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The scoop on cereals

A look at some of the latest breakfast offerings on the market
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Each year, Americans buy over two and a half billion packages of the 250 varieties of cereal that appear on the average supermarket shelf. Not only can the cereal aisle be a parent’s nightmare, many people wonder why the stuff is so expensive and how healthy the so-called “healthy” brands are. On NBC’s “Today” show contributor and L.A. Times syndicated columnist, Phil Lempert offers the whole scoop on cereals. He shares his insight below.

ALMOST HALF OF all Americans — 49 percent — start their day with a bowl of cereal, and on average they eat about 160 bowls a year. For the average person, we consume 100 bowls a year. And that translates to 2.7 billion packages of cereal, or $9 billion in 2000 sales. After soda and milk, we spend the most money on breakfast cereals at the supermarket.

Cereal is expensive and profitable for the companies that make them. The profit margins of individual cereals are a closely guarded secret — but if we take a look at industry statistics (Source: UBS Warburg), the average cereal delivers about 17 percent profit. While that might not sound like a lot, it’s important to note that in cereals the packaging, shipping, sales, promotion and advertising total 48 percent — just about triple (15 percent) the cost of the raw material inside the box.

To show just how much packaging and advertising does cost, compare like products: brand name versus store brand. The store brand’s package is produced a lot less expensively and there is no advertising or couponing.

Today, the average cereal aisle in the supermarket has over 250 varieties of cereals, and though they can often be expensive, there are ways to get the most for your dollar. Cereal is one of the categories that coupon the most — so look in the Sunday papers and even search online. It’s easy to find coupons for 50 cents, 75 cents or even a dollar.

The store brand cereals are typically less expensive by a dollar or more. Compare the taste and ingredients — they might not be identical — but if you are watching your budget, the taste difference may not matter.

Shoppers spend an average of $74.55 per household, per year, on ready-to-eat cereal. Families with children spend the most. Those with children under age six spend an average of $88 per year, and families with teenage children spend an average of $91 per year. But the biggest spenders are families with children aged 6 to 17, who pay more than $122 per year.

Last year, more than 1.3 million advertisements for cereal aired on American television, or more than 25 hours of cereal advertising per day, at a cost of $762 million for air time. Only auto manufacturers spend more money on television advertising than the makers of breakfast cereals.

SO WHAT’S FOR BREAKFAST TODAY? Before you bite, read those ingredients and nutritional facts. You might be surprised on just how much sugar is in some of your favorites that you might think are healthy — like raisin bran varieties with 18-20 grams of sugar (some of which is naturally occurring from the raisins).

The government’s dietary “sugar” recommendation is to consume a “moderate” or “sensible” amount of sugar — but what is that? For many nutritionists it means no more than eight grams of sugar to a serving. According to researchers at Kansas State University, we should consume no more than 50 grams of added sugars, or less than four tablespoons of sugar daily, based on the average diet of 2000 calories a day.

And while you are reading that label, be sure to look carefully at the portion size: it can vary from 3/4 of a cup to 1 and 1/2 cups.

HOW SHOULD YOU CHOOSE THE BEST NUTRITION FOR BREAKFAST CEREALS? My suggestion is to select those that have at least 3 grams of fiber, no artificial sweeteners, less than 3 grams of fat and no more than 8 grams of sugar. Although some cereals say they “may help reduce the risk of heart disease,” read the numbers — the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says that it takes 3 grams of soluble fiber a day to actually lower cholesterol. The labeling regulation allows products to carry the claim if they contain just 3/4 of a gram.

Now we’re ready to pour and taste some of the newest breakfast cereals about to compete for your attention and dollar in the cereal aisle.

It’s the aisle of the supermarket that most parents dread. With all the colors and cartoon characters, it can be a nightmare. Cereal companies advertise directly to kids and it works. In fact, at a recent industry meeting the president of Kellogg’s announced that their goal is to put “the fun back in the box” and will be focused on more tie-ins with Disney movies, NASCAR

and Power Puff Girls and they are increasing TV spending. With over 23 million kids under the age of 6, it’s easy to understand their strategy.

Kids cereals are now in “limited editions.” It started with Ghostbusters and it continues today. One of the most successful is Pokeman cereal that showed the companies that glitzy packaging and a brand can increase sales.

CEREALS FOR KIDSPowerpuff Girls Cereal: Popular Cartoon Network cartoon featuring three super-powered sisters (kindergartners) who fight crime. The cereal is pink, green and blue rice clusters with popping candy that fizz when eaten. The 8.5 oz. box sells for $2.49 and is available starting March 2001 for limited time only.

Atlantis-Lost Empire Cereal: This cereal will hit the shelves come May in anticipation of the new Disney movie due out on June 15. Said to be the first-ever licensed cereal from Disney — the toasted oat cereal contains chocolate Atlantean alphabet pieces.

Richard Scarry Organic Cereals for Kids — Organic Fruity O’s and Organic Cocoa Crisps: These are said to contain 25 percent less sugar than leading brands. They’re grown without chemical preservatives, synthetic pesticides or genetically-modified organisms (GMOs).

