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Cereal bars
Cereal Bars

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. 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. Are these bars meant to replace morning cereal, for adults and children on the run? Maybe that's why 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 one another. 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 using phrases 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 impressed by the package photographs after they saw what was inside. Thick strawberry fruit filling in the photos was not in evidence in the bars. In fact, most fillings were gelatinous and sparse, and far too sweet. "This is just another path to creating future diabetics," one jaded taster said.

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 very small lettering.

Shaw's and Stop & Shop's house brands turned out to be identical -- at least we thought so. The same ingredients in both, and the same red foil wrapping around the bars. Boxes and prices are different (Shaw's is $1.99 for 8; Stop & Shop 70 cents more for the same amount).

People were underwhelmed by their brekfast bar experience. 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." -- DEB RA SAMUELS

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