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GROCERY: The breakfast club

By most accounts, a bowl of cereal is one of the most nutritious meals around, offering protein, fiber, and essential vitamins and minerals that -- as Mikey from the Life commercials can attest -- taste darned good, too. But in today's low-carb diet world, nutrition and taste come at a price, because all of those grains, dried fruits, nuts, and sugars are also high in carbohydrates.

Luckily for retailers managing the cereal aisle, the manufacturing community is trying hard to counter objections to its carb-laden goods by introducing alternatives. Whether from the big brands or specialty manufacturers, the low-carb choices for cereal buyers keep growing.

Thanks to scores of new low-carb products, consumers looking to lower their carbohydrates are discovering that they don't have to skip over the cereal aisle.

"We have seen some impact on merchandising and sales," says Kevin Easler, v.p., sales and marketing at Sprouts Farmers Market in Mesa, Ariz., a rapidly growing natural foods-oriented independent currently operating six stores. "For example, we now have low-carb cereals in our stand-alone low-carb sets, in addition to our regular cereal set. Atkins Morning Start is our best-selling low-carb cereal, and consumers are also buying Keto cereal and Nutritious Living Hi-Lo cereal, both of which are low-carb, and they are both doing well."

But the low-carb movement has had no adverse impact on Sprouts' other popular brands, which are Barbara's and Kashi. "What we have noticed is that the middle-of-the-road movers have slowed," says Easler, "unless they are marketing them as 'high-fiber,' 'high-protein,' or 'low-carb.'"

Other conventional operators report they haven't seen much of a drop in cereal sales, but at the same time low-carb items are getting some attention. "Cereals seem to be selling reasonably well because that's an item that the consumer doesn't come into the store and say, 'Let me go around and shop for low-carb stuff,'" says Mark Polsky, s.v.p. at Magruder's Grocery Stores in Rockville, Md. "But if it's a breakfast cereal and they have a choice between the regular and low-carb, those that are watching are going to pick up the low-carb."

But Iris D. Shaffer, executive director of the Low Carb Manufacturers Alliance in Northbrook. Ill., notes that some low-carb cereals aren't living up to expectations. "I think some of the cereals went to market very quickly, to play catch-up, and some of them were not tested very well in terms of taste," she says.

That's why sales of mainstream products are still going strong. Kellogg's, for example, recently reported better-than-expected second-quarter earnings, with North American retail cereal sales increasing by 2 percent. Still, attuned to the opportunity that the market segment represents, Kellogg's and other leading manufacturers are addressing consumers with carb concerns.

"We introduced our Special K For A Low-Carb Lifestyle in April, and we've been pleased with it to date," says Jenny Enochson, director, marketing communications at Kellogg Co. in Battle Creek, Mich. "We increased the protein, so it has 10 grams of protein and five grams of fiber. That gives it nine grams of net carbs, and with a half-cup of fat-free milk, 140 calories per serving."

On the bandwagon

In May competitor General Mills introduced a low-carb version of its popular Total adult cereal. Total Protein is a vitamin-rich cereal for those following a low-carb lifestyle, offering 100 percent of the Daily Value of 11 vitamins and minerals, 13 grams of protein, and only eight grams of net carbs.

"Nearly 70 percent of consumers are limiting their carb intake, but finding foods that taste good and offer variety in their diets is challenging," says Peggy Stang, marketing manager for Total Protein at General Mills in Minneapolis. "We have responded by introducing a cereal that gives consumers a good-tasting, wholesome option for a low-carb lifestyle, and that also helps them get important nutrients they may be missing with popular low-carb diets."

"It's important that people follow a health plan that includes exercise and a healthy eating plan -- and that includes some carbohydrates," says registered dietitian Helenbeth Reiss Reynolds, a consultant to General Mills. "Consumers can miss out on key nutrients with some of the popular low-carb diets, and Total Protein is an excellent source of vitamins and minerals."

In June Kraft Foods jumped on the low-carb bandwagon with its new Post Carb Well High Protein Cereal in Cinnamon Crunch and Golden Crunch varieties. Retailing for $3.39 per 10.25-ounce box, the product is billed as having 50 percent of the net carbs of other leading cereals. Each serving has nine grams of net carbs, 11 grams of protein, and five grams of fiber.

The Carb Well brand also includes a line of cereal bars that have half the net carbs of leading cereal bars. Each bar contains nine grams of net carbs, 10 grams of protein, and three grams of fiber, along with 10 vitamins and minerals. They retail for $3.39 per five-bar box and are available in Cranberry Almond, Cinnamon Raisin, and Peanut Butter varieties.

It's been a year since Atkins introduced the Atkins Morning Start cereal line, available in Banana Nut Harvest, Blueberry Bounty, Crunchy Almond Crisp, and the latest, Triple Berry, which was introduced in June.

"Most Americans just don't have the time to prepare breakfast, so they are always on the lookout for breakfast products that are a quick and healthy way to start the day," says Matt Wiant, s.v.p. and c.m.o. at New York-based Atkins Nutritionals. "At Atkins we spent months researching what low-carb followers are looking for in the morning, and have developed several tasty and nutritious alternatives for on-the-go consumers."

Wiant notes that people following a controlled-carb approach should simply count grams of net carbs, which are the only carbs that have a significant impact on blood sugar. In contrast, fiber, sugar alcohols, and glycerine have a minimal impact and are not included in the net carb count. A serving of Atkins Morning Start cereal has between three and five net carbs, depending on the variety.

While the cereal eaters counting carbs are adults, the better-for-you movement is also becoming child's play as manufacturers slash the sugar content in some of their bestsellers for kids. "It's hard to find a cereal out there without a lot of sugar," says Shaffer of the Low Carb Manufacturers Alliance. "One of the real advantages of the low-carb movement is that it has made people take another look at the tremendous amount of sugar in products like orange juice and cereals. That is something that the manufacturers will continue to address."

General Mills has introduced reduced-sugar versions of Trix, Cinnamon Toast Crunch, and Cocoa Puffs that have 75 percent less sugar than the original cereals. But the sweetness "taste" is still the same, since the company is using a blend of sugar and Splenda sweetener. They're the first cereals to be sweetened with Splenda, a noncaloric sweetener made from sugar. Blind taste tests conducted by General Mills found that both kids and adults were unable to tell the three reduced-sugar cereals apart from their original counterparts.

This past summer Kellogg introduced Frosted Flakes and Froot Loops with one-third less sugar. "We're not calling those low-carb by any means; they're really kid-driven and mom-focused, and they are really just an option for moms," says Enochson. "One thing that we heard loud and clear is that moms didn't mind if we reduced the sugar, but they didn't want it replaced with an artificial sweetener."

It remains to be seen if the low-carb movement is a permanent dietary change or a passing fad. After all, retailers would do well to remember the oat bran craze of the '80s and the low-fat movement of the '90s, both of which turned out to be well-publicized flashes in the bowl.

"Low-carb is a trend right now that we are seeing," says Enochson. "Time will tell how long the cereal stays on shelf, and the trend will really determine that."
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