Breakfast cereal is a type of processed food made of grain and intended to be eaten with milk as a main course during the morning meal. The two main types of breakfast cereals are defined by the way they’re eaten. Hot cereals, for example, require a brief cooking period but are less popular than the cold, ready-to-eat cereal. Hot cereal recipes have existed, in one form or another, since ancient times when people would grind whole grains and cook them in water to create various forms of gruels or porridge.

Cold cereals, on the other hand, were developed much later in the late 19th century. To some extent, they were invented because of religious beliefs. The precursor to what most of us today know as cereals was developed by the American clergyman Sylvester Graham, who was a strong advocate of a vegetarian diet. In 1829, he used coarse and unsifted ground wheat flour to create the Graham cracker.

Fast-forward several decades, and we have Dr. James Caleb Jackson, who invented the very first cold cereal called granula in 1863. Similar to Graham, Dr. Jackson was a proponent of a vegetarian diet and the eating of unprocessed foods. He was well aware of the effect that nutrition has on a person’s health and eventually created a dry, whole-grain breakfast cereal. The recipe was rather simple. He baked graham flour and bran and crumbled it. That said, granula was too hard to eat “right out of the box” and required about 20 minutes of soaking in milk or water. Nevertheless, this was faster and more convenient than was the case with hot cereals that required actual cooking.

Several years after the invention of granula, physician John Harvey Kellogg was introduced to the product, and he invented a similar variant of the cereal. Together with his brother, W. K. Kellogg, they discovered the first precooked, flaked cereal. Initially made of wheat, the same processing method was later used on corn, which proved to be more popular. Basically, the Kellogg brothers cooked the wheat or corn into a dough, flattened it between two metal rollers, then scraped it off with a knife. The resulting flakes were cooked once again and allowed to temper for several hours. In 1906, the Kellogg Company was established, and by 1909, it sold over one million cases of cereal.

Another pioneer in the early days of breakfast cereal was Charles William Post. Among his inventions in the industry are Grape Nuts in 1897, Post Toasties in 1904, and Post 40% Bran Flakes in 1922. Post founded the Postum Cereal Co. Ltd., which later became known as the General Foods Corporation.

Due to Kellogg’s and Post’s success, many other similar breakfast cereal manufacturing businesses opened in their area during the early 20th century. However, these other companies soon went out of business, whereas the Kellogg and Postum Cereal companies endured. Among the main reasons for their success was their advertising campaigns, which no longer focused on their products as simply being health foods but also quick, convenient, and tasty breakfast meals. Another reason was the introduction of corn flakes, which were tastier and more popular than wheat flakes.

Since then, breakfast cereal has grown in variety and popularity, ending up in most American households.

Breakfast Cereal Market Trends and Statistics

Today, the breakfast cereal market is at an all-time high. In 2020, the industry is expected to generate a revenue of $62.7 billion. The United States accounts for about a third of this revenue, at around $20.1 billion. The industry is also growing at about 4.1% compound annual growth rate (CAGR). As previously mentioned, breakfast cereal is a highly penetrated category of products in mature markets, such as the United States and Europe. However, there is still a lot of room for growth in other areas of the world, particularly in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. In many of these regions, breakfast cereal is presented as a sort of novel food option and alternative to traditional foods that are typically available.

When it comes to the United States, cereal companies are looking into new ways to boost consumption and keep their customers engaged. One of these strategies is to reposition cereal as not only breakfast foods but also as something that can be eaten as a snack or dessert. Another strategy is to introduce both new and eye-catching flavors as a play on millennial nostalgia. For example, Hostess Donettes was introduced by Post Holdings, Caticorn by Kellogg’s, and Cinnamon Toast Crunch Churros by General Mills.

Another trend that cereal manufacturers need to keep in mind is the increased customer demand for healthier, less-processed ingredients used in their recipes. This is particularly relevant in product development when it comes to mature markets, such as North America and Europe. There are niched breakfast cereal brands that cater to these trends and add value by incorporating probiotics, ancient grains, seeds, nuts, and other so-called superfoods.

Raw Materials Used In The Manufacture of Breakfast Cereals

The main raw material used in the production of breakfast cereal is grain. The most common types of grains used in the breakfast cereal industry are corn, wheat, oats, rice, rye, and barley. There are some types of hot cereal, such as plain oatmeal, and some cold cereals, such as shredded wheat, that use no other ingredients. However, most breakfast cereals contain a multitude of other ingredients, depending on the recipe and processing method. Among these other ingredients, we can include salt, various types of sweeteners, yeast, coloring and flavoring agents, preservatives, vitamins, minerals, seeds, nuts, etc.

While some natural cereals are sweetened with concentrated fruit juice, most other breakfast cereals use more conventional sweeteners, such as white and brown sugar, corn syrup, or malt that’s typically obtained from barley. There is also a variety of other flavors and ingredients added to breakfast cereal, such as cinnamon, chocolate, various fruit flavors, marshmallows, dried fruit, nuts, and many others. When it comes to the added vitamins and minerals, these need to be added after cooking, unless they are heat-resistant. Vitamin B1 nutritional value, for instance, is reduced by about 90% when exposed to heat.

Breakfast Cereal Processing

There are several stages that breakfast cereal goes through before it emerges as a final product. There are also several types of manufacturing processes, depending on the type of cereal, such as flaked, puffed, shredded, etc. Regardless of the type of end product, the manufacturing process starts with preparing the grain.

Once the grain is received at the cereal factory, it will be inspected and cleaned. Some cereals will use whole grains, while others will crush the grain between huge metal rollers to remove the outer layer of bran and grind the grain into a fine flour. Whole and partial grains will be mixed with other ingredients in a large rotary pressure cooker. The speed of rotation, time, and temperature used during this process will depend, in large part, on the type of grain being used. Once the grain is cooked, it will be passed to a drying oven. However, a certain amount of water content needs to be left in the cooked grain so that it can be shaped as needed.

Other types of cereal use flour instead of whole grains. This flour is mixed with other ingredients and cooked in a cooking extruder. Basically, this is a piece of equipment consisting of a long screw encased in a heated housing. The screw mixes the flour with the other ingredients while also moving the mix through the extruder. At the other end, the cooked dough is expelled in the form of a long and continuous ribbon, which is cut into pellets by a rotating knife. These pellets will later be processed in a similar way to the cooked grains mentioned above.

●     Flaked Cereal Production

Flaked cereals can be made from either whole grains or extruded pellets. The basic principle is that the cooked grains or pellets are allowed to temper for several hours, allowing the moisture content to stabilize. Once this tempering is complete, the grains or pellets will be subject to several tons of pressure to be flattened by two large metal rollers. The resulting flakes will be conveyed to an oven where they will be exposed to hot air, removing the excess moisture and toasting them until the desired color and flavor is achieved.

When it comes to flaked cereals made from whole grains, grain size is important to maintain the overall product quality. In most cases, unmodified corn starch will be added into the mix so that the flakes will be able to withstand processing. After cooking, the moisture content of flaked cereal needs to be between 28 to 32%. Controlling the moisture and texture levels of whole-grain flaked cereal happens primarily during the initial cooking, drying, and tempering phases. For extruded flakes, this happens mostly after extrusion. Nevertheless, the optimal moisture level of the finished product needs to be between 1 and 3% to ensure the correct crunchiness and toughness.

●     Puffed Cereal Production

Typically made of rice and wheat, puffed cereal uses a piece of equipment known as a gun. After being cooked, cooled, and tempered, the rice grains will be partially flattened between metal rollers in a process known as bumping. Once bumped, the rice grains will be dried once more and placed in a high-pressure steam oven (gun) where they will swell in size. For the process to be effective, the temperature needs to be between 400º to 500ºF while the pressure should be about 200 lbs. psi. The oven will suddenly release that pressure, forcing the grains to release the steam very quickly and puff up in size.

At this moment in time, the puffed grains will have a moisture content of around 5 to 7%, which will need to be brought down to between 1 and 3%. It’s also important to note that these types of cereal can absorb moisture fairly easily, meaning that they will also require a layer of coating and the appropriate type of packaging material to keep them from spoiling and to maintain their crispiness over time.

●     Shredded Cereal Production

The most common type of grain used for shredded cereal is wheat. To make shredded cereal, the wheat is boiled in water to allow moisture to fully penetrate the grain. It will then be allowed to temper before being passed through two metal rollers. The difference between these rollers and those used in flaked cereal is that, while one roller is smooth, the other one is grooved. There’s also a metal comb positioned against the grooved roller, which has a tooth inside each groove. The grain is shredded by these teeth as it passes through. The result is a continuous ribbon that will be cut to the appropriate size and baked until the right color and dryness are achieved.

It’s important for the cooked wheat to temper for up to 24 hours before shredding, as this allows the moisture to even out and the cereal to harden from starch retrogradation. If it’s not allowed to temper for long enough, the shredded wheat will be too gummy and sticky for further processing.

●     Granola Production

Granola is made by mixing grain and other ingredients, such as nuts, dried fruits, seeds, honey, malt extract, different flavors, etc., and cooking them as a mix. Unlike other types of cereal, granola also needs oil in the mix to allow the other ingredients to stick together. This process is known as agglomeration. The mixture will be cooked at temperatures between 300º to 425ºF to achieve a light browning and a moisture content of around 3%. Around 5% of inulin (a prebiotic fiber) and other carbohydrates may also be added to help with the binding. Once the cooking and drying processes are complete, the granola will be broken up into chunks.

●     Coatings

After the initial processing phase, some cereals may be sprayed with a layer of coating with sweeteners, flavors, food coloring, preservatives, vitamins, and/or minerals. The commonly-used sugar coating in most cereals combines a sugar formula and application method that ensures the sugar crystals have the right color, flavor, size, and structure when dry. Beet or cane sugar is typically used as a coating, but brown sugar or honey can also partially replace white sugar. Adding oil can also help prevent clumping.

Aside from making the cereal sweet, sugar coatings also provide an additional layer between the milk and cereal, thus prolonging their crispiness. Adding different starches, such as dextrin or maltodextrin, to the cereal’s surface will help improve storage stability without adding sweetness to the overall taste. High-fructose corn syrup and crystalline fructose, on the other hand, can be used to provide additional sweetness and adhering properties for dry flavor-bit applications. In sweetened cereals, the coating’s visibility will also add some level of appeal to the consumer. As such, the coating can account for up to 50% of the cereal’s weight.

Packaging and Quality Control

While some cereals, such as shredded wheat, are fairly resistant to spoilage from moisture and can be placed directly in a cardboard box, most other cereals will need to be packaged in airtight and waterproof plastic bags. These are also placed in cardboard boxes to protect them from spoiling. Current trends indicate that customers today are more focused on flexible packaging and sustainable materials. Traditionally, rigid plastics, such as polypropylene, polyethylene, polyethylene terephthalate, polyamide, or ethylene-vinyl alcohol, have been used in breakfast cereal packaging. However, more cereal manufacturing businesses are starting to look towards more sustainable materials, such as plant-based packaging.

More convenient packaging options are also being considered such as resealable, flexible, and stand-up bags. These options tend to remove the need for the traditional cardboard box and reduce the overall volume of packaging as a whole. Single-serve pouches are also a trend that’s worth keeping an eye on.

Quality Control in Breakfast Cereal Production

Like with all other food production industries, the breakfast cereal production process needs to be carefully monitored for quality and sanitation. This means that the equipment used should be cleaned and sterilized regularly, while the grain should be inspected for any foreign matter as soon as it arrives in the factory. The temperature and moisture content should also be monitored constantly during the manufacturing process, as well as the quality of the stored cereal.

The processing of cereal needs to be constantly inspected for any signs of microbial growth. The most common microorganisms to watch out for include Salmonella, fungi, Aspergillus, Penicillium, spore-forming bacteria, and Fusarium. Some of these molds will produce mycotoxins, which can cause severe illness or even death. While mold contamination in raw cereal grains cannot be prevented entirely, microbial growth can be controlled if sanitary manufacturing practices and equipment are used.

It’s important to keep in mind that, while microbial growth can be halted when heat is applied, there is the possibility of later contamination when other ingredients, such as sweeteners, coloring, flavorings, preservatives, vitamins, minerals, and other additives, are added. Transferring the product between different areas of production can also pose a high risk of contamination (from heating to drying, to coating, and to packaging).

Traditionally, cereal producers have used bucket elevators, flat-bed conveyors, aeromechanical devices, augers, or pneumatic conveyors to transport their cereal from one area of the facility to another. However, most of these conveyor belt systems have issues with cross-contamination, long downtimes, and maintenance periods. Tubular drag cable conveyors, on the other hand, were proven to eliminate many of these risks and inefficiencies.

According to Gary Schliebs, Process Engineer at Plus One-Percent Engineered Solutions, “More and more breakfast cereal processors are looking at using this tubular drag conveyor technology right from the initial mixing phase to the blender, then into an extruder. Some major manufacturers are also implementing the system even further downstream, from their extruder to their coating system and through to their packing line. Here is a system that they can go with all the way – an end-to-end package solution that fits perfectly from a cleaning perspective and from an enclosed system point of view, and the risk is absolutely minimal from a contamination or hygiene issue.”

In other words, tubular drag conveyor systems will be able to integrate with an existing cereal production process, transporting cereal without the issue of contamination or product damage. This is also coupled with easy cleaning and quick changeovers, far outpacing any other type of conveyor system used in cereal production.