How About Sugar Frosted Sugar?

Ralcorp Holdings Inc. is setting itself a modest goal. It's not trying to make a better Cheerio, or Cocoa Puff, or Grape Nut--just one that's indistinguishable from the original. To see how well it succeeds in its quest to create a parallel universe of breakfast cereals, BUSINESS WEEK conducted a highly unscientific blind tasting among some of the nation's most discriminating cereal eaters: 15 kids aged 4 to 12, all volunteers from a Harlem after-school program. When it comes to crunch, this is where the rubber meets the road.

We asked our experts to compare three Ralcorp knockoffs with the branded originals. The results might give cereal makers on all levels of the grocery-store shelf food for thought.

DAMNING VERDICT. First came cornflakes, and here, Ralcorp succeeded in matching the national brand--for what that's worth. Our tasters were unenthusiastic about both versions, even after we broke out sugar to sprinkle on top. "It tastes like the bark of a tree," said 12-year-old Franklin Felix of Ralcorp's version. But he didn't like Kellogg Co.'s classic cornflake any better. "It tastes like cookies without sugar," was his damning verdict. Most others couldn't detect much difference either, though the ersatz flake appeared slightly smaller and more fragile.

Froot Loops fared much better. "I love it!" exclaimed Naeemah Rose, age 91/2, after sampling the original. And with a sugar content of 14 grams per one-cup serving for the Kellogg prototype, it's not hard to see why. Our experts had little trouble telling apart the two versions of sticky, garishly colored rings--but happily for Ralcorp, its Fruit Rings were preferred by most. Ralcorp's secret? It heaps an astonishing 16 grams of sugar into a one-cup serving. "It's better than the first one," said Naeemah. "It tastes sweeter."

Our panel finished up with a few quick spoonfuls of Cheerios, the mighty General Mills Inc. brand. Once again, our tasters had no trouble telling the two cereals apart, this time before they tasted a single "O." The Mills breakfast standard is the result of an expensive "gun-puffing" process that Ralcorp simply cannot match with its existing equipment. As a result, no one would mistake a whiter, lighter, less uniform Tasteeo for one of Big G's little Os. But appearances weren't what bothered our experts. Most disliked the Mills classic only a bit less than they disliked the Ralcorp copy. "It tastes like wheat bread, and they need more sugar," said Whitney Patterson, age 8, after tasting Cheerios. Her comment on the Ralcorp sample? "Worse than wheat bread."

Based on our research, cereal makers can save themselves a lot of trouble. Forget fancy shapes and colors. Don't worry about dreaming up a silly name or a cartoon character to adorn the box. Just don't stint on the sugar.

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