Breakfast cereals have a praiseworthy origin. They were invented by health spa owners offering an alternative to the usual breakfast of the time: eggs, coffee, and meat, usually beef, bacon or sausage. Coincidentally, the invention of breakfast cereal also provided an economical use for the crumbs that fell to the bottom of the bread ovens at the health spas. The word “cereal” simply means grain, and is derived from Ceres, the Roman goddess of agriculture. We’ve gone a long way from that origin, but unfortunately it’s been in the wrong direction.
The first mass-produced cereal, granula, was similar to what today is manufactured and sold as Grape-nuts. The name ‘granula’ was derived from ‘granules’ or ‘grains.’ Granula nuggets were hard, and they needed to be soaked overnight prior to being eaten. The name grape-nuts is derived from the fact that the cereal was sweetened with maltose, then called grape sugar, and that it had a vaguely nut-like flavor. For several decades, a small number of whole-grain cereals similar to this one predominated.
Then, after World War II, breakfast cereal companies hired advertising agencies, expanded their vision, and began specifically to target marketing efforts to children. The once whole-grain cereals evolved into a completely different kind of product. To appeal to children’s young taste buds, the new breakfast cereals were made mainly of white flour (stripped of its bran and germ) and sugar. Staggering amounts of sugar. Kellogg’s Sugar Smacks, created in 1953, was 56 per cent sugar by weight. Froot Loops was 41 percent sugar by weight. There are brands of cookies with less sugar than that.
Breakfast cereals are what economic analysts call a “high margin-to-cost business.” Gross profit margins in the breakfast cereal industry are on the order of 40 to 45%. The product is found in an estimated 90% of American homes. JP Morgan estimates that marketing, one of cereal’s biggest costs, typically accounts for 20 to 25% of the sales value.
For more information on the connection between the amount of television advertising and the sugar content of cereals marketed specifically to children, check out The Sugary Brands Doing the Most Kid-Chasing in TIME Magazine at http://www.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,1931891_1931889,00.html
Breakfast cereals are one of a select group of products that layer different kinds of sweeteners in and among their lists of ingredients. David Kessler, in The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite, explains that “If a food contains more sugar than any other ingredient, federal regulations dictate that sugar be listed first on the label. But if a food contains several different kinds of sweeteners, they can be listed separately, which pushes each one farther down the list.”
This requirement results in an ingredient list that appears to have less sugar than the product actually contains. Kessler adds, “Cereals often include some combination of sugar, brown sugar, fructose, high-fructose corn syrup, honey,and molasses.” The curious thing is that the offerings at the supermarket don’t really fool any of us. We all know that most breakfast cereals are a poor substitute for a nutritious breakfast. Icons of popular culture such as Calvin & Hobbes, the Simpsons’ Krusty the Clown, and even the Berenstain Bears, remind us exactly what breakfast cereal is.
Calvin eats Chocolate Frosted Sugar Bombs, “tasty, lip-smacking, crunchy-on-the-outside, chewy-on-the-inside [that] don’t have a single natural ingredient or essential vitamin to get in the way of that rich, fudgy taste.” Hobbes says they make his heart skip like “eating a bowl of milk duds.” We laugh, and then we buy more. Krusty the Clown, from the Simpsons, endorses Chocolate Frosted Frosty Krusty Flakes with: “Only sugar has more sugar.” Frosted Krusty-O’s were actually sold in 2007 to promote The Simpson’s Movie. Other cereals featured on The Simpsons include “Frosting Gobs” and “Count Fudgula,” an obvious reference to Count Chocula cereal. “Coco Chums” cereal is mentioned in the Berenstain Bears book Too Much Junk Food. So let’s start calling it what it is — candy — and then let’s switch it out and start eating, and feeding our children, real Food for breakfast.