KANSAS CITY — A flurry of flavor activity has taken place in the ready-to-eat cereal category. Recent launches include Kellogg’s Chocolate Frosted Flakes and Kellogg’s Cinnamon Frosted Flakes, Blueberry Chex, and Great Grains Coconut Almond Crunch.

Yet cereal formulators could become even more imaginative. Tropical flavors like mango could join berry and apple flavors in the cereal aisle. A spicy flavor such as chili pepper could pair with honey in a sweet-heat combination. Candy-like flavors might interest children, and varietal flavor profiles like Tahitian vanilla might appeal to adults.

Cereal could use a boost in sales as it faces morning competition from yogurt and bars as well as breakfast sandwiches sold at restaurants. Dollar sales in the R.-T.-E. cereal category totaled $8,599,708,672 in the 52 weeks ended Nov. 5, 2017, down 2.3% from the same period a year ago, according to Information Resources, Inc., a Chicago-based market research firm.

Enter flavor innovation opportunity.

“The range of flavors that are available have expanded beyond the traditional apple, berries, cinnamon, honey, cocoa, and maple to new flavor combinations that take inspiration from other foods and beverage categories,” said Catherine Hogan, senior category manager, sweet goods, North America, for International Flavors & Fragrances, New York. “These include orchard fruits such as pear and cherry; tropical flavors such as coconut, mango and passion fruit; super fruits such as pomegranate and goji berry; more indulgent flavors, including chocolate and peanut butter, caramel, coffee macchiato; and finally, dessert favorites such as s’mores, donuts and fruit pies.”

Seasonal and limited-edition flavors include strawberry for spring, pumpkin spice for fall, and chocolate mint and sugar cookie for winter, she said. Non-traditional spice and savory herb flavors are beginning to appear in cereal, too. These flavors include ginger, rosemary, espresso and basil.

“Cereal is a great medium for flavor,” Ms. Hogan said. “Fruit flavors appeal to consumers as they add a healthful benefit to cereal. Sweet brown and indulgent flavors can offer cereal consumers permissible indulgence. Savory and spice flavors can appeal to consumers looking for new taste experiences.”

Fruit options

Fruit flavors have been shown to balance the inherent taste of corn, oat and whole grain cereal bases, Ms. Hogan said.

Fruit flavors may hook up with other flavors as well.

“Typically, we see sweet brown flavors that stand alone or that are combined with fruit profiles,” said Jenna Schowalter, sweet applications manager for Bell Flavors & Fragrances, Northbrook, Ill. “Sweet brown flavors like brown sugar, honey, chocolate, vanilla all withstand processing conditions. They are often paired with fruit flavors that help ‘brighten’ the overall profile of the cereal.”

Citrus profiles contain components that have been shown to withstand certain processing conditions, she said.

“We also see berry blends or single berry profiles in a number of cereal products,” Ms. Schowalter said. “I believe this is due to consumer expectations and demand. Berry pro-files are here to stay. It would be fun to see them paired with sweet brown flavors like toasted clove or a varietal cinnamon like Vietnamese.”

Elsa Howerth, R.&D. director, flavors for Kerry, Beloit, Wis., added, “The marketplace has a lot of fruit-flavored cereals — apple, banana, citrus, different berries. I think it’s a matter of consumer preference that they work well. From a formulation perspective, most fruit flavors can work in cereal, even the obscure ones like lychee, but may not be acceptable from a marketing perspective.”

Wild blueberries may add not only taste but also nutritional value and health benefits to cereal and granola, said Deb Collins, trade marketing manager for the Wild Blueberry Association of North America.

“Plus, as part of the real food movement, there is growing consumer preference for products with ingredients that are authentic, unadulterated and as nature intended,” she said. “Wild ingredients epitomize the real food movement, and they can enhance product appeal and help brands connect to consumers.”

A research report from the Wild Blueberry Association of North America called “The Power of Wild” demonstrated the value of wild ingredients among all consumers and especially Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability (LOHAS) consumers. When asked the perceived benefit of “wild blueberry” on a package or menu, 73% of all consumers said they perceived it would taste better, 67% said they perceived it would be healthier, 63% said they perceived the product would have greater sustainability, and 64% said they would have an emotional preference for the product. The percentages for LOHAS consumers were 84% for taste better, 81% for healthier, 77% for greater sustainability and 79% for emotional preference.

Wild blueberries come with a unique taste.

“That’s because in every wild blueberry field, there may be thousands of different plant varieties,” Ms. Collins said. “That diversity creates a blend of complex flavors — from tangy tartness to succulent sweetness — and provides an intense blueberry flavor that is perfect for cereals and that regular blueberries simply can’t match.”

