muesli
Display and shelf impact are primary. Special ingredients and flavors such as chocolate, strawberries, pistachios and almonds need to be brightly and prominently printed. If possible, the muesli mixture itself should be visible. The premiumness of the packaging format itself can dictate choice as much as taste and ingredient preferences. Photos PSA

When I was much younger, muesli was just a very expensive breakfast cereal. Although generally associated with wealthier friends and colleagues, ‘Swiss Familia’ was also a shortcut to being well-fed. Whenever in a supermarket that carried it, one was tempted to buy it. The back-to-nature crowd, of course mixed up their concoction of oats, nuts, raisins, berries and desiccated or dehydrated fruit themselves. At one time, there was a shop in Manali that sold homemade muesli that we would bring back to the big city. One of the first branded muesli products packed in a box and distributed to special food stores across the country emanated from a farmhouse in Bengaluru. If I recall correctly, it was promoted by a former Bollywood actress.

For much of its history, muesli has not only been seen as a wonder food but also as a cure for just about anything. Around 1900, Swiss physician Dr Bircher-Benner, known as the first modern advocate of this whole-food nutrient-rich mixture, thought that most illnesses affected by gut health, immunities and cardiovascular functions, could be alleviated if not cured by exercise and a more nutritious diet. He was a forerunner of the currently widespread profession of functional doctors, who cure everything from blood pressure to high sugar and obesity with a combination of exercise and a holistic diet.

The first mass-produced muesli was introduced in 1959 by Swiss company Somalon, (now known as Bio-Familia). It used the Bircher-Benner recipe and was soon exported to Germany, Austria, England, the Netherlands and the US. In the 1970s, the company introduced ‘crunchy muesli’, similar to today’s granolas with added sugar and oils – specifically in response to American taste preferences for sugary convenience foods.

Needless to say, muesli has caught on, with many local and global brands offering it as a breakfast convenience food and even as a desi alternative to processed, sugar-coated cereals that come in various shapes and colors. Conventional breakfast cereals that have caught on, particularly amongst the Indian urban upper middle class, have generally faced a tough battle against the traditional favorites of poha, parathas, idlis, dosas, uttappams and even the humble roadside bread pakora.

At first, there was resistance to conventional processed cereals because of the exorbitant price of global brands in fancy packaging, but local alternatives soon emerged in simple flexible pouches. With prosperity, and the increasing obsession with fitness, weight loss and better nutrition, the magical muesli came into the markets as a branded, healthier and more expensive convenience breakfast option. As supermarkets and hypermarkets arrive and proliferate, an explosion of muesli options have arrived and are reaching the kirana store shelves.

The muesli mania amongst food brands and start-ups has become competitive. Organized brands are attempting to bring the prices of this holistic and special mixture within the economic reach and taste preferences of a country that is full of traditional and more fascinating options but which require a working kitchen and considerable effort. Apart from the change in lifestyles that demand instant and convenient but more nutritious solutions, the cultural impetus for organic, vegetarian and coarse grains such as ragi has further fueled this category.

In an up-market hypermarket in Delhi, one can find at least 10 brands and more than 20 varieties of muesli – from chocolate-coated, to added sugar-free to sugar-less. The next steps are visible – to maintain the convenience while offering this special holistic food in variations that range from with and without a particular ingredient – to those that address allergies – and sugarless varieties that address concerns such as rapidly growing diabetes.

As the muesli category catches on, and the flavors and options multiply, packaging has assumed a more important role. The need to project the new variants and special ingredients on the shelf increases as does the need for coming up with more price-competitive and sustainable packs in a choice of sizes, formats and price points.

Thus one now sees the plain plastic jars with labels and boxes with plastic bags inside, replaced by attractively printed pouches with barrier properties – as muesli becomes a mainstream staple of the holistic diet. However, to retain its mystique as a natural and holistic nutrient-rich fitness product, the plastic packaging will have to be recyclable and perhaps also reclosable in a way to keep out moisture. Nevertheless, the high value of the product and its still somewhat premium positioning, allows food companies to use it as an example of organic high nutrition with convenience that could be delivered in the new sustainable packaging to come.

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