EnviroKidz Cereal — Line of organic cereals for kids from Nature’s Path: These come in four

varieties: Koala Crisp (chocolate brown rice crisps), Amazon Frosted Flakes, Gorilla Munch (puffed corn lightly glazed with organic sweetener), and Orangutan-O’s (organic corn and rice O’s with organic cinnamon.)

HEALTH-FOCUSED CEREALS Nutritionists agree that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, and the good news is that there are lots of new health-focused cereals.

From Kashi to Good Friends Seven Whole Grains & Sesame Cereal: That is a mouthful, but so is the cereal! All Kashi products contain no refined sugar, are minimally processed and are made with seven whole grains and sesame. Kashi Good Friends is a high fiber (8 grams/serving) mix of flakes, twigs and granola sweetened with only honey, fruit juice concentrate and cane juice.

KETO Crisp: This is a low carbohydrate soy cereal. A 1 cup serving contains only 2 grams of carbohydrates plus 22 grams of GMO-free soy protein — 8 oz. box sells for $5.99.

Special K Red Berries: New sweeter, crunchier flakes and slices of real strawberries. According to Kelloggs, research showed that 30 percent of consumers were adding fruit to their Special K cereal. Now, with the strawberries already in the box, it not only adds a wonderful aroma, but convenience as well. Plus strawberries are an excellent source of vitamin C, folate and potassium. Strawberries also contain flavonoids that act as antioxidants in the body. This will be available nationwide in April. A 12-oz. box sells for $3.49.

Choice DM Hot Whole Grain Cereal “for people with diabetes” — This is a blend of oats and high-fiber barley specifically designed for people with diabetes to help manage blood sugar levels. It’s said to release carbohydrates slowly, causing less of a rise in blood glucose levels compared to Quaker Instant Oatmeal. Just add water or skim milk and microwave for 1-2 minutes. Low in saturated fats and cholesterol, it’s available in Apple Cinnamon and Vermont Maple varieties. A box of six packets retails for $4.99.

Organic Nutlettes Soy Cereal: Eat it cold for a crunchy breakfast, or eat it hot and it’s like oatmeal. Said to be all natural, it has no added fillers or fortifiers. It’s sugar free and provides 17 grams of pure soy protein, 6 gram of soy fiber and 66mg of naturally-occurring protective soy isoflavones in each serving. Sold in 1 lb. bags for $4.99 or 2 lb. canister for $9.49. It’s also available is Nutlettes Plus — which contains soy milk and pure corn crystalline fructose sweetener, Nutlettes Plus with Raisins, Nutlettes Plus to Go — single serving plastic pouches and Nutlettes Granola are all made with certified GMO-free soybeans.

Yogi Bhajan’s Peace Cereals — three new varieties: Maple Pecan Crisp, Rainforest Crisp(contains vanilla and wild-harvested Brazil nuts) and Rainforest Flakes (contains bananas, cashews and wild harvested Brazil nuts). Made with organic ingredients, a portion of the profits from Peace Cereals goes to support International Peace Prayer Day and to fund Peace Cereal Grants awarded

annually to organizations working for peace.

WOMEN ARE HOT The cereal industry has moved beyond advertising Special K to women, and is now developing cereals just for women — specially formulated and specially advertised just for them:

Quaker Instant Oatmeal Nutrition for Women: Said to be specially formulated with calcium, soy protein, iron, folic acid and vitamins A, B, D & E. Available in two varieties: Golden Brown Sugar and Vanilla Cinnamon. Make it with hot water or for added nutritional value, they suggest preparing with soymilk.

Harmony — A cereal just for Women! This vanilla almond oat cereal contains calcium, antioxidants, soy, iron and folic acid — all the elements needed to meet the nutritional needs of women.

ZOE Foods Flax & Soy Granola: Jackie Stuart developed this recipe to help her deal with the hot flashes she was experiencing during menopause. Soy and flaxseed both contain phytoestrogens, omega-3 fatty acids, protein and fiber — ingredients proven to be effective in easing her symptoms.

CONVENIENCE CEREALS Quaker Toasted Oatmeal Squares On the Go Breakfast: This toasted whole grain oat cereal has a hint of brown sugar and comes in a 2.5 oz. single-serve resealable canister — sells for 99 cents.

Post Grape-Nuts Ready-To-Eat Cereal: Comes in a 3-oz. microwavable single serving bowl.

Coach’s Oats: A new patented process delivers the taste of whole grain oatmeal in five minutes.

General Mills’ A new Web site from General Mills, where adults can create cereals based on their own specific nutritional needs and/or tastes. Over a million combinations can be created — everything from healthy cereals for kids to highly indulgent ones with ingredients like chocolate chips and macadamia nuts.

Shopping for cereal can be confusing, read the labels carefully, know what you are buying and remember a bowl of cereal in the morning can be one of the most nutritious meals of your day. And with the average serving of cereal, fruit and milk costing under a buck, it’s also one of the best nutrition values.

Phil Lempert, the Supermarket Guru®, analyzes the food marketing industry to keep consumers up-to-date about cutting-edge marketing trends. He is a regular “Today” show contributor, columnist for the Los Angeles Times, and host of Shopping Smart of the WOR Radio Network. For more food and health information, you can check out Phil’s Web site at: