General Mills bows first protein cereal

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With low-carbohydrate diets threatening the nearly $7 billion ready-to-eat cereal category, General Mills later this month will introduce Total Protein, the first mainstream cereal designed to appeal to the low-carb lifestyle.

The launch, supported by an estimated $20 million ad effort that bows in April, comes as marketers in carb-laden categories quickly ramp up with lower-carb substitutes (AA, Jan. 5) and is expected to kick off a rash of low-carb cereal competitors. General Mills had planned the introduction of Total Protein for later in the year, but according to retail executives, the company stepped up the launch multiple times in order to beat their competition to the punch.

In a note about Kellogg Co. recently from Prudential Securities, food analyst John McMillin said that Kellogg management had in October called the rise of the Atkins diet a "non-factor" for its cereal business but more recently acknowledged that it is slowing down the overall U.S. cereal category.

world of atkins

Jeff Montie, president-Kellogg's Morning Foods Division, North America, would not comment on the likelihood of a low-carb cereal launch except to say, "we're pretty good about staying in tune with what consumers want." Kellogg sales executives have intimated to retail buyers that such a launch is close at hand.

"When you're essentially a grain-based company in the world of Atkins, you have to offer something that's going to appeal to those consumers," said Evan Morris, food analyst with UBS Warburg.

Total Protein is made with a combination of wheat gluten, wheat flour and whey protein and coated with sucralose sweetener (brand name Splenda) and honey-roasted almond butter, which decreases its net carbohydrates to 8 grams and offers 13 grams of protein. That compares to 23 carbohydrate grams and 2 protein grams in flagship Total.

A General Mills spokesman said TV and print ads touting the new extension, from Publicis Groupe's Saatchi & Saatchi, New York, will position it as a good option for people looking to keep fit and control their weight.

Limited grains

The now-popular South Beach diet, like Atkins, recommends consumers steer clear of higher-glycemic carbohydrates, but allows for limited whole grains such as those contained in General Mills' Total, Wheaties and Cheerios, along with Kellogg's All Bran and Special K.

Total ranks 19th among cereal brands, with sales for the year ended Dec. 28 down 0.5% to $90 million, according to Information Resources Inc. Despite its ranking, however, Total is General Mills' third highest advertised brand behind Cheerios and Honey Nut Cheerios. TNS Media Intelligence/CMR data shows General Mills spent $32 million on Total during the first 10 months of 2003.

Total Protein will sell for roughly 50¢ more than a slightly larger box of regular Total but still far less than Atkins' Nutritionals' Morning Start cereals. Despite the surcharge, retailers call the item "hot" and a "must-have."

According to Iris Shaffer, executive director of the newly established Low-Carb Manufacturers Alliance, eating eggs and Canadian bacon on low-carb diets is time-consuming and gets old fast. "People like their cereal in the morning, and while General Mills may be the first of the established brands to enter the market, you'll definitely see others there soon."

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