Blurring the line between breakfast and dessert
Presented with an array of goodies to taste, one participant asks: “Why do cereal bars exist?”
An inauspicious start. But six brands later, the answer is not apparent.
With a soft crust and a fruit paste inside, cereal bars have a Fig Newton quality. Fig Newtons, of course, are cookies.
These are meant to replace morning cereal, for adults and children on the run. As such, many crusts are whole wheat or made with whole oats. There are some sprinkles of bran or wheat germ flakes on top of most, obviously an attempt to appear healthful. But once we began tasting, bars were almost indistinguishable from each other. One brand is decorated with swirly strips of icing and another has a crease down the middle (the cleavage, as one person described it).
Though many brands boast their calcium and vitamin content, the tasters were throwing around words like “pop tarts” and “candy bars” instead of cereal. One said, “This could be dessert if I wanted dessert.”
The eight tasters, all public health professionals, didn’t seem to fall for the healthful aspect the bar companies want to project. Nor were they fooled by the package photographs after they saw what’s inside. Thick strawberry fruit fillings on the box were not in evidence once opened. In fact, most fillings were gelatinous and sparse, and far too sweet. “This is just another path to creating future diabetics,” said one jaded taster.
Winning by a wide margin was Sunbelt Fruit and Grain Bar, the one with the icing. One taster so disliked the bars, she refused to choose a favorite.
The box of Quaker’s Breakfast Bars claims 25 percent less sugar than the leading cereal bar. Later, we called the company’s help line to ask for the name of the leading cereal bar. A representative hesitated, then said, “ones with peanut butter or chocolate chips” — was she talking about granola bars? — also made by the company. To Quaker’s credit, it has the only packaging that states: “Not a low calorie food – but in a very small font.
Shaw’s and Stop & Shop’s house brands turned out to be identical — at least we thought so. Red foil wrapping around the bars is the same, ingredients list is the same, but the box and prices are different (Shaw’s is $1.99 for 8; Stop & Shop 70 cents more for the same amount).
People were under-whelmed by the entire line. At the end, one taster announced that she would eat them again “if they were being given out as samples for free and I was really hungry.”
Kellog’s Nutri•Grain Cereal Bars
$2.50 for 8 bars (1.3 ounces each)
This is the brand most closely associated with cereal. “I feel like I have a film on the roof of my mouth…ick! “Not sure I’d even know this was strawberry flavored.” “Kinda doughy and I can’t really taste the jam,” said another. Then: “Little specs in the dough makes me think it’s wholesome.” “Bizarre superfluous flakes on top.” Yet another said, “Better tasting than I had expected and pleasantly surprised not to see any faux wheat germ.” Finally: “Tastes bland, with a fake whole-wheat chewy texture.”
Shaw’s Fruit & Grain Cereal Bars Low Fat Strawberry
$1.99 for 8 bars (1.3 ounces each)
Least favorite of the bunch, though box claims “new and improved.” From what? “Fig Newton consistency and appearance. Distinctly chemical flavored crust.” “Chewy, dry, not enough jam, tastes processed.” “Smells like a vitamin.” “Looks and tastes like an un-brand or store brand cheap knock-off.” “Too much bread and dry.” “Browner crust, more whole-wheat-y??” “Actually something that looks edible, but then it’s a brick.” Finally: “This one tastes more like a soft fruit cookie. A little dry. Fruit taste is OK.”
Stop and Shop Fruit & Grain Cereal Bars Strawberry
$2.69 for 8 bars (1.3 ounces each)
We decided this is the same bar as Shaw’s. Comments: “Not as bad as some, wouldn’t buy it. Gelatinous filling.” “The dough is good, but where’s the treat? I’m expecting something fruity and tasty and end up with gelatinous goo that adheres to my teeth.” One astute taster noticed the likeness to Shaw’s brand. “Dry like the previous one,” he said, “Keep chewing, waiting for the flavor to kick in.” “Boring filling is like chewing gum.” “No heavy tastes like they’re trying to hide something.” “Not overly sweet.”
Sunbelt Fruit and Grain Bars Strawberry Winner
$1.99 for 8 bars (1.4 ounces each)
The most attractive looking bar with swirls of icing; it received the most comments about a real strawberry taste. The photo of this bar was most like the actual product.
“Thicker jam and crust than others. Jam tastes more like strawberries.” “Pretty tasty. Can really taste the jam. Can’t really taste the icing but looks nice.” “Good pastry. Pop Tart-like.” “Jazzed up, good looking with decorative frosting. Can’t really taste the strawberry.” “Better filling; more like real jam and not so gelatinous.” “Ooh frosting, nice touch but not sure it added to the flavor.” “Softest most cake-like.” “Sort of like PB and J without the P.” And finally, “If you want to eat a candy bar for breakfast than this is the best.”
Trader Joe’s “this strawberry walks into a bar…” Cereal Bars
$1.69 for 6 bars (1.3 ounces each)
You can try to be funny, but in the end this crew was not buying the joke or the product. Three decided it was their least favorite. “It’s like a Jolly Rancher covered in artificial potato flakes.” “If I were to imagine what rabbit food tastes like, this would be it.” “Texture of cookie is fine. Less red color in the fruit mixture.” “Looks like a mashed jam sandwich on whole wheat. Wonder Bread. Same consistency too.” “Interesting trench in the middle.” “I was originally horrified by the shape, but it was a great way to divide the bar in half.” “I like the bran flakes on top. I think it tastes less fake.”
Quaker Breakfast Bars Strawberry
$2.50 for 8 bars (1.3 ounces each)
You’d expect this company to know breakfast food. Not according to our tasters. “So dry I desperately need to wash this down with coffee or something stronger. I thought this had strawberry in it — bland goop instead.” “Fake smell.” “Unappealing kind of a shiny gold color.” Another: “Kinda yellow. Not too much bread to jam ratio.” “Little oatmeal chips on top seem a superfluous after-thought.” “Looks like a fried potato cake.” The final diss: “Looks like a mashed Twinkie or maybe an egg roll.”