Before the pandemic, cereal and other shelf-stable options often were criticized or blanket stereotyped as ‘unhealthy’ and overly-processed, especially when compared to fresh options sold around the perimeter of the store, Amy Cohn, a registered dietitian who works with General Mills’ Big G Cereal, told nutritionists, dietitians, influencers and other industry stakeholders at an event held in conjunction with the virtual Food & Nutrition Conference & Expo earlier this month. But, she added, when the pandemic forced consumers to reduce the frequency of grocery trips, many people gave shelf-stable options – like cereal – a second look, and what they found not only contradicted their assumptions but met their needs during a time of wellness worries and lockdowns.
“Over the summer, we commissioned a new survey with over 1,000 parents, really asking them, how is the pandemic impacting your breakfast routine? And here is what we learned – we were actually a little surprised – there is a little bit of a silver lining, too. The results were 73% of the families said they actually have more time with their families in the morning. They’re actually spending that time eating breakfast together at the breakfast table, and 61% of them want to keep some of these changes that the pandemic has brought to their morning routines,” Cohn said.
For more than half of the respondents (55%), cereal was their children’s top choice for breakfast and one that many parents said they felt confident offering because they wanted to ensure their families consumed essential key vitamins and minerals for their health, Cohn said.
“When it comes to nutrient density, ready-to-eat cereal is really hard beat. Many cereals provide whole grain, fiber, vitamins and minerals, all in one bowl, which is really hard to find in other breakfast choices,” she explained. “Cereal is the number one source of both whole grain and fiber for all kids in America at breakfast. It is also the number one source of several key vitamins and minerals, including folate, iron, zinc, vitamin E, vitamin A and several B vitamins.”
Research comparing the diets of people who do and don’t consume cereal found that children who eat cereal in general get in their diet 75% more vitamin D, 86% more iron, and 17% more calcium than those who do not, she added.
Not only can cereal be a nutritious option, but it “attracts nutrient dense foods like milk and fruit,” Cohn said, adding that children 2 to 17 years get over half (51%) of their milk consumption with cereal.
Cereal also won points for being affordable, especially among families who have lost jobs and income due to local economies shutting down to slow the spread of the coronavirus, Cohn said.
“Cereal is really, really affordable. On average, a bowl of cereal with milk costs just around 50 cents a serving, which for most Americans is usually within scope – that’s usually doable,” she said pointing to additional research by General Mills that compared nutrient consumption of cereal eaters with non-cereal eaters in three income brackets.
Across all three income brackets based on standard federal benchmarks for low, middle and higher incomes, cereal eaters consumed more shortfall nutrients and fewer nutrients of concern than those who did not eat cereal, Cohn said.
For example, she noted that members of lower income households who eat cereal consumed 85% more vitamin D, 71% more iron, 66% more vitamin A, 23% more calcium, and 21% more vitamin C than those who did not eat cereal.
Lower income consumers who ate cereal also consumed 7% less sodium, 4% less added sugar and 4% less saturated fat than non-cereal eaters in their same bracket. These benefits were higher for higher income cereal eaters who consumed 15% less sodium, 6% less added sugar and 14% less saturated fat than non-cereal eaters, according to the survey.
A call for help
Given the benefits of cereal for families during the pandemic, Cohn is calling on industry stakeholders and advocates in the nutrition field to stop demonizing the center of the store and shelf stable products.
“Consumers often are encouraged to shop the perimeter of the supermarket and avoid the center aisles. This can inadvertently steer them away from an array of healthful food options,” and while the pandemic has prompted some consumers to reconsider their assumptions and stereotypes about shelf-stable offerings, Cohn asked dietitians, nutritionists and others gathered by General Mills to help shift the perception of the center store.
Specifically, she and others attending the event suggested specifically mentioning the positive health attributes of items found in the center of the store when developing consumer content. She also asked that they “champion affordable nutrient-dense foods in the center of the store with authenticity and credibility,” commit to drawing awareness to the challenges families face during the pandemic and potential solutions that shelf-stable products offer.