Four industry specialists review Quaker Overnight Oats, a prepackaged plastic cup of dry oats soaked overnight in milk to provide a healthy cold breakfast cereal by morning.
There are not many things simpler to prepare than putting oats into a cup, adding milk and letting it soak overnight so that by breakfast you’ve got a cold cup of ready-to-eat cereal awaiting.
What could be easier or more convenient for a basic, healthy start to the day?
That would be Quaker Overnight Oats, a prepackaged 65g/2.29oz netweight version of the above that provides everything needed—base ingredients and container—except the milk. The packaging comprises the following:
- Plastic #7 cup, which indicates that the (perhaps polypropylene based) plastic cup includes a moisture and/or oxygen barrier;
- Clear film lidding with an amply-sized peel-off pull tab;
- Duo-material overcap with in-mold label on clear center portion;
- Applied adhesive label with graphics.
The design scheme is classy, tasteful and presents a very nice, just-right balance of elements and information.
And so as not to limit the product use, small on-label type states that those who want warm cereal can microwave it for 30 seconds.
However, there was something that bothered me about it right off the shelf: I thought the do-it-yourself version was so simple there didn't seem to be a need for a prepackaged version. However, that a major brand has made considerable effort to do all that was needed to deliver it to an awaiting audience proves that there is.
Then it struck me that “I could do this so easily myself at home but then don’t" thinking is what comprises a considerable portion of the food packaging business; for example, prepackaged precut fruit. In other words, this is a prime example of packaged convenience.
To gain a wider perspective I sought advice from three close, diverse contacts—in packaging, in sustainability and in food science—who I asked to assess the product. Combined, these contributions provide a wider-angle representation that paints a much broader, clearer and more insightful picture than from my narrow view. In short, four heads are much better than one.
We begin our virtual panel review with Lisa Pierce, Packaging Digest executive editor, who has 30+ years’ experience covering the packaging business.
“Interesting that Quaker seems to position this as a convenience product when it might do better as a health(ier) alternative that has the added benefit of to-go convenience,” she pointed out while noting several surprising things about the package:
• I loved the transparency in the cup and the lid, especially the lid. That is a unique feature for packages in this product segment. Usually these cups are paperboard rather than plastic (#7 Other). But it signals that this is different—and it is: Chilled oat cereal. It’s helpful to see the product inside, from the top and the bottom. And the clear overcap only works because the inner lidding is also transparent.
• It’s also remarkable that the label language—“Add milk at night; Enjoy cold next day”—promotes convenience more so than the healthy ingredients. I would think the healthy ingredients would appeal to people more. But having a healthy meal that is super convenient to make is such a plus.
• The color of the lid’s skirt matches nicely the color throughout the label.
• Simple label graphics communicate clearly, too.
• The over-large type on the “Calories” in the Nutrition Facts box caught my attention, along with the boldfaced “Serving size = 1 package.”
• I also like how they added a panel of step-by-step directions. Since this product is prepared differently, calling that out makes the purchase decision a little easier and quicker. “I can do that!”
Overall, I would rate this package quite highly. Now it just needs a digital component to it to remind me to take it out of the refrigerator in the morning before I leave home! And maybe a spoon?
To help sort through the product’s sustainability, I called on Robert Lilienfeld, who has been involved with sustainable packaging 20+ years.
To my surprise, he found several favorable attributes with the concept.
“It’s actually a good idea from a sustainability standpoint,” responded Lilienfeld. “There is little or no increase in energy consumption to stick something in the fridge, and it probably uses less energy than adding water and heating in a microwave.”
Then he really drilled down into the sustainability. “From a specific heat perspective, it might even increase fridge efficiency by adding more mass in the fridge.”
While that’s a not-inaccurate stretch, he then noted something that expanded my view of the chilled product’s potential markets.
“As a Phoenix resident who’s staring at a thermometer stating it’s 98 degrees at noon, I don’t want traditional oatmeal for breakfast, at least until January. However, vs. Cheerios, it’s a possibility. There’s cold brewed coffee to go with breakfast cereal, and now you can have a complete cold brewed breakfast!”
It’s that aspect that Lilienfeld feels the brand didn’t leverage enough and that may create consumer confusion.
“I think they missed the boat by not calling out the cold brew message more forcefully. What the heck does Overnight Oats mean? Do I have to cook them overnight? How do I do that?”
He also considered the demographics and the polymer.
“If this is a product aimed at Millennials, I hope it’s HDPE and easily recyclable [Ed. Note: Because he only saw a photo, Lilienfeld did not know the code molded on the cup bottom is #7 Other]. Also, the recyclability is an issue here regardless of material—dairy residue reduces recyclability.
“If it is aimed at Millennials, I don’t think the graphics appeal to a younger crowd.”
Which may explain why this Baby Boomer editor did find the graphics very pleasing.
Contrary to Pierce’s opinion, Lilienfeld felt that a paperboard cup would actually have been the better alternative for the packaging.
“I would have done the entire thing in paperboard packaging,” he says, “which would have added vibrancy to the graphics and a more upscale look. But, what do I know about oatmeal marketing?”
Indeed, what do any of us know about oatmeal marketing, compared to Quaker Oats? But that doesn’t stop us from also considering the product formulation and labeling.
Ingredients assessed: Is this a clean label?
Having a clean label is all the rage these days and my personal view was that the ingredients statement for Quaker Overnight Oats included constituents with which I was familiar and could pronounce. That is with the exception of quinoa, to be perfectly honest: I know it is a good-for-you grain seed, even though I may mispronounce it.
It also occured to me that the name “Oats” is a bit of a misnomer because it contains more than oats; the product formulation is a value-added mix that you can see for yourself in the image above from my sample of Blueberry Banana & Vanilla Bean.
For authoritative input I sought the insights of my long-ago former colleague and career food scientist Claudia O’Donnell, who is a co-owner of Global Food Forums, which produces the Clean Label Conferences among other events.
Is this indeed a clean label?
Her clear, yet cleverly vague and spot-on response: “‘Clean label’ is in the eye of the consumer,” O’Donnell said. “Since consumers differ in what they want and what they watch out for, a clean label product to demographic group A is not to demographic group B and vice versa.
“One could argue that this is a clean label from view that most consumers actually paying attention to such things would likely know what quinoa and citric acid is. And that natural flavor is, well, natural.
“Purists, however, would likely want straight rolled outs, in bulk paper bags.
“It seems there is a continuum of an increasing amount of processing/packaging that at some point a particular target consumer feels is ‘over processed.’ One could argue that consumers need to harvest the grain themselves and anything more than that is processed. Likely a few consumers would agree.”
We hope that our virtual roundtable review was agreeably helpful.
Finally, I wanted to point out that Quaker maintains a webpage that provides a lot of information and recipes for do-it-yourself overnight oats, a product that in web searches seems to be popular if not wildly so. Perhaps that interest evolved into what I came across as Quaker Overnight Oats. Or the site may have served as a testing ground to see what interest—and in what varieties and ingredients—were submitted or deemed most popular by consumers.