See more of the story

A good way to feel old is to have a major food company reintroduce a "nostalgia" product like Dunkaroos that you didn't know about when it was a hit.

This snack produced by General Mills was popular in the 1990s, so they must have been selling them in my neighborhood grocery.

A lot has changed since then, of course, as consumers increasingly want fresh and natural foods without a lot of sugar. So why would General Mills reboot a graham cookie dunked in sugary, sprinkled frosting?

In looking into this, though, maybe General Mills really knows what it's doing. After all, the job of a business executive is to offer products the customers want, and for the moment General Mills has good reason to think Americans really want Dunkaroos.

One part of the story is easy to grasp: the appeal of a product that some of us fondly remember from the old days. "Brands live in our neurons," explained Dan Wallace, now on the faculty of the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse and a longtime marketing consultant and author here in the Twin Cities.

He seemed to later regret even bringing up this concept because it sounds too deep-in-the-weeds. All he really meant is that good experiences with a brand or product create memories that can hang around in our brains, even if we haven't had a conscious thought about them in a long time.

That means it's easier to get the consumer's attention when a product makes a return. That's similar to the thinking behind launching new products under popular brands, because if consumers really liked the mac & cheese they will probably at least try a canned soup with the same brand.

Kellogg Co. is one of the firms that's famously proved it's possible to drive that idea into the ground. It has stretched the Kashi brand, which started with the tagline "Seven whole grains on a mission," to cover all sorts of things not even made from grain, whole or otherwise.

The popularity of the Dunkaroos line seemed to peak in the 1990s, with multiple products and even a campaign to ask fans to rename the brand mascot.

But while sales wound down in 2012 in the United States (Canadians could still buy them), the Dunkaroos were gone but not forgotten. Among the celebrities who have taken to social media in the recent past to talk them up were actor Josh Peck, model Chrissy Teigen and celebrity Kim Kardashian West.

In 1995, in the golden era of the Dunkaroos, Peck would have been 9 years old, Teigen would have been 10 and Kardashian West would have been 15.

A colleague here raised the possibility that the millennial parents won't buy these things for their own kids. They will buy them to snack on after their kids go to bed.

What's a little more puzzling is that Mills plans to bring back the exact same sugary snacks, as if maybe consumers didn't really mean it when they said they want low-sugar and more-nutritious snacks. In a short conversation with communications manager Jamie Bastian from General Mills, we seemed to settle on the word "indulgent" to describe them, and she added "fun" and "playful."

The Dunkaroos product coming back is the most requested of the versions that once populated the shelves, the ones with vanilla frosting and colorful sprinkles. The recipe hasn't changed.

The nutrition facts for Dunkaroos were still alive on the diet and fitness app MyFitnessPal, showing how a single package of Dunkaroos has 130 calories. That doesn't sound so bad for consumers trying to control weight, except that the snacks are very small at just 28 grams and almost half the weight comes from sugar.

"We know that consumer preferences and trends are changing every single day," Bastian explained. "We also know that snacking is on the rise. At General Mills, our goal is to really give the consumer what they want, and that is not a one-size-fits-all."

This idea that snacking is on the rise is one of the more hopeful developments for big companies like General Mills, which have had a stiff wind in their faces now for a while.

Retail-sales growth was hard to come by in the recent past for center-of-the-store items, a term that means the shelf-stable packaged products and household goods filling the shelves in the middle of a grocery store. All the stuff on offer around the perimeter of the store was doing better — the fresh fruits and vegetables, deli items and other prepared foods, freshly baked bread, meats and so on.

As of the most recent Nielsen Co. market data, however, center-store items have seen some renewed growth in sales.

An end-of-the-year review of top center-store grocery trends from 2019 in the trade publication Supermarket News had a list that was far from all positive, but some good news is that even "indulgent" snacks, as the category is called, may be staging a comeback.

One point made in this trade press coverage was that healthier snacks have seen growth, but these additional sales haven't come at the expense of more indulgent varieties. Snacking of all kinds has increased, as Americans are too busy for three square meals a day and will instead eat smaller amounts pretty much all day.

The more indulgent snacks might be packaged differently than they once were, maybe with less artificial color and sugar and likely in smaller serving sizes. That even happened with the venerable and now slightly smaller Twinkies snack cake, which, depending on the consumer, is either a superfood or a candidate for junkiest thing ever sold to Americans.

And for the boomer too old to have gotten in on Dunkaroos the first time, you've been handed a rare second chance. And with 12 grams of sugar, that will be less than a fruit-filled Greek yogurt.