tiger, Cap'n Crunch, Lucky the Leprechaun, the Silly Rabbit and others try to convince children that their cereal is best. These icons also attract adults who grew up with the characters, and may still be hooked on their favorite childhood cereals. But today's consumers are also interested in good deals - thus, enter the "value cereal."   Since the dawn of value cereals, such as the Malt-O-Meal bags and many private labels, the cereal characters may not be the money-makers they once were. A source from Malt-O-Meal says that while their biggest challenge has been to differentiate from the big brands, their philosophy (ironically) has been to emulate and not to innovate. This philosophy keeps the brand names at somewhat of a loss as to how to grab market share once again. Since 1996, in attempts to decrease the portion of the bowl taken by lower-priced alternatives, the big three have been offering deep discounts and coupons on specific products, while cutting some of their television advertising. And so the cycle continues.   These cereal-price fluctuations can confuse consumers who may no longer recognize a value cereal. Because of decreasing prices, cereals are becoming more like commodities. There's a move by consumers to pay only for the contents of the package and not the advertising. Of course, some packaging differences exist as well. One inconvenience may be the use of a bag instead of a box. Once opened, these can spill easily and are difficult to store. Malt-O-Meal solves that problem with the resealable bag, a product that is now starting to appear on store shelves. In-grained ingredients  Made from corn, wheat, oats or rice, and in about that order of popularity, RTE cereals come in flaked, puffed, shredded, extruded and several related forms.   Cereal flakes were the first form of mass-produced, ready-to-eat cereals. The flake-making process is generally simple, and results in a well-cooked product with acceptable flavor. The process involves cleaning the grain, which is usually corn or wheat, followed by milling to break the whole grain into pieces one-third to one-half the original size of the kernel. The pieces are then mixed with other ingredients and steamed under pressure for two hours or longer. The steamed mass can then be broken into its original sizes and partially dried. The dried pieces are flaked between steel rolls, then dried further and toasted to the desired end flavor and color. More recently, extrusion has replaced the steaming step. Extrusion forms pellets into uniform sizes instead of the more random-sized broken pieces traditionally fed into the rollers.   Puffed cereals result from the capability of wheat and rice grains and a variety of cereal-based doughs to expand to several times their original volumes under certain conditions. Expansion happens when water inside the grain or dough rapidly undergoes transition from liquid to vapor (steam). Several methods exist for producing puffed cereals, but each results in a delicately structured, brittle piece of breakfast cereal.   In gun-puffing, wheat grains are heated under pressure to temperatures well above 100°C. Immediate pressure release causes the super-heated moisture in the kernels to flash off as steam. The starch gelatinizes, and the kernel expands, dries and sets. Oven-puffing is similar to gun-puffing in that it also utilizes intense heating of internal kernel moisture, but only uses atmospheric pressure. The resulting product is similar to a gun-puffed product, but with slightly less volume.   Extrusion cooking is the most modern technology for breakfast-cereal production. This process applies heat, shear and pressure to a dough before forcing it through a die into atmospheric temperature and pressure. The immediate vaporization of internal moisture expands and sets the product. Extrusion cooking is the most versatile method of the three mentioned in terms of shapes, sizes and possible formulations.   Shredded breakfast cereals are made mainly from whole-wheat grains, but companies also make some rice- and corn-based shredded products. The cleaned grain is boiled at atmospheric pressure until tender. A tempering process then allows the moisture in the grains to equilibrate before being shredded between two steel rolls. One roll is flat and one is corrugated to form the small strands that are layered and then cut into full or bite-sized pieces.   After these initial processes, many cereals are dipped into a slurry of sugar water and flavoring. However, in some cases, the sugar, flavoring and nutrients are added in with the base. Upping the nutrient ante  Breakfast cereals are well-suited for fortification because children and adults alike consume them in quantities that make significant contributions to their diets. Another factor considered in fortifying foods is whether nutrients are stable under the common storage conditions of the food; again a characteristic met by cereal-grain products. In addition, fortification is not expensive. In many cases it can cost only about a penny per serving to supply these nutrients.   Recent studies have shown that a large percentage of children in the United States do not get the recommended daily amount of iron, calcium or zinc. Fortified RTE cereals contribute a significant amount of the vitamins and minerals they do get in their diets. These two facts provide an opportunity for breakfast-cereal manufacturers to contribute to the good health of children. "Cereal manufacturers want to contribute a good amount of nutrients to consumers' diets but we do not want our products to become a vitamin pill," says a Malt-O-Meal Company source.   To most breakfast cereal companies, nutrient fortification is old-hat. New-product development can be tricky though, because each vitamin needs to be added at higher levels than indicated on the label to compensate for losses during processing and storage. This is typically referred to as overage. However, processors need to meet labeling requirements without adding too much extra, which would incur excess costs. Shelf-life studies and quality-assurance tests have been conducted over the years to aid manufacturers in determining the amounts of overage required for each vitamin, in each type of cereal system.   The variety of available nutrient forms further complicates fortification. Some forms have higher bioavailability than others. This depends on several factors. "Bioavailability of nutrients is a challenging topic because there are many considerations. For example, the iron in a cereal is more available when being consumed with orange juice. This is because vitamin C in the juice aids iron absorption," says Leonard E. Johnson, Ph.D., technical head of the food industry unit at Roche Vitamins, Inc.   Ingredient interactions can occur with nutrients in cereal systems, although this is not a frequent problem. Most breakfast cereals only contain around 3% moisture, which is low enough to prevent any problem reactions. However, with exposure to heat and air, some oxidation reactions can occur. In cereals containing fat, lipid oxidation can cause off- or rancid flavors, limiting shelf life.   Breakfast-cereal manufacturers sometimes use enriched flours to which the vitamins folate, thiamin, riboflavin and niacin, and the mineral iron have been added. Adding these nutrients puts back those lost during processing, and increases consumer intake of the fortifying nutrients. However, many cereals start with the whole grain, whether wheat, corn, rice or oats, and it is processed specifically for that product. In these cases, manufacturers choose to fortify products with any number of vitamins or minerals to provide label statements that appeal to nutrition-minded parents.   Nutrients commonly added to cereals include the B vitamins, iron, folate and, more and more often, calcium. Vitamins A and E are fat-soluble vitamins that are now also of interest, especially for teens who have substantially reduced their fat intakes. Vitamin C is added to cereals in some cases, but ascorbic acid is not particularly stable in cereals that contain fruits. Fruits raise the water activity (aw) of the cereal, which promotes vitamin C loss.   Calcium is finding its way into cereal bowls not only through milk, but also through newly developed calcium-enriched cereal formulas. "Calcium promotion has been emphasized for the past five years, but the fact is that most Americans aren't getting enough, even with the increased awareness," says Ralph Knights, Ph.D., manager of development at New Zealand Milk Products North America, Santa Rosa, CA. This is particularly critical for children who require calcium for bone development and may have switched from a glass of milk at mealtime to other beverages. The current Daily Value for calcium established by the FDA is 1,000 mg/day for children over the age of four years. The Institute of Medicine has recommended that this figure be increased to 1,300 mg/day for children between the ages of nine and eighteen.   Calcium comes in many different forms with differing characteristics, especially in terms of calcium content, solubility and bioavailability. Often manufacturers add calcium salts such as calcium carbonate, calcium lactate and calcium phosphate. Another alternative is to use high calcium milk protein powders, which have been developed to contain up to 15.0% calcium, as opposed to the 2.5% calcium levels of traditional milk proteins.   "These high calcium milk proteins have the functionality of regular milk proteins, and yet carry a calcium supplement that is innocuous and won't interfere. These powders can be incorporated into a mixture that will eventually be extruded, and can also be used in cereal coatings," Knights says. "Traditionally cereals have provided about 50 to 60 mg of calcium per serving. Ideally, cereals' calcium content would be boosted so that it would provide 20% of the RDA (200 mg per serving) on its own," he continues.   Infants and toddlers represent one important segment of the population that can benefit greatly from calcium fortification. "Infant formulas and cereals are probably even more important to supplement," observes Knights, "because these foods are the only things that a baby gets. Even when they progress to semi-solid food, the number of foods they are getting is still very limited, so whatever they eat should be supplemented with nutrients."   In order to make the claim that a cereal is a "good" source or that it "contains" or "provides" a certain vitamin or mineral, the Code of Federal Regulations states that the food must supply at least 10% of the recommended daily value of that nutrient. Many cereals now supply more than 10% of certain nutrients. In order to claim "high in," "rich in" or "excellent source of" certain nutrients, the food must supply at least 20% of the recommended daily value. Whichever variety of nutrients the cereal contains, the label can then state that the product supplies "x" number of essential vitamins and/or minerals if it meets the 10% rule. Some cereals even provide 100% of the daily value of certain nutrients.   