The Real Meaning of “Breakfast Cereal”

Let’s talk about something I said a few weeks ago: It started with the term “breakfast cereal.” I put it in quotes for reasons that I’ll get to below. I also made the point that the term “breakfast cereal” reminds me of phrases like “TV dinners,” and “Lunchables,” whatever that means. Whenever marketers tell me what to eat and when to eat it, that’s a very bad sign. Actually it’s more of a clue. And that’s the subject of today’s post.

Breakfast cereal is actually a phrase composed of two words, only one of which — breakfast — we all understand. The other, cereal, is more of a mystery. Traditionally, “cereal” means “grain” and includes bulgur wheat, brown rice, millet, amaranth, oatmeal, corn (maize), and kasha (buckwheat). There are many kinds of cereal grains, and they make wonderful porridge, or hot cereal, which can be a great and nourishing way to start the day. You may not have known that this is the original meaning of cereal.

Instead of porridge, cereal has come to mean “dry processed stuff in unusual shapes and sometimes colors that we usually eat when we wake up and which comes in an intentionally eye-catching, decorative box and often requires milk to be palatable.” The term “breakfast cereal” has become so successful that it has acquired a brand new meaning. Sometimes that happens. Think about aspirin, Xerox and Kleenex. The marketing of these phrases was so unexpectedly efficient that they became synonymous with the product. “Breakfast cereal” is like that.

When we say “breakfast cereal,” we are referring to a large group of extremely profitable products made primarily of stripped grains (mainly wheat, rice, corn) and sugar. These are commodities, and I’ve written in the past about differentiating commodities, whose primarily value lies in quantity, from foods whose value derives from quality.

Grains that have been stripped of their fiber matrix have very little nutritional value in comparison to whole grains. Predictably, people who ate those new “breakfast cereals” presented with illnesses caused by vitamin and mineral deficiencies, so attempts to compensate came in the form of “enrichment,” which was mandated by the U.S. Congress some 100 years ago. “Fortified” is another word you see to tell you that a food item has been compromised in some essential way, and then partially restored.

Enrichment may seem like it’s better than nothing but, like an unreliable friend, it really, really isn’t. Check the ingredients: If you can’t buy every single one at the grocery store, it’s not food. If you can’t make it at home (not saying you have to, just saying you COULD) it’s not food. If it has words that aren’t food, pick something else. If it contains “food starch” and/or “modified food starch,” slide it back onto the shelf. Don’t think about how good it tastes; we humans will get used to the taste of almost anything. Instead, eat real food. “Because you and your family are worth it.”

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