CHICAGO — Consumers are interested in healthy, plant-based alternatives as well as unique flavors to start the day, according to data from Label Insight.

The company looked at consumer online searches to see what breakfast foods increased in popularity during the pandemic. Within the breakfast sandwiches and meals category, product characteristics like “gluten-free,” “veggie”, “ketogenic”, “low carb” and “healthy” increased in search volume, while searches for characteristics like “sugar free,” “high fiber,” “paleo” and “organic” increased within the cereal category.

“The pandemic has certainly urged and possibly forced some consumers to prioritize their health and wellness,” said Thea Bourianne, solutions consulting manager at Label Insight. “Older individuals as well as individuals with underlying medical conditions like diabetes, obesity and high blood pressure are more at risk of developing more serious complications from COVID-19.  Consumers are looking for products that will help them combat COVID-19 and reduce their susceptibility, whether this is through dieting and weight loss or purchasing products with functional benefits to help build up immunity.”

The top plant-based searches were for protein powders and dairy alternatives like cheese and milk. Searches for dairy free yogurt increased later in 2020, with coconut yogurt attracting the largest search volume, followed by oat milk yogurt. Traditional meat-based products led for consumers when it came to breakfast patties and links, suggesting opportunities may exist for continued innovation around breakfast meats, according to Label Insight.

“Vegan shoppers and consumers looking for plant-based options are not sure what is available to them,” Ms. Bourianne said. “There is a lot of room for innovation and messaging to consumers, particularly in frozen.”

“There is a lot of room for innovation and messaging to consumers, particularly in frozen.” — Thea Bourianne, Label Insight

Searches for frozen breakfast sandwiches and meals surged during the pandemic, growing 311% in early 2020 and remaining elevated throughout the year, driven by the shift toward at-home consumption.

“This surge of frozen searches may be attributed to consumers seeking out quick and convenient breakfast options, or it could possibly be due to the stockpiling of frozen foods that was occurring at the beginning of the pandemic,” Ms. Bourianne said.

A similar story emerged within the cereal category, with searches for “instant” growing 201% during the first part of the year and searches for “quick” increasing 335%.

“Working from home eliminates the to and from commute time and gives individuals time to dedicate their morning to making breakfast,” Ms. Bourianne said. “Additionally, not commuting may take away the convenience of eating breakfast out, so consumers likely turned to their local retailer to seek out a convenient, make-at-home breakfast option.”

Trending ingredients within the cereal category include ancient grains, millet ingredients, sesame ingredients, spelt ingredients, cacao, flaxseed, chia seed, pumpkin ingredients and sprouted. Specifically, searches for ancient grains skyrocketed late in 2020, growing 6,605% in the last quarter of the year.

Beyond plant-based, consumers are looking for breakfast foods that steer clear of added sugars and sweeteners. Within the cereal category, searches for “low sugar” increased 89% between October-December 2020, and searches for “reduced sugar” grew 16%. Within the yogurt category, searches for “unsweetened” grew 36% and searches for “sugar free” grew 24%.

Increased searches for no- and low-sugar options may have to do with FDA regulations around added sugar, Ms. Bourianne said.

“The regulation is increasing product transparency for consumers and for the first time they will be able to determine the amount of added sugar in a product by simply glancing at the nutrition fact panel,” she said. “This transparency may dissuade consumers from certain products with high levels of added sugar. In the past, cereal has been notorious for containing added sugars and sweeteners, however with new labeling regulations and the movement toward health and wellness, consumers are shifting their search habits and seeking out these better-for-you products.”

Consumers also are turning to the yogurt category to find unique flavors, with searches for maple growing 272% between October-December 2020, followed by pineapple (214%), chocolate (193%), honey (163%) and lime (103%).