A trend is growing to supply increased nutrients through breakfast cereals. For example, Kellogg Co., Battle Creek, MI, has recently launched their "K-Sentials" for growth and development campaign to inform consumers that certain of their products are enhanced with calcium or B vitamins. The company is now fortifying four of their popular children's cereals with iron, zinc and now calcium, and other children's cereals are fortified with B vitamins. Adding fun and function  Kids' cereals often contain sweeteners; nuts; fruits; flavoring and coloring ingredients; nutrients; and a small amount of additives used as shelf life preservatives, texture improvers or production aids. Some cereals come in every color of the rainbow, so color ingredients are required - either FD&C dyes, or "natural" colors such as annatto, turmeric or caramel color.   While concern over food additives can be an issue, those who buy heavily sugared cereals may not be bothered by other additives, or they may not even be the ones reading the labels to find out which additives are present. Demand for "clean-labeled" cereals with whole grains and healthful-sounding ingredients is rising, but not at the expense of the demand for high-sugar, colorful children's cereal.   Older children or parents with an eye for improved nutrition might be tempted by an "all-natural" label. Ingredients that the healthy crowd may key into include whole grains, oat flour, fiber or bran, corn flour, nuts and real fruit pieces, as found in granola and similar type cereals. Many granola cereals are sold in the United States as "natural," and are not treated with anti-oxidants, nor do they contain artificial flavors or colors. Also important to these consumers are low levels of sugar, especially "processed" sugar. Products may contain alternative sweeteners such as honey or molasses, but formulators must be aware of hygroscopicity issues with many sweeteners that may result in soggy cereal without adequate packaging.   Children typically like sweet, highly flavored products. "The most popular flavor ingredients used in kids' cereals are chocolates and fruit flavors," says Linda Lakind, marketing manager at Bush Boake Allen, Montvale, NJ. She says that vanilla and brown sugar flavors are also used in coating cereals that may already have fruit or other flavors. The coating adds even more flavor and sweetness.   Fortification of vitamins and minerals can sometimes negatively alter the flavor of the product. This is not always the case, because nutrients are added at very low concentrations. But certain vitamins, such as riboflavin, can contribute a bitter flavor to a cereal. Means to mask flavor problems caused by nutrient fortification include using encapsulated nutrients and/or adding sugar or flavoring ingredients. In blander-tasting cereals with less sugar and flavorings in their formulas, some bitter nutrient flavors can be harder to disguise.   Marshmallows have popped up in a variety of children's cereals in every color and shape imaginable. Kids like their taste and texture, and are sometimes even known to eat all the marshmallows out of the box, leaving only the cereal pieces for the next person who comes along. Marshmallow inclusions are usually vanilla flavored and brightly or pastel colored. Flavor can be enhanced using other ingredients as well. Post has been promoting their "Post Select" line, a group of cereals using ingredients such as pecans and cranberries in cereals fashioned after comfort foods such as banana nut bread. These fruit and nut ingredients add flavor and texture. Dried fruits, including raisins, apples, cranberries and others, contribute sweetness and chewiness, along with a good label reputation and source of nutrients.
  Nuts are available in many forms. The manner in which nuts are processed can determine their application in cereals. For example, sliced almonds contribute a milder flavor and more understated texture than roasted whole almonds. Given the wide assortment of almond ingredient types, a wide variety of flavors and textures are possible. Almonds and other nuts are usually available in halves, wholes, slices, pieces, ground, pastes, roasted, and sugar- or honey-coated forms, and the possibilities for their use are endless. Allergen issues  It is estimated that up to 5% of the population has serious allergies to foods. The top eight offenders are eggs, cow milk, peanuts, tree nuts, soy, wheat, fish and shellfish. Other allergens exist as well, such as cereal grains, beans and fruits, but the majority of severe reactions come from the top eight. Symptoms of food allergies can range from mild to severe and life-threatening. Reactions can be triggered by amounts as small as parts per million in some cases. Allergens are big issues for breakfast cereal producers because many of their common ingredients fall into this category.   Grain ingredients can become easily contaminated with other grains through field equipment, transportation vehicles and storage facilities. In a manufacturing plant that uses many ingredients, cross-contamination of allergens into non-allergen-containing foods is a concern. One way to prevent cross-contamination is manufacturing allergen-containing products in separate facilities from other products. This is often not practical, so producers might use separate equipment for each type of product. However, this still leaves the possibility of dust contamination. If using separate equipment is not possible in a facility, manufacturers must rely on thorough equipment clean-outs between runs. To reduce risk, some manufacturers only produce allergen-containing products at the end of a shift. It's a bowl's life  Another inconvenience of breakfast cereals that has annoyed consumers and challenged scientists since the dawn of the cereal saga is that cereal gets soggy in milk. Some last longer than others, but the "soggies" have happened to all of us at one time or another when we pour the milk too soon. For example, Sonny or Sally finally come to the table, but the cereal ends up going down the drain because it has been sitting just too long. Bowl life of breakfast cereal is a complex puzzle with many causes and effects.   Ted Labuza, Ph.D., professor of food science at the University of Minnesota, St. Paul, along with his graduate and undergraduate students, has studied the problem of cereal bowl life for many years. Labuza has tried several approaches to solving the problem, but each product, and therefore, each solution, is unique.   One possibility for improving cereal bowl life is formulating with raw ingredients that have larger molecular weights, such as low-DE corn starches. Labuza states that: "Increasing the molecular weight of the raw materials in turn increases the glass transition temperature (Tg) of the cereal." The Tg of a material is the temperature (at any given moisture content) that the material will change from a glassy consistency to that of a rubbery consistency. This is similar to what happens when cereal absorbs moisture - it goes from a crunchy to a soggy consistency. When eating cereal in milk at room temperature, or depending upon the temperature of the milk, this glass transition occurs when the cereal has picked up a certain amount of moisture. But when using higher-molecular-weight components in the cereal, the glass transition occurs at a higher moisture content, which it reaches after a longer period of time in milk.   The type of starch can influence bowl life. Corn starches can be either gelatinized or retrograded. Pregelatinized starches pick up moisture much more quickly than retrograded starches or those with an increased number of crystalline zones. With a higher amount of crystallinity, according to Labuza, "there is a 20° to 30°C increase in Tg" at a given moisture content. This means that at room temperature, the cereal containing retrograded starch requires more milk to become soggy, and stays crunchy in milk longer than the cereal containing gelatinized starch.   Differences in protein molecular weights can have the much the same effect on cereal sogginess. The larger the protein molecule in the cereal, the longer the cereal can technically stay crunchy in milk. Manufacturers can create different-sized protein molecules by using the enzyme transglutaminase, which causes protein agglomeration.   The challenge encountered when trying to increase bowl life with larger-molecular-weight materials is that they are not sweet-tasting. Sugar in the formula is great for flavor, but with increased concentrations of sugar, the Tg will decrease, and the cereal tends to have a shorter bowl life in milk.   Another approach to lengthening cereal bowl life is establishing a barrier around the cereal, keeping the milk from reaching the inner core of the dried cereal. Modifications of some existing technologies might have application in this area.   A barrier of fat around cereal helps prevent moisture from entering the cereal, somewhat like the function of a cell membrane. At first thought this does not sound appetizing, but think of pure chocolate. A chocolate barrier works nicely for coating cookies dipped into milk or coffee, so cereal could be next.   It may be possible to invent a barrier using cold-water-soluble gums. When these gums dissolve, they would increase the viscosity of the milk, slowing the flow rate of the milk into the cereal. The downside to this type of barrier would be the possibly slimy surface texture of the cereal. But since slime has a certain appeal to the grade-school set, marketing might turn this into an advantage. Processing for longer crunch  Cereal pieces with relatively small pore sizes tend to take up moisture from the milk more slowly than those with larger pore sizes. "Accomplishing smaller pore sizes may be a matter of changing processing parameters, but this really has not been researched," adds Labuza. But in doing so, a manufacturer can also go too far, creating a cereal with pore sizes that are too small and that make the cereal hard instead of crunchy.   Drying cereal to a very low moisture content may increase bowl life, but this might promote an increased rate of lipid oxidation, shortening the shelf life and causing off-flavors in the cereal. Why would a low moisture content cause increased rates of lipid oxidation? Labuza found that it may be because, at a moisture content below the so-called BET monolayer, metal oxidation catalysts such as iron might be more active when not hydrated. This would cause them to catalyze lipid oxidation at faster rates.   The moisture content at which the catalysts are not hydrated is called the monolayer. The monolayer can be easily predicted from the shape of the moisture sorption isotherm (moisture content vs. relative humidity). Above the monolayer, reactions that take place in an aqueous phase begin occurring, for example, non-enzymatic browning or loss of vitamin C.   Whether it's keeping the snap in the cereal, or appealing to the varied needs of children and the parents who buy the products, there's room for innovation in kids' cereal design. Considering that most grocery stores devote one entire aisle to RTE cereals, there is a lot of room for new and improved products. While it may be the colorful characters that first catch a child's eye, it's what's in the box that keeps them pouring the cereal into the bowl. Elizabeth Mannie is a freelance food writer with over 20 years experience in the food industry. She holds bachelor's and master's degrees in food science, and has worked as a food chemist for the past two years. Previously, she worked extensively in the culinary and business fields.Back to top

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