For the first time in recent memory the most significant innovation in the ready-to-eat cereal category is not a new flavor, shape or line extension. And, in stark contrast to the heavy merchandising and promotion that typically takes place behind a new product launch, many consumers may not even be aware it is taking place. What is undeniable is that the trend is changing the R.-T.-E. cereal landscape.

The trend — reformulation for better health — has been going on in earnest for the past several years. What began with Minneapolis-based General Mills, Inc. making headlines by switching to whole grains across its Big G cereal portfolio in the early 2000s has extended to other major R.-T.-E. cereal manufacturers dedicating extensive resources to providing an even healthier product.

In the case of whole grains and fiber — considered beneficial to health — most companies have trumpeted their actions as they have been implemented. In the case of sugar and salt — perceived negatively by many — reformulations have been more quietly undertaken.

Silent but healthy

Both General Mills and the Kellogg Co., Battle Creek, Mich., noted in corporate responsibility reports issued last month that they have been “silently” lowering sodium as they have updated product formulas. Their announcements preceded by a few weeks the release of recommendations from the Institute of Medicine calling for government action on establishing sodium intake guidelines.

Kellogg said that since the end of 2007 the company has introduced 94 products in the United States with 10% of the Daily Value of sodium or less per serving, and has lowered the sodium in approximately 60 current products. Outside of the United States, the company has been even more aggressive in elevating the health profile of its cereals.

“For some time, we have focused on gradual reductions in sodium as part of our commitment to continuously improve the nutrition credentials of our foods,” said Kris Charles, spokesperson for Kellogg. “Over the past decade, we have reduced the sodium in many of our most popular cereals by anywhere from 10% to 70%, depending on the brand. For example, we’ve lowered the amount of sodium in Kellogg’s Corn Flakes from 320 grams to 200 grams per serving — a decrease of approximately 39%.”

As Kellogg has reduced sodium across its portfolio, Ms. Charles said the company has been faced with a common challenge — finding ways to reduce the sodium while maintaining great taste.

“The food industry continues to seek acceptable and readily available salt replacements for use in the development of commercially viable — and palatable — lower sodium foods,” she said. “Our approach of gradual, or ‘stealth,’ sodium reductions has been accepted by consumers and has been successful in the marketplace.”

For General Mills, sodium reduction accounted for 13% of its focus in regards to nutritional profile improvement between 2005 and 2009. Cereal is 1 of 10 product categories that General Mills has targeted as part of its sodium reduction initiative that aims to reduce sodium in more than 600 of the company’s stock-keeping units by 20%, on average, by 2015. Heidi Geller, a spokesperson for General Mills, said the company already has achieved a 16% sodium reduction in both Cheerios and Honey Nut Cheerios.

Likewise, General Mills has moved ahead on plans to trim the sugar in many of its R.-T.-E. cereals, primarily those marketed to children.

Since 2007, the company said it has cut the sugar in 10 of its Big G cereals marketed to children, and in December 2009, General Mills pledged to reduce sugar in cereals advertised to children under age 12 until all reach single-digit grams of sugar per serving. On the “Benefits of Cereal” portion of General Mills’ web site the company currently lists 15 cereals that already are at single-digit sugar levels.

“We’ve been making reductions in a series of steps over many months,” Ms. Geller said. “Our first target, announced in 2007, was 12 grams of sugar or less. We met that goal last year. But we didn’t stop. We set a more aggressive goal of 11 grams or less. Now, we have met and exceeded that goal also.

“These are pretty big changes — and you’re changing foods that people love and eat every day. There is a right way to make changes of that kind — and that’s in a series of smaller steps. The most important thing is to continue to maintain the taste that people love. It’s easier said than done. It’s a technical challenge. It’s time consuming. It requires a financial commitment as well.”

Adding value back in

The steps being taken to improve R.-T.-E. cereal’s healthiness by reducing levels of certain nutrients are only part of the equation, though. Companies have been able to win over government and consumers alike just as easily by adding nutrients.

In 2009, Kellogg announced plans to add fiber to many of its R.-T.-E. cereals in the United States and Canada, and by this past August had made the change to several children’s cereals, including Froot Loops and Apple Jacks. In January, the company launched Corn Pops with Fiber, and by the end of 2010 Kellogg expects that the majority of its R.-T.-E. cereals in the United States will qualify as “good” — if not “excellent” — sources of fiber. Froot Loops, Apple Jacks and Corn Pops now all contain 3 grams of dietary fiber per serving, which compares with less than 1 gram before the reformulation.

“Renovating a cereal that consumers have known and loved for years is not easy,” Kellogg said in its 2009 C.S.R. “Even a small change to the flavor or texture can have a decidedly negative impact on a product’s consumer acceptance. The addition of fiber has proved to be a particular challenge; historically, products with added fiber often had to compromise on taste. Thanks to recent innovations in food science, fiber can now be added to a host of products without adverse effects.

“Since not all fibers are alike, the challenge is identifying which types of fiber will work best with an existing product. Some fibers will change a food’s color or texture. Others will impart an astringent flavor. Still others are simply too difficult to process in a manufacturing plant.”

A less prominently promoted change, but one that figures to pique the interest of other aspects of grain-based foods, is the addition of vitamin D. The nutrient enables the body to absorb calcium and helps build and maintain strong bones and teeth. More recently, vitamin D has gained attention amid mounting research indicating health benefits may be much more far reaching.

General Mills said it has increased the level of vitamin D to 25% of the Daily Value from 10% previously in several varieties of Total cereal. The company’s Cheerios, Wheaties, Chex, Trix and Lucky Charms brands all have 10% of the Daily Value. 

Vitamin D occurs naturally in many foods, but it can be difficult to get enough of these foods to meet vitamin intake guidelines,” the company said. “That’s where fortified foods can help.”

General Mills said it now has more than 47 varieties of Big G cereals that are either a “good” or “excellent” source of vitamin D.

Ms. Charles of Kellogg did not mention any specific work the company is doing in terms of vitamin D, but noted that the company is “always looking at opportunities to improve the nutrition credentials of our products.”