Adding heat

Spicy, hot flavors have worked well in snacks. Could they be used more frequently in cereal?

“I absolutely think there is an opportunity to use spicy flavor profiles in cereal,” Ms. Schowalter said. “Pairing a spicy flavor with something familiar may be the best way to introduce consumers to the concept — think apricot, honey and chili or strawberry, pistachio and pink peppercorn. We have seen ‘sweet heat’ combinations growing in unexpected categories like dairy and confections. So, I would not be surprised to see more growth in the cereal category.”

Cereal nowadays is consumed not only in the morning but also as a snack later in the day, at dinner by people pressed for time and as a late-night snack, Ms. Hogan said. Such multiday munching options could have cereal formulators considering spices.

“There are so many blurring of lines between categories, i.e., sweet flavors in salty snacks and spicy flavors in beverages, yogurts and confection, that spicy flavors are the next evolution for cereal,” Ms. Hogan said. “Sweet spices such as cinnamon and pumpkin spice are commonplace, while ginger and chai are beginning to appear in cereal, paving the way for other savory spices such as chili, curry and rosemary (that) could potentially be an opportunity for cereal companies to reinvigorate the category for the future.”

Adults or children?

When deciding upon flavor, cereal formulators also should consider the targeted audience, like children or adults.

Ms. Hogan said adults may be drawn to single and fruit pairings that are identifiable and authentic in taste: exotic and tropical fruits such as coconut, mango, passion fruit, pomegranate, apricot and fig. She added indulgent flavors such as dark chocolate, caramel, peanut butter, chocolate hazelnut, mocha and coffee also could work.

“Sweet spices such as cinnamon, ginger, speculoos, along with classics such as maple, honey, almond and pecan, also work well in cereal,” Ms. Hogan said. “Non-traditional savory and spice flavors may also appeal to adults looking for alternatives to current sweet offerings.”

Ms. Schowalter said Bell Flavors & Fragrances is seeing an increase in varietal flavor profiles: Valencia orange, Tahitian vanilla, griotte cherry and Maine blueberry.

“I think we may see the ‘floral’ flavor trend move into the cereal space — hibiscus, violet, lavender, elderflower, cherry blossom,” she said. “These floral flavors are being paired with fruit and sweet brown flavors.”

Since children tend to like candy, such flavors might work in children’s cereal.

“For children’s cereal, we’ve seen strong, candy-like flavors work well such as the flavors in Froot Loops, Fruity Pebbles and chocolate in general,” Ms. Howerth said.

Ms. Hogan said fruity blends and cream or vanilla combined with strawberry, blueberry, peach, cherry or banana are options for children’s cereal.

“Honey, maple French toast, apple cinnamon and cinnamon roll, caramel and milky chocolate/cocoa, cookies and cream, s’mores and peanut butter also hold great appeal to kids,” she said.

Ms. Schowalter added, “Our ‘trend spotting team’ is seeing a number of nostalgic flavors growing in the sweet applications area of the marketplace. One of our 2018 trends is ‘Outdoor Festival,’ and a number of these flavor profiles would work well in cereal applications that appeal to children — cotton candy, snow cone, waffle cone, orange crème, root beer float, churro, and caramel apple.”

Heating process, type of cereal may affect flavor

Several factors may affect flavors in ready-to-eat cereal.

“Flavors are generally formulated for the application,” said Elsa Howerth, R.&D. director, flavors for Kerry, Beloit, Wis. “Working with cereal, it is important to know the type of cereal, how it’s made and where in the process the flavor is introduced. Factors such as compatibility, solubility, volatility and concentration of the flavor will need adjustment dependent on the type of application to successfully deliver the flavor.”

Ways that the processing of cereal may influence flavor include high temperature, high pressure (extrusion) and adding flavor to a sugar slurry that is spray coated on to a piece, said Jenna Schowalter, sweet applications manager for Bell Flavors & Fragrances, Northbrook, Ill.

“Liquid flavors are easily incorporated into a formula for a spray-coated product,” she said. “Encapsulated flavors often hold up to the demanding conditions of extrusion.”

Erik Williams, R.&D. manager, sweet and cereal for Kerry, added, “The heating process (time and temperature) can be detrimental to flavor. These vary if it’s a granola, extruded cereal piece, batch cooked flake, gun-puffed grain or sugar slurry. Having the flavorist understand these parameters of the finished cereal is important.”

The shape of the cereal could have a positive effect on flavor. Mr. Williams said a hero piece could add a punch of flavor to the cereal blend. The hero piece could be a flavored granola inclusion or a fat-based coated cereal piece. These hero pieces not only add a punch of flavor but can stand out visually, too, he said.