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Waking Up To Cereal

February 20, 2014

Earlier this month there was a report that documented the decline of breakfast cereal sales in North America. The article seemed to blame younger consumers who are more snackers than sit-down breakfast eaters. But that’s ridiculous. Cereal doesn’t need to be eaten in a bowl full of milk with a spoon.

Who hasn’t shoved handfuls of the stuff into their pie hole and washed it down with a slug of milk from the carton?

Personally, I find cereal to be quite portable. I’ll take my bowl in one hand, my laptop in the other, and move about the house getting ready, eating, and catching up on Facebook all the while.

So I’m not buying that argument about the cause of the decline. Part of the reason is that I would like to believe in a different narrative entirely. One that is a little less kind to the cereal industry. Granted, it’s one that I have no proof to support. But I do have common sense on my side. And no, it has nothing to do with GMOs (even though I’m sure those are a factor for a growing segment of consumers).

Think back to a time when dinner was steak and potatoes. Lunch may have been a ham sandwich on white bread. If you had the time, breakfast might have been eggs, bacon and potatoes. But a healthier choice would have been a bowl of cereal with some whole milk. Corn and rice fortified with vitamins and minerals were considered to be nutritious.

We’ve come a long way since then, but America’s cereals by and large are an artifact of the past.

For most of their history, the majority of breakfast cereals have been made from refined grains and sugar. These days, much like the yogurt aisle, the cereal aisle reads very much like a candy store. Sure, things like Apple Jacks, Fruity Pebbles, Trix, Frosted this and Cocoa that have been around since I was a kid. But Reese’s Puffs? Stop. It hurts.

And I could pick apart the cereal that’s modeled after the candy. It wouldn’t be hard to do even though the front of the box proclaims that it’s “made with whole grain – first ingredient.” The problem is that when you have so many ingredients inside the box there isn’t that much of the first one. A .75 cup serving has a paltry 1g of dietary fiber. That’s a lot more surprising than the 10g of sugar.

But let’s look at one of the healthier choices, like Special K, which is one of Kellogg’s core brands.

The original cereal isn’t all that bad. It’s mostly rice, wheat gluten, sugar and defatted wheat germ. Yes, it’s got a bunch of sodium in it. And since it’s all refined grains, there is no dietary fiber in it at all. Still, the sugar is kept to a modest 4g per cup.

You can’t say the same thing for the multiple line extensions which drown out the original on the shelf. Like Red Berry, which adds freeze dried strawberries in addition to brown sugar syrup. That more than doubles the sugar per serving, and at 9g it’s right up there in the range with the junky kids stuff. The healthy sounding Fruit and Yogurt Special K is even worse. Besides brown sugar syrup, this flavor also adds corn syrup, brown sugar, confectioner’s glaze, honey, and molasses. 10g of sugar in a .75 cup serving is exactly what you would get from the box of Reese’s.

I could go on, but I think you get the idea.

This, of course, is all coming from my starting place that grains in and of themselves are pretty awesome and healthful foods. I love my slow cut steel cut oats, and am quite fond of mixing whatever cereal is most similar to the old formulation of Grape Nuts into my yogurt with some frozen wild blueberries.

I’m not anti-grain and and I’m not anti-cereal. I’m not even against refined grains. The breads, pastries and pizzas that I enjoy couldn’t be made without white flour. But if I ate these special treats every day, it wouldn’t be the best thing for my waistline or my overall health. Or at least that’s what my doctor tells me.

Maybe, just maybe, consumers are finally waking up to this. The cereal business is so big that it doesn’t take a large shift in consumption to affect its bottom line. Mrs. Fussy eats the Nature’s Path flax flakes like they are going out of style. Occasionally she supplements them with the ancient grains flakes. But they are high in fiber, low in sugar, organic and free of the dreck found in other brands.

I’ll steal a bowl of her cereal as a late night snack. Plus cereal still qualifies as an emergency dinner in the Fussy household and beyond.

But then again, we are not the youth of America. God knows what the kids are doing these days. Maybe they aren’t eating cereal. But if they aren’t, I really hope it’s because they’ve gotten smart to what big food is trying to sell them, and not because they just don’t have the time.

Because that’s crazy talk.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. February 20, 2014 10:40 am

    As a child, my parents always bought the Frosted Wheat Cereal. Everyone ate it religiously on weekdays. My parents still eat it. Unfortunately, I usually make the mistake of bypassing breakfast for a coffee on the go with my crazy schedule. Not really an excuse though . I do know better. Perhaps my personal contribution to the decline of cereal sales is laziness?

    • February 20, 2014 10:42 am

      As an afterthought . . . There is nothing more amazing then a morning smell of eggs, bacon cooking in unison with coffee brewing. The aromas coming together are a true culinary masterpiece. Cereal? Just doesn’t do that for me :)

  2. February 20, 2014 10:52 am

    I love cereal, but I don’t really eat it that much anymore, largely because there’s not enough protein in it — it doesn’t keep me full long enough. It’s delicious, but it takes me a lot longer to go through a box when I’m attempting to be healthy instead of snacking on stuff all day.

  3. May 7, 2014 11:48 am


    With all due respect I can’ find in the post where you specify what you are referring to when you say

    “So I’m not buying that argument about the cause of the decline. Part of the reason is that I would like to believe in a different narrative entirely. One that is a little less kind to the cereal industry. ”

    Could you elaborate on what your different narrative is? Personally I’d say its 2 parts. The first is that the ingredients are cheaper and as we all know it is the bottom line that drives most corporations decisions these days and not logic/common sense.


  4. May 7, 2014 12:01 pm

    Grape-Nuts Is just bread? According to the below article at WSJ online from 2009 (so it may be out of date) , Grape-Nuts is nothing but baked bread. Its an interesting read but it sounds a bit biased/slanted in an anti-Grape-Buts way.

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