Breakfast has long been called the most important meal of the day, and the cliche is proving increasingly true for packaged food makers and restaurants looking to serve consumers’ growing craving for morning meals that balance healthy, yummy and easy to eat on the go.
“Consumers have really absorbed the message for awhile now that starting your day with a bowl full of sugar is not the best way to sustain your energy and be your best,” said Kara Nielsen, culinary director of Sterling Rice Group. “It’s part and parcel with the anti-carb and pro-protein trends, and some of these nutritional themes we keep reading about in the news and hearing about on CNN.”
Retail breakfast food sales grew during the recession and they’re expected to hit $15.7 billion by 2017, a 26% increase from 2012, according to Mintel data. Still, many time-crunched consumers say they skip or skimp on the morning meal, according to a 2014 report from Clarkston Consulting, and breakfast food brands including Kellogg’s, Kraft, Hillshire Brands and Hormel Foods have been working to create breakfast bars and other more convenient options.
For others, the morning rush means two breakfasts, Nielsen said, perhaps a cup of coffee grabbed on the way to the office and a yogurt and cereal bar mid-morning. In fact, demand for breakfast food is up throughout the day, at meals and snack times.
“With rising food costs, many consumers have taken typical protein-rich breakfast foods into other day parts, including lunch and dinner, as a way to save money while maintaining their healthier eating habits,” the Clarkston Consulting report says.
Restaurants are increasingly catering to the trend. McDonald’s launched all-day breakfast nationwide on Tuesday, a much publicized move aimed at capitalizing on the industry’s fastest-growing segment. Restaurant breakfast traffic grew 5% in the year to June 30, after increasing 2% in the previous year, while lunch customer counts grew a scant 1% and dinners were flat, according to NPD Group data released this week.
Sugar and other simple carbs have fallen out of favor in the morning, as people seek protein and healthy whole grain options that can get them through the morning. The trend has fueled a decline in sales of traditional packaged cereal, according to a Euromonitor International report. Kellogg was the leader in cereal sales with 27% market share, but long-time star Special K saw sales slip as consumers shifted their focus from weight loss to overall health. The brand responded by shifting its marking to stress the health benefits, the report said.
Other manufacturers including General Mills have responded to growing demand for healthy and natural ingredients, including Cheerios, whose most recent ads have focused on the fact that the cereal is gluten free.
“There’s a continued interest in transparency,” Nielsen said. “Consumers, especially millennials, are interested in knowing exactly what’s in their food. They’re smart label readers.”
And they’re seeking out labels that tout big amounts of protein, which for many means more convenient ways to eat bacon and eggs, such as wraps and sandwiches. But demand for protein is also boosting yogurt sales and introducing more consumers to plant-based protein options including Morningstar veggie patties and shakes and smoothies supplemented with protein powder, Nielsen said.
And it’s also shifting the marketing messaging on other traditional breakfast foods. Kind brand granola is a whole grain cereal that also highlights the fact that it offers 10 grams of protein per serving. Other cereals including the perennial favorite, oatmeal, also serve up fiber with a substantial helping of protein.
“As [protein] has become the darling of the macronutrients any product that has it will start touting it,” Nielsen said. “It’s kind of like what we were seeing with gluten free. There were plenty of things that never had gluten, but now they’re telling us about it.”
In addition to healthy options, consumers are craving convenience as more of them scarf the morning meal on the go.
“Manufacturers are evolving their packaging to smaller, single-serve sizes to meet the different merchandising opportunities afforded by these channels as well as the convenience needs of today’s always-on-the-go consumer,” the Clarkston Consulting report says.
“Convenience is a priority,” Nielsen said. “Marketers think all the time ‘What is the sweet spot between convenience and nutrition and good taste.’”
Convenience trends are also showing up in the freezer case, she sad. “There’s a lot of growth in the frozen breakfast market, egg and egg sandwiches, skillets, egg bowl. They’re all protein centric. Now even Evol is putting it in frozen quick cups — and they all talk about protein.”
Different qualities take priority at different times, depending on what’s going on. Sweet packaged goods like Pop Tarts won’t rank above a bowl of oatmeal on the nutrition scale, for instance, but it’s likely the winner when it comes to an easy road trip snack.
Just as other breakfast foods are showing up all day long, sugary cereals may also have a place later in the day, Nielsen said. “Gen-X is kind of the target. We all ate those sugary cereals. Remember those cereal cafes that started a little while ago? We’re thinking of that bowl of cereal as a desert, after you’ve eaten all your good stuff for the day.”
Just as carbs lost a starring role to protein on the breakfast plate, it’s likely that trends will shift again at some point, and that might not be a bad thing, Nielsen said.
“I would like to think we’re going to evolve into a little more balance, where we recognize that good fiber and some carbohydrates are fine. We don’t have to demonize any one ingredient. Now that fat is coming back, it can be part of a balanced diet also.”
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