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THE HAUTE OAT : Once a mainstay of the All-American breakfast, this plain grain has become the latest darling of health-conscious consumers, thanks to studies inidcating that it may reduce cholesterol.

May 15, 1988|BRUCE KEPPEL | Times Staff Writer

The brief news item buried deep in the Philadelphia Inquirer's food section carried the headline, "Study Finds Muffins Helped Cut Cholesterol." "Within 48 hours, we received several letters and a phone inquiry asking for the recipe for these magic muffins," food writer Marilynn Marler reported later when explaining how to make oat and oat-bran muffins.

The study, originally described in the March issue of the Western Journal of Medicine, was carried out by medical student Kurt V. Gold and Dr. Dennis M. Davidson at the University of California at Irvine. It added further evidence to research going back 25 years showing the cholesterol-reducing properties of the dietary fiber found in oats and oat bran, the grain's outer coating.

Consumers now are responding to the findings--perhaps as a side effect of the so-called oatmeal war that broke out last year after General Mills launched Total Oatmeal, backed by a $12-million promotional campaign, as a challenge to Quaker Oats' pre-eminence in the nation's $500-million hot-cereal market. Quaker Oats retaliated massively by introducing a new vitamin-fortified product of its own and doubling its marketing budget to $60 million.

For whatever reason, the long-prosaic oat--a traditional grain of choice for dairy farmers, horse fanciers and grandmothers--appears to be enjoying a new level of respect. The lowly oat is becoming haute --the latest grain to enjoy a run on the nutritionists' bran-wagon.

For example, General Foods' Orowheat bakery is introducing Oatnut bread in the huge and hotly competitive Southern California market this month after successfully testing the soft-textured loaves laced with hazelnuts in Seattle and Portland, Ore., supermarkets. Oatnut becomes Orowheat's second oat bread.

"We keep an eye on the cereal market, and we're seeing a resurgence of interest in oats in the bread market and the cereal market as well," explained William D. Grove, general manager of Orowheat's Southern California operation in Montebello. "I visit grocery stores quite a bit, and there is definitely an increased awareness of oats and oat bran."

Whether this increased awareness constitutes a new consumer trend is at this point open to question, however.

" Any thing having to do with fiber continues to have a vogue," acknowledged Lisbeth Echeandia, publisher of Confectioner magazine, a snacks trade journal. "But I'm not sure whether it's a fad or a trend. It's sort of like the granola-bar business--unless it tastes good, people aren't going to keep buying it."

But Grove, for one, sees growth ahead for the grain after years of flat-to-falling human consumption patterns. "Oats are moving more into the mainstream," the baker insisted. "Actually, we see the mainstream as changing, and we're moving with it."

That view was seconded by Karen Brown, representing the Food Marketing Institute, whose members include major supermarket retailers. "Oats have always been in the mainstream," Brown said, "but there is more use of oat bran now, and more interest in oat-bran muffins, and a resurgence in natural oats products.

"This is no longer the dusty corner of the health-food section, but the main aisles of the store."

If so, that would mark a notable comeback for a grain that had become the breakfast of champion race horses and pleasure ponies, but otherwise had taken its commercial lumps. Until General Mills threw down the oatmeal gauntlet, Quaker Oats had more or less let its century-old mush pretty well sell itself--which it pretty well did, to the point of giving the Chicago-based company about two-thirds of all hot-cereal sales.

That marketing lethargy, plus more recent interest in grains by consumers, is what drew General Mills to return to its roots with Total Oatmeal as a companion to its first and best-selling cold cereal, Cheerios (originally, Cheeryoats).

Heavy promotions launched Total Oatmeal "extremely well," said General Mills spokesman William Shaffer. Quaker Oats Oatmeal enjoyed more than a 10% sales increase last winter, the traditional oatmeal season, said its spokesman, Ron Bottrell.

"In a mature category like hot cereal, a double-digit increase is really something," Bottrell said. "Never have Americans eaten as much oatmeal as they have this hot-cereal season.

"The level of awareness was really heightened this year because there was more oatmeal advertising than there ever had been before," he speculated, "and the messages were new."

The messages were strong on the nutritional value and health benefits of oats and oat bran. Indeed, they were so strong that the Food and Drug Administration, which is expected to issue final regulations this summer that will set tests for food advertising claims, received numerous complaints of exaggeration. The most vocal came from the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington consumer advocacy group that has previously taken strong opposition to alcoholic beverage ads.

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