As a child growing up in suburban Charlotte, North Carolina, my family had a rotating variety of breakfast options over the course of a week: Eggo waffles here, scrambled eggs there, and the long awaited Sunday bagel breakfast with bacon. During the week, however, I often relied on cereal. The weeks my mom found Cinnamon Toast Crunch on sale were my favorite.
Perhaps my latent, fond memory of pouring far too much milk into the bowl lent itself to my professional life much later, when I was tasked with analyzing the grain industry within society. IBISWorld research. I reported on the grain business from an economic perspective, but the opportunity also opened a window into the cultural implications of this breakfast staple.
A brief history of cereals
Derived from hot grain products such as groats and porridge have existed for centuries. But cold cereals are a relatively new, quintessentially American creation, resulting in part from improvements in oat production and processing technology in the late 1800s.
At the same time, a Christian majority interest in vegetarianism, as well as the shift of labor from factories and field work to sedentary office jobs, has created an opportunity for plant-based breakfast items. People wanted lighter alternatives to heavy farmhouse breakfasts, like donuts and steaks, to compensate for a more stationary lifestyle and fight indigestion.
- 1863: while running a spa (“water cure”) institute in Dansville, New York, James Caleb Jackson invented the first cold cereal, Granula (not to be confused with granola). However, its preparation proved too inconvenient for widespread adoption: the bran nuggets had to be soaked overnight.
- 1876: John Harvey Kellogg joined Ellen G. White, a follower of Jackson’s health outlook on temperance and co-founder of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, as director of Battle Creek Sanatorium, a medical facility for long-term illnesses.
- 1878: A devout Seventh-day Adventist himself, Kellogg invents corn flakes, in keeping with the denomination’s pro-temperance, health-oriented lifestyle. He would file for a patent for the product in 1895.
John Harvey Kellogg, who invented cornflakes in 1878, was a strong proponent of own life and wanted to reform America’s meat-rich diet. In the early 1900s, more than 100 grain companies had emerged and marketed the purported health benefits of cereals despite the addition of sugar to the products.
Trix are for kids
Snap, Crackle and Pop, the Rice Krispie Elves, were the first cast of characters intended to market cereal to children. The trio first appeared in radio commercials in 1932 and were added to the cereal box the following year. Kellogg’s added toys to cereal boxes in 1945. Tony the Tiger arrived in 1951 to help sell Frosted Flakes.
With the end of World War II, a reduction in the price of sugar occurred and sugary cereals entered a prolonged peak. Industry leaders, backed by nutritionists, have argued that even particularly sweet cereals had their value as a means of getting children to drink milkan idea that persists among grain advocates today.
Is breakfast the most important meal of the day?
Many modern grain products are ultra-processed and high in sugar and carbohydrates, yet they remain the most readily available breakfast option for American households. According to a national investigation51% of respondents said they ate more cereal during the COVID-19 pandemic than before.
Advertisements tout cereal as “part of a complete breakfast”, and nutritionists point out that breakfast is “the most important meal of the day”. Both are largely the result of aggressive marketing.
Marketing of cereals
Modern cereals are particularly problematic. Today’s average children’s cereal contains over 33% sugar, but these products are often marketed with at least one nutrition-related message, often about whole grains, calcium or vitamins.
Grain marketers, at least, are taking the approach that anything in the morning is better than nothing.
The data backs it up: One study showed that 74% of people who skip breakfast completely miