The Not-So Wholesome World of Breakfast Cereals
I was raised in a world of sugary-sweet, brightly packaged, character-driven breakfast cereals. This is not to say I subsisted off of the likes of Sugar Pops and Lucky Charms (I was not so lucky/unlucky) but as an occasional treat I got things like Life Cereal and Frosted Mini-Wheats. More of what I am referring to is the pervasive media culture that surrounded the marketing of cartoon-driven cereals like Cap’n Crunch, Apple Jacks, and Frosted Flakes. Seemingly all of my friends enjoyed the riches of an array of sugar cereals with energetic mascots like Leprechauns, toucans, and honey bears, while I just enjoyed the media saturation directed toward the hearts and minds of young children. When I look back at this strange marketing construct filled with cartoon mascots and the peddling of cereal products, it appears to be representing largely an amoral world devoted to stealing or protecting valuable cereals. The Trix rabbit was always trying swindle children for a bowl of Trix, whereas the Leprechaun representing Lucky Charms was always trying to hide away his cereal from children, therefore creating an unscrupulous world where children were either being deprived or deceived by characters they are naturally drawn towards.
Marketing aside, breakfast cereals persevere as the leading form of breakfast sustenance for adults and children alike. The breakfast cereal industry has become widely diversified, offering everything from cartoon-themed sugar cereals to whole-grain healthy alternatives, and shows steady growth as well as gross profit margins of 40-45%. This amounts to millions of people in the United States (and abroad) consuming massive amounts of the stuff every morning. Speaking about the cereal industry, the Guardian UK says, “One of the earliest convenience foods, processed cereals represents a triumph of marketing, packaging and US economic and foreign policy.“ They are the epitome of cheap commodity converted by manufacturing to higher value goods; of agricultural surplus turned into profitable export. But considering what we know about the lowest forms of cereals (highly processed and highly sugared cereals) even much of the healthy alternatives represent highly processed products holding questionable nutritional value.
The history of breakfast cereals is an utterly fascinating account of societal, moral, and cultural shifts taking place at the turn of the century. Prepackaged and ready-to-eat breakfast cereals began with the American temperance movement in the nineteenth century, as a way to provide whole foods and grains to a population suffering from several forms of malnourishment. What it has turned into a multi-national product peddling a highly processed product retaining little of the virtue it is said to contain (see video below showing the process from slurry to final product):
Besides all the added sugars and artificial ingredients that make so many commercial cereals appealing, many of the purported health benefits claimed for breakfast cereals depend on fortification rather than micronutrients from the raw, whole grains, most of which were either destroyed by the process or stripped away well before the cereal is packaged. A new trend in fortification has arisen in recent years adding things like inulin, a cheap form of fiber derived from plants, known to the food industry until recently as a cheap bulking agent thanks to its ability to retain water and mimic the mouthfeel of fats. This ingredient is marketed as something that is both fiber-rich and a prebiotic. In essence, breakfast cereal, that long touted paragon of the healthy way to start your day, may fall a few flakes short of true nutrition.
This is not to say that all cereals are junk, but more likely than not, they do not live up to the nutritional boasts that marketers would have us believe. And there exist numerous breakfast alternatives to cold flakes in a bowl (oatmeal, whole grain toast with fruit, eggs, homemade granola, etc). The fact is, the vast majority of us have bought into the concept and idea of what the breakfast cereal represents, and to these corporate cereal manufacturers we are all Mikey, and we like it.
What are some of your breakfast alternatives? Please share recipes, ideas, and wisdom.