Let’s talk about breakfast cereals, shall we? Developed by a couple of enterprising health spa owners from Battle Creek, Michigan, they originally provided an economical use for the crumbs that fell to the bottom of the bread ovens. The word “cereal,” which simply means grain, comes from Ceres, the Roman goddess of agriculture. Breakfast cereal? That’s a marketing term.
The first mass-produced cereal, granula, was like today’s Grape-nuts. “Granula nuggets,” named for “granules,” were hard, and required an overnight soak to become edible. Grape-nuts, with its slightly nutty flavor, was named for maltose, the type of sugar with which the cereal was sweetened. In those days, maltose was known as grape sugar. The whole-grain cereal product market remained more or less stable for the following several decades.
Then came World War II and years of austerity, after which cereal companies began to hire advertising agencies, expand their vision, and target children. Cereal evolved into a new and different kind of product, composed primarily of white flour and sugar, and designed to appeal to the baby boom of young taste buds. These new “breakfast cereals” contained staggering amounts of sugar: Kellogg’s Sugar Smacks 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 one of the processed food types that layer different kinds of sweeteners in and among their lists of ingredients. David Kessler, the author of 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 specification allows an ingredient list to appear to have less sugar than actually exists in the product. David Kessler says, “Cereals often include some combination of sugar, brown sugar, fructose, high-fructose corn syrup, honey and molasses.” Would you care for some sugar with your sugar?
Analysts call breakfast cereal a “high margin-to-cost” business. Found in an estimated 90% of American homes, JP Morgan estimates that marketing, one of breakfast cereals’ biggest costs, accounts for 20-25% of the sales value. Gross profit margins in the breakfast cereal industry generally run on the order of 40-45%.
We are not really being fooled. Deep inside, you already know that most breakfast cereals are a poor substitute for a nutritious breakfast. Icons of popular culture including Calvin & Hobbes, the Simpsons’ Krusty the Clown, and 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.”
On Chocolate Frosted Frosty Krusty Flakes, the Simpsons’ Krusty the Clown says that “Only sugar has more sugar.” Frosted Krusty-O’s were sold in 2007 to promote The Simpson’s Movie. The Simpsons has featured “Frosting Gobs” and “Count Fudgula,” a reference to Count Chocula cereal. The Berenstain Bears’ Too Much Junk Food mentions “Coco Chums.”
It’s time to start calling this stuff dessert, and to stop feeding it to our children (and ourselves) instead of breakfast.
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