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Building a Better Breakfast Cereal

Building a Better
Breakfast Cereal

April 1998 -- Cover Story

By: Lynn A. Kuntz
Editor

  From childhood, we're bombarded with the message: "Breakfast is the most important meal of the day." But how many of us heed that advice? In these hectic times, we're lucky if we grab a cup of coffee as we rush out the door each morning. But cereal manufacturers keep trying to entice us to linger over the breakfast table by offering selections that not only taste good, but are good for you.

  Last year, the United States held the largest share of the cereal market, worth an estimated $10 billion, according to Euromonitor. The attention paid to cereal-box personalities and advertising is enormous, but so is what's inside the box. This is particularly true when incorporating recent health issues into the design.

  To build a better breakfast cereal, food technologists find themselves challenged with designing nutritious, highly palatable products at a price consumers can afford. No matter how nutritious the cereal, if it doesn't taste good, most consumers won't eat it. "In the development of healthy cereals, you have to meet certain minimum requirements for taste and texture," says Steve Ink, Ph.D., director of nutrition research, The Quaker Oats Co., Barrington, IL. "In the all-family and kids cereal categories, you have very little trade-off with taste and texture in order to have a successful product. If your cereal is geared toward more mature consumers, then there's a little bit more latitude for offering some taste and texture alternatives."

Grainy focus

  Wheat, corn, rice, oats and barley are the major grains used in breakfast cereals. Although many breakfast cereals contain refined grains and sugars, they are fortified with vitamins and minerals. Some question the nutritional value of fortified sugary cereals. In its March Nutrition Action Health Letter, the Center for Science in the Public Interest states: "...Added vitamins don't make a refined or sweetened cereal healthier than an unfortified, whole-grain one."

  Some might debate that statement, but nutrition experts agree that whole grains offer nutrients, trace minerals and fiber that help protect against cancer, heart disease and diabetes. "Food manufacturers can start by using the whole grain in designing breakfast cereals," says Judi Adams, R.D., president, Wheat Foods Council, Englewood, CO.

  Cereal grains are natural sources of vitamin B6, folic acid, pantothenic acid and zinc. Grains also provide good sources of iron, magnesium and copper. The oils of the embryos of cereal grains are rich in vitamin E. Cereal lipids are relatively rich in linoleic acid, an essential fatty acid. If the protein is protected from damage during processing, it can positively impact the diet, although grains typically lack sufficient levels of the essential amino acid, lysine.

  Nutrition experts recommend 20 to 35 grams of fiber a day from whole grains, fruits and vegetables. Studies have shown that soluble and insoluble fiber are dietary necessities. Soluble fiber can lower blood cholesterol, while insoluble fiber helps prevent constipation, diverticulosis, and possibly colon cancer and diabetes. Most whole-grain cereals contain at least 4 grams of fiber per serving. The fiber levels in common whole grains range from approximately 2% (corn) up to 11% (buckwheat).

Read all about it

  Although cereal manufacturers continue developing new breakfast cereals, one new angle has been to focus on traditional ingredients with newfound health benefits, such as oats and psyllium. The gold ring is to have FDA-sanctioned health benefits associated with these ingredients approved for labeling. Recently, some products have achieved this status, while others haven't been as lucky:

  Oats. The spotlight continues to shine on oats as a heart-healthy ingredient. In January 1997, FDA approved labeling linking oats and good health, a claim supported by more than 30 years of scientific research on the effect of oatmeal on lowering cholesterol.

  To qualify for the claim, products must contain 0.75 gram or more of soluble oat fiber (beta-glucan) per serving. This is 25% of the daily 3 gram amount scientific studies have shown helps consumers lower their cholesterol levels. Consumers would need to eat 1 1/2 cups of cooked (or 3/4 cup uncooked) oatmeal to reach the 3 gram target.

  General Mills' Cheerios breakfast cereal is effective for reducing the risk of heart disease and for lowering cholesterol, according to a study conducted by the University of Minnesota Heart Disease Prevention Clinic, and published in the January/February 1998 Nutrition in Clinical Care. Eating 1.5 oz. of oat-based Cheerios twice daily lowered cholesterol levels of study participants by an average of 3.8%. Some participants found their cholesterol lowered by as much as 18%.

  Besides its ability to lower cholesterol, emerging research suggests that eating oatmeal produces other health benefits. Because oatmeal is sodium-free, it can play a role in reduced-sodium diets for blood-pressure reduction. Oatmeal also may play a role in appetite control. The soluble fiber in oatmeal helps keep people full longer. This may reduce mid-morning hunger and the snacking urge.

  Psyllium. In mid-February of this year, following on the heels of oat-related health claims, FDA approved a similar heart health-related claim about soluble fiber from psyllium seed husk. FDA gave the green light to Kellogg Company and other cereal manufacturers to inform consumers that eating a diet with psyllium-containing foods might help reduce the risk of heart disease.

  FDA's approval came in response to a petition submitted by Kellogg in June 1996. Independent research conducted during the past 30 years shows that eating four servings of foods daily containing at least 1.7 grams of soluble fiber from psyllium husk, as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol, reduces total cholesterol by about 5%, on average. It also lowers low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol by about 9% in individuals with elevated cholesterol levels. The cholesterol-lowering effect translates to a 15% to 20% decrease in heart-disease risk in the population.

  Kellogg introduced their psyllium-containing cereal, Kellogg's All-Bran® Bran Buds®, in 1991. Besides psyllium, the cereal also contains wheat-bran fiber. "You would need to eat 2 1/2 servings of our Bran Buds, or a little less than a cup, to get the benefit from psyllium according to the health claim," says Anthony Hebron, spokesman, Kellogg Company, Battle Creek, MI.

  Psyllium husk is extracted by crushing the hulls of psyllium seeds, which come from the Plantago plant, a type of plantain grown mainly in India. This ingredient is able to absorb many times its weight in water, swelling to a mucilaginous mass.

  Americans may be most familiar with psyllium-husk fiber in laxative products. Psyllium husk also is used as a minor stabilizer in ice cream and soups.

  Wheat bran. In April 1997, Kellogg filed a petition asking FDA to approve a claim linking wheat bran to reduced colon-cancer risk. FDA denied the petition. "We had over 100 studies conducted over 25 years in this submission, but the FDA needs further clinical studies," Hebron says. The benefits of wheat bran can be obtained by consuming either three tablespoons of Kellogg's All Bran cereal or a 1/2 cup of Kellogg's Raisin Bran cereal, company officials say.

  With the continuing advances of science, more traditional cereals will likely be viewed as "good for you." Others might have to revise their formulations - either adding or subtracting ingredients, or adjusting levels - to keep up with emerging health studies.

Grain-ola

  Manufacturers can add value to products by using specialty grains, which can add new textures, flavors and colors, and provide a more healthful image. Consumers who eat several servings of grains daily can enjoy variety as well as convenience.

  Bulgur wheat is a nutritious grain with a nut-like flavor that is a dietary staple in Middle Eastern countries. In the United States, it is gaining popularity in vegetarian entres, salads and side dishes. With its high fiber and carbohydrate content, low-fat Bulgur wheat fits well with the Mediterranean diet.

  Although bulgur wheat can be cooked into a nutritious hot breakfast cereal, it's not that popular a breakfast item in this country. As a hot cereal, bulgur produces a product with more particle-size definition, similar to oatmeal. "We need more education about specialty grains like bulgur wheat," says Michael Orlando, president, Sunnyland Mills, Fresno, CA. "Not many people know about bulgur in the U.S. Last year, we successfully made a puffed-bulgur product that has a nutty character, and is very nutritious."

  Bulgur wheat is whole wheat steamed to partially cook and gelatinize the starch, before being dried, cracked and sifted. The term "bulgur" refers to this process. "During the cooking process, as the grains begin to hydrate, many of the nutrients migrate from the outer bran layer into the inside of the kernel," Orlando explains. "The starch granules open during cooking, then partially close during the drying process. After this parboiling, we go through a grinding process, where we crack the grain into particles. We sift it and separate it into various particle sizes for different applications. It's important to have very uniform particle sizes so the grains cook at an even rate."

  Sunnyland Mills produces four types of premium traditional bulgur wheat, ranging from fine to extra coarse particle sizes. They also offer organically certified bulgur wheat in fine and coarse grinds.

  "Several aspects of our processing makes our bulgur wheat unique," Orlando says. "Our product is triple-cleaned. We use white wheat, which has little tannic acid. Bulgur wheat made from red wheat has a slightly bitter flavor from the tannic acid, and takes longer to cook. White wheat makes the best bulgur. It's not only softer, so that it hydrates at a more even rate, but it doesn't have the off-flavors associated with tannins in red wheat."

  Besides plenty of carbohydrates, a 40-gram serving of bulgur wheat contains 5 grams of dietary fiber (insoluble), and 5 grams of protein.

  Barley represents another grain gaining in popularity due to its health benefits. Although oats have received extensive press on their soluble fiber (beta-glucan) content and effect in lowering serum cholesterol, barley also has beta-glucans effective in this respect. Waxy hull-less barley has 6% to 9% soluble fiber, while hulled barley has 2.5% to 4%. Barley also contains insoluble fiber.

  Barley can be used in hot and cold cereals, and is often used in combination with other grains. Various forms of barley can be used in cereals - hulled, pearled, cut or cracked, grits or meal - and can be extruded into various shapes. In hot cereals, quick flakes cook up within five minutes because of their small particle size. In granola or muesli-style cereals, whole kernels, rolled flakes, or cut and rolled flakes can be used.

  "Other grains are gaining in popularity, such as triticale, spelt, kamut(r) and even flax," says Rebecca Krueger, Ph.D., technical services director at Innovative Grain Technologies (IGT), Lincoln, NE.

  Flaxseed. This can be added as nuggets to cereals to provide a crunchy texture. Flaxseed, also called linseed, is rich in omega-3 (linolenic) and omega-6 (linoleic) fatty acids. In fact, 57% of flax's fat is omega-3, more than any other plant-derived oil. Flaxseed also contains all eight essential amino acids and twice the total dietary fiber of oat bran. Researchers have found that a diet rich in flaxseed lowers serum cholesterol and triglyceride levels significantly.

  IGT manufacturers a whole flax for RTE cereals. "It is used in health-type cereals," Krueger says. "Although it is high in oil (38%) it's very nutritious. Right now, it seems to appeal to the health-food sector. Cooking improves the taste of flax - after roasting, it takes on a nutty taste." Whole flax also contains about 21% protein and 25% dietary fiber.

  Sprouted grains. "The ancient technology of sprouting grains is coming to the forefront," says Robert Serrano, vice president of technical operations, Grain Millers, Inc., Eugene, OR. Wheat ingredients based on controlled malting and kilning (roasting) technology can help food product developers design unique, healthful cereals. Sprouted and kilned wheat flakes, wheat nuggets, meals and flours also can help manufacturers save money by reducing the amount of sweetener used when formulating granola, muesli and other RTE cereals. The rich, malted flavor notes and toasted color notes can enhance RTE cereal formulations by using meals and flours at amounts between 2% to 6%, based on total weight.

  "Through the sprouting of grain, nutrients become more bioavailable and they are easier to digest," Serrano says. Sprouted and kilned wheat products can be used in formulating cereals for those with special nutritional needs, including infants, the elderly and athletes. "Good-tasting germinated cereal grains will play a significant role in the development of functional foods for the next century."

  Rice extract. Food product designers are always seeking label-friendly ingredients. In the cereal industry, processing can require the use of oils, mono- and diglycerides, gums or lecithin to facilitate extrusion. An ingredient extracted from rice bran can help manufacturers reduce downtime during extrusion by reducing stickiness and die-plugging. Corn and crisped rice, for example, can be difficult to extrude.

  "Our ingredient can be labeled as 'rice extract,' when it is used as an ingredient," says Steve Peirce, president, Ribus, Inc., St. Louis. "If it is used as processing aid, no label is required. The rice extract has everything rice bran has in it, except the fiber.

  "Rice bran has B vitamins, antioxidants, trace minerals and other nutrients," he explains. "Although fiber is removed from the functional ingredient initially, we can customize the amount of fiber and nutrients to suit a specific application.

  "If you are doing a honeycomb-shaped cereal or something that has a definite shape, we can reduce the bulk density, which makes it puff larger. However, we can also give it a more definite shape as we reduce the bulk density. A box of cereal looks fuller, and is actually fuller, although you've got the same amount of weight in it. The rice extract can be used at 0.5% as a processing aid. As an ingredient, its use ranges from 1% to 1.5% on a dry-weight basis."

Nutritious maximus

  Processing can destroy valuable nutrients in cereals. "In order to maximize nutrients, our process uses the whole grain," Krueger says. However, the highly unsaturated fat, which is located in the endosperm of grains, has a tendency toward rancidity. "In our processing of grains, we inactivate the lipase enzymes that could cause rancidity. Denaturing the enzymes helps extend shelf life." Some manufacturers separate the various parts of the grain to avoid rancidity, and then recombine them after removing some, or all, fat.

  Roasting cereal grains helps impart a better flavor. Roasted flavors are popular in cereals and snacks and other foods. "We use a dry-roasting process to maximize the nutrients," Krueger says. "Our process involves heating only for short periods of time. Also, our process effectively lowers the microbial load of our raw materials." IGT uses a patented infrared process to reduce microbes and lower enzyme activity in grains.

A cornucopia of health

  In addition to the old standbys, new healthful ingredients also should be considered for cereal formulation. For example, inulin and oligofructose have been tested in cereals. They are reported to improve extruded products and increase cereal bowl life. In the gut, these ingredients promote the growth of beneficial bacteria.

  Traditional items - such as nuts, fruit bits and pieces, and nuggets made from various grains - can add visual and health appeal to breakfast cereals. These can add fiber, vitamins and minerals, pushing up the nutritional content without increasing the level of fortification blends.

  Dried fruits can supply additional nutritional enhancement in the form of phytochemicals. Although the science is still in its infancy, many researchers have found links between health benefits and substances occurring in fruits at minute levels. Some of these include: grape resveratrol and heart disease; blueberry anthocyanins and eyesight; and citrus bioflavonoids and vitamin C absorption enhancement.

  Nuts contribute fiber (approximately 5% to 11% of the nut) and protein (10% to 25% of the nut). They also can add vitamins B6 and E, iron and potassium. While they do contain significant fat levels, this doesn't mean they're inappropriate in a healthful product. First of all, the fat content of the total cereal can remain relatively low if the level of nuts doesn't rise too high. Since nuts are more expensive than grain ingredients, it's likely economic limitations would prevent companies from adding a high level of nuts, thereby preventing excessive fat levels in cereals. Secondly, the type of fat in most nuts - monounsaturated and polyunsaturated - may reduce blood cholesterol levels, and protect against heart disease. Walnuts have this effect, according to a study by Loma Linda University, Loma Linda, CA, published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1993.

Fiber

  As mentioned, fiber is an important dietary component. Recent studies show it may play a role in fighting several diseases.

  Cancer. Many studies show a link between lower fat and high fiber consumption and reduced incidence of colon cancer. One 1992 study conducted at Harvard Medical School found that men who consumed 12 grams of fiber a day were twice as likely to develop precancerous effects in the colon as men having a daily fiber intake of about 30 grams. Experts believe that insoluble fiber adds bulk to stool. This decreases the level of carcinogens and decreases the time spent in the digestive tract. Other studies have linked high fiber diets to the reduction of breast cancer, but this connection is still under debate.

  Diabetes. Soluble fiber slows carbohydrate digestion and absorption. This may help control blood sugar levels. A Harvard School of Public Health study, published in Feb. 1997 issue of The Journal of the American Medical Association, found that a high-sugar, low-fiber diet more than doubles women's risk of Type II (non-insulin-dependent) diabetes.

  Digestive disorders. Insoluble fiber aids digestion by adding bulk, and increasing gut transit time. This can help prevent constipation and may help reduce the risk of diverticulitis.

  Heart Disease. Soluble fiber binds to cholesterol in the gastrointestinal tract, which reduces blood cholesterol levels. Soluble fiber also may slow the body's production of cholesterol and make LDL particles larger and less dense. These larger particles may be less damaging than the smaller, denser ones.

  Obesity. Fiber provides bulk and reduces calories. Insoluble fiber is indigestible and generally considered to have no calories. Many types of soluble fiber contribute less than 4 calories per gram and inhibit fat absorption.

  Whole grains, fruits and nuts need not be the only source of fiber in a breakfast cereal. Addition of ingredients with significant fiber content might allow label claims of "good source of fiber" (at least 2.5 grams per serving) or "excellent source of fiber" (at least 5.0 grams of fiber).

  Ingredients that supply high levels of fiber include: pectins and many gums, cellulose, psyllium seed husk, oat hull fiber, citrus fiber, pea fiber, corn bran, and soy polysaccharide. The fiber content ranges from 60% to +90%, depending on the product used. In addition, certain lower-molecular-weight carbohydrates are not completely digested by humans. These include sugar alcohols, such as sorbitol and mannitol, polydextroses and fructooligosaccharides. However, if these materials do not analyze as dietary fiber by Association of Official Analytical Chemists methods, FDA requires they be labeled as "other carbohydrates" rather than dietary fiber.

  When choosing a fiber for incorporation into a breakfast cereal, several factors (in addition to fiber content) affect the outcome. These include: particle shape and size, flavor, appearance, water-binding ability as well as physical effects on the mixing and forming process, whether extrusion, flaking or moulding.

Starch strengths

  While fiber has been basking in the limelight of its good-for-you qualities, starch fails to gain similar press. Among the health-food crowd, it tends to be considered a processed ingredient, devoid of value. But this isn't true; starches can be used in the design of healthful cereals.

  Starch has been used in RTE cereals to increase bowl life. Once milk is added, cereals should be consumed fairly quickly to avoid sogginess. Applying a starch-based film reduces water absorption of the cereal piece, extending cereal bowl life. "High-amylose starches traditionally solve these types of problems," says David Huang, Ph.D., market manager, National Starch and Chemical Co., Bridgewater, NJ. "Specialty starches are also used to improve the texture. For example, modified starches are used in puffed, extruded products to achieve a more crispy texture, and avoid collapse of the puffed product after it exits the extruder." The type of starch used depends on the processing conditions.

  Fiber-fortified cereals generally exhibit poor expansion, resulting in a dense, hard mouthfeel. Expansion can be improved with the addition of a high-amylose starch. Consumers will be more likely to consume a high-fiber cereal with improved texture, flavor and appearance.

  So what are the nutritional advantages of starches? Cereal manufacturers have a variety of options for designing their newest healthful cereals.

  Starches can be used to replace sugar or fat in coatings to help adhere particulates such as fruit bits, fruit powders, flavorings or nut pieces to cereals and snacks. A specialty product derived from waxy corn starch can be used to perform this function in addition to increasing bowl life. "This starch acts as a glue when you spray it on cereal," Huang says. "It can either be used alone, or in combination with a topical sugar solution. We recommend a 25% to 30% solution to spray on cereals." In addition, the starch solution can be sprayed on either cold or hot. Manufacturers can list this ingredient as "corn syrup solids" on the label.

  The use of resistant starches also can benefit healthful-cereal manufacturers. "Resistant starch is considered to be a nutraceutical by some people," Huang says. "If analyzed using the AOAC method for fiber analysis, this starch reflects total dietary fiber." Resistant starch is not digested or absorbed in the stomach or small intestine. It is broken down through bacterial fermentation in the large intestine. "Resistant starch breaks down into short-chain fatty acids in the large intestine. This tends to lower the pH, which allows for more bacterial flora. It can also increase fecal bulk."

  Resistant starch adds to the insoluble fiber content of cereals. It can be used alone, or in combination with other types of fiber. Generally, making high-fiber extruded products is no easy task. "Unlike most types of fiber, resistant starches have low water-holding capacities," Huang says. "This facilitates processing, especially during extrusion." For example, white wheat fiber has about twice the water-holding capacity as resistant starch, and refined white-oat fiber has more than triple the water-holding capacity.

  "Resistant starch can improve the expansion, crispiness and firmness of cereals," Huang explains. "It also improves appearance, texture and eating quality of the finished product."

Raising the nutrient stakes

  Vitamins and minerals are lost during the grain-milling process, in which the hulls, germ and bran are almost completely removed. Since the 1940s, nutrients that are lost upon processing have been replaced by nutrient fortification. Manufacturers typically add between 10% to 100% of the daily value for various nutrients, with the majority added at 25% of the daily value.

  Nonetheless, fortifying breakfast cereals with vitamins and minerals presents various challenges to food product designers. Stability, flavor and assay are primary considerations. (For a more comprehensive look at vitamin fortification, see "Fortifying Breakfast Cereals," April 1994 Food Product Design). Packaging also plays a key role in protecting the nutrients in the finished products.

  Vitamin pre-mixes are typically used in cereal manufacturing. "Vitamins and minerals are best added to RTE cereals at different points in the process, depending upon the stability of the nutrient," says Audra Davies, director of product development, nutritional ingredients division, Watson Foods Co., Inc., West Haven, CT. The minerals and the more stable vitamins - such as niacin and riboflavin - are typically added to the basic formula mix. Heat-labile nutrients are typically sprayed on at the end of the manufacturing stage to ensure recovery and stability throughout the process, Davies says. Thiamine (vitamin B1), ascorbic acid (vitamin C), and vitamin A are extremely sensitive to heat degradation. Besides heat, other factors that can accelerate degradation of some vitamins include: exposure to light, oxygen, metal ions and enzymes.

  An effective antioxidant system of BHT or BHA can be included in the vitamin mix prepared by the supplier. Sucrose, a common oxygen barrier, should constitute at least 10% of the vitamin spray formula, and is generally used in the 15% to 25% range.

  Some manufacturers add overages to compensate for vitamin loss due to processing. The less stable vitamins A and C require overages of 50% or higher. Even the most stable vitamins require overages of 15% to minimize problems with the label claim.

  "We are working on microencapsulation technology to improve nutrient stability through extrusion processes to enable manufacturers to add all of the nutrients at one point," Davies explains. Microencapsulation can decrease problems of oxidation, heat sensitivity and reactivity with other ingredients. Many suppliers offer a range of microencapsulated ingredients such as vitamins, some minerals, and botanical extracts. Stabilized, free-flowing powders can be added at any production step.

  Previously, fortification's main role was viewed as preventing the effects of vitamin and mineral deficiencies. Now, evidence shows that nutrients offer other benefits. Recently, the focus has been on folic acid consumption among women and its role in preventing neural-tube defects in infants. The government recommends that all women of childbearing age consume 400 µg of folic acid daily. Beginning this year, FDA requires food processors to fortify grain products with folic acid. Cereals must contain 140 mg of folic acid per 100 grams of product. Folate consumption should be limited to 1,000 µg per day from all sources, according to FDA. Many manufacturers had been previously fortifying their cereals with folate, so the new law did not pose additional formulation challenges, according to one cereal manufacturer.

  Recent studies show that vitamin B6 and folic acid play a role in preventing heart disease and strokes.

  One study, published in the February edition of Circulation, the American Heart Association journal, indicates that these vitamins show up at lower levels in people with heart disease and stroke than in healthy people. Those with a B6 deficiency are almost twice as likely to suffer from the illness. However, some experts say the current recommended dietary allowances for folate and B6 require revision, because they are too low for heart-health benefits. The same researchers also measured homocysteine levels in the blood. Elevated levels of this amino acid have been linked to heart disease and stroke in previous studies. Folic acid and B vitamins can lower homocysteine levels.

  In another study, published in February's The Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers found that consuming high levels of folate and vitamin B6 can reduce women's risk of coronary heart disease (CHD). Women with high dietary intakes of folate from food or supplements, alone or together with vitamin B6, were at reduced risk of CHD. The results suggest that any increase in folate intake will reduce the risk of CHD, but at least 400 µg per day is necessary for maximum benefit.

  Last August, the Food and Nutrition Board of the National Academy of Sciences released new guidelines for the Recommended Dietary Allowances of key nutrients. They advise boosting the recommended calcium intake to at least 1,000 mg per day for adults to ensure optimal bone health (equal to three servings from the milk group).

Herbal essences

  During the last several years, herbal ingredients have appeared in various foods and beverages. Now, breakfast cereal has joined the list.

  The cereal-manufacturing giants have not yet taken the step to add herbal ingredients to their popular lines of breakfast products. But Golden Temple, Eugene, OR, which has made bulk granolas for about 25 years, recently introduced an herbal cereal line. "Peace Cereal" debuted in health-food stores last October. The cereal line contains organically grown grains and herbal ingredients, but no artificial ingredients. The formulation is based on Ayurvedic philosophy; the company believes food should be a source of health and healing.

  Each of the four cereals contains a specific herbal formula aimed at a certain health aspect. For example, the label on the Raspberry Ginger Crisp cereal proclaims, "herbal guardian cereal." The herbal blend includes ginger root, and extracts of echinacea, elderberry and amla fruit (which comes from India and contains a very high vitamin C concentration). This blend serves to boost the immune system. The other three cereals each target the brain, digestion and energy - three major areas of consumer concern.

  Designing nutritious herbal cereals is no small feat. The three major challenges are formulation, flavor and shelf stability, according to Guru Hari Khalsa, director, R&D. "Balancing the herbs for effect is a healing art, but it's also a science," Khalsa explains. "We've conducted worldwide research through the medical community and traditional herbalists."

  Many herbs are notoriously bitter-tasting. If the same amount of herbs typically found in supplements was put into cereals, the products would be extremely bitter. "We hide herb flavors behind natural flavors like maple or raspberry," Khalsa says. "You have to figure out which flavors blend well with the herbs. For example, green tea leaf and ginkgo leaf are extremely bitter. We hide that behind a vanilla flavor." The company adds herbs in the form of powders or natural extracts. The amounts of the components of each herb blend are listed in milligrams under the ingredients legend on each cereal box.

  Many cereal manufacturers add BHT to increase product shelf life. Golden Temple, however, adds no BHT or artificial ingredients. "By processing the cereals at low temperatures for short periods of time, and selecting proper packaging, we stabilize our cereals," Khalsa says, adding that the company is investigating the use of tocopherols in packaging. "The canola oil that we add actually coats and provides a barrier to oxidative rancidity. It helps us extend shelf life."

  To maximize herbal ingredient potency, the cereals are heat-processed, but only briefly. The herbal extract powders are mixed into the grain mixture and other dry ingredients prior to heating. Although the cereals are then heat-processed, the heating period is very brief to minimize nutrient losses. "When they are used in traditional healing systems, herbs are blended and cooked in with the foods for maximum benefit by the body," Khalsa says. "The body best assimilates herbs this way."

Sugar solutions

  Creating good-for-you cereals goes beyond vitamin and mineral fortification. Although most cereals are fortified, they may still contain substantial sugar levels. In many cereals, sugar represents 40% or more of the calories. Although sugar's supposed link to hyperactivity in children seems to have been refuted, the substance, especially in its refined form, doesn't immediately bring to mind the term "health food."

  "We've struggled with the whole sugar issue over the years," Ink says. "The questions of what constitutes a high amount of sugar, and what are the guidelines, are not entirely answered at this point. Experts around the country are still dealing with this."

  Nutrition-conscious consumers wonder how the American Heart Association (AHA) can put their Heart Check certification symbol and health claims on a box of cereal that has 14 grams of sugar per serving. "The AHA has received many comments about this type of situation," says Ink. "Is it really good for your heart? If you get too much sugar, your triglycerides tend to go up, you could potentially gain weight, and insulin levels are affected - all of these can have heart-health implications." The AHA is reviewing studies to create guidelines for sugar in food products, including RTE cereals. Several studies, including those at Harvard and Penn State, indicate that consuming whole grains can make a difference when it comes to sugar.

  "Unfortunately the data is not that precise yet," Ink says. "We don't have clear-cut parameters like we do with fiber (25 grams per day), cholesterol (less than 300 mg per day), and fat (no less than 30% of total calories). Right now, most experts would probably say sugar should be in the range of 10% to 20% of total calories."

  From another perspective, "consider that about 10% of your daily calories can appropriately come from sugar," writes Nancy Clark, M.S., R.D., in the Dec. 24, 1997, issue of The Physician and Sportsmedicine. "For the average, active adult, this means about 200 to 300 calories can come from sugar - or 50 to 75 grams of sugar. Another benefit to consider is that many of the presweetened cereals are fortified with B vitamins, calcium, fiber, iron and other nutrients. If the addition of sugar to a whole-grain cereal is what gets you to eat it, you are doing your body a favor by bypassing the popular low-sugar, but high-fat, breakfast alternatives, such as bagels with cream cheese, toast with butter, and fried eggs and bacon."

  Food product designers have other sweeteners from which to choose. Honey, crystallized evaporated cane juice, fruit-juice concentrates, and various syrups are gaining popularity with the health-food sector. However, in most cases, these ingredients contribute to the sugar content on the label.

  On the processing side, the hygroscopicity of many of the alternative sweeteners can throw up technical hurdles. Cereals using moisture-loving sweeteners, either internally or topically, can be more difficult to dry down to the moisture required for a characteristic crunch. They can make the cereal formulation stickier and difficult to process. And the cereals may have a shorter shelf life, especially after the package is opened by the consumer, as they pick up moisture from the environment.

  Sweeteners that contain reducing sugars, such as corn sweeteners, contribute to Maillard browning, so exacting temperature control during processing is a must. Otherwise, color and flavor development can stray from the target.

Beyond the bowl

  "Educating consumers, rather than simply advertising to them, could go a long way to really increase cereal consumption," states the 1997 Cereal Foods World's State of the Industry Report on breakfast cereals. The article cites a study commissioned by Archway Company, Battle Creek, MI, that showed that 99% of adults did not know how much soluble fiber to consume daily, and only 55% could correctly identify foods that were good fiber sources.

  Many nutrition-related groups, such as the American Dietetic Association, take the initiative to educate consumers regarding consuming a healthful breakfast. Food companies can do the same.

  Health and nutrition were the driving forces behind the production of cereals at Kellogg and Postum Cereal Co. around the turn of the century. Today, Kellogg is the market leader in RTE cereals.

  "We're exploring ways to use our expertise in nutritional foods to start developing some more foods with unique properties that would specifically help reduce the risk of certain diseases, such as heart disease," Hebron says. The company's Functional Foods Division was established in October of 1996 for this purpose.

  Consumption patterns also might be changing. "More people are eating cereals for dinner," Adams says, "although it is still less than 1% of total cereals."

  When you go beyond the cereal bowl, other considerations exist as well. "Food companies today are faced with the challenge of continuing to find ways to deliver traditional breakfast-type nutritional profiles in ways that are nontraditional," Ink says. "We have to get creative. People don't always have time to sit down over a bowl of cereal. We need to take traditional breakfast items, and make them more convenient and portable.

  "By addressing this issue, I think we'll begin to solve some of the nutritional shortfalls in our diet now, not only regarding fiber, but other issues as well," he says. "Over the years, consumers have become comfortable with cereal as the vehicle for adding additional vitamins and minerals to their diet. I think we should continue to use the breakfast occasion as a way to get people to boost their nutritional intakes of a variety of nutrients."

SIDEBAR:

Essential Nutrition

  Many Americans either skip breakfast or start their day with high-fat foods. Today, 1 in 4 Americans don't eat breakfast, compared to 14% in 1961, according to a study from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. A recent survey of 1,000 adults conducted for the Milk Mustache Campaign by Market Facts, Inc., found that only 1 in 3 respondents said they eat breakfast daily; 40% said they reach for cold cereal and milk when they do eat breakfast. However, the remaining 60% said they most frequently consume bacon and eggs (15%); coffee or juice only (13%); or bagels with butter or cream cheese (8%). Other choices included toast, donuts, fast food, leftovers and muffins.

  Those who eat cereal and milk have a better overall diet, researchers say. Breakfast skippers tend to lack essential nutrients, including calcium. In a recent Michigan State University study, women obtained 20% more calcium daily when they ate cereal and milk for breakfast. Most people pair cereal with other healthful foods, such as skim milk and fruit, according to the study. This combination provides about one-third of the daily calcium requirement for adults. It also provides soluble fiber.

  Schools are serving more breakfast meals nationwide, according to the American Dietetic Association, and children who eat breakfast perform better in school than those who don't. They show increased problem-solving ability, memory, verbal fluency and creativity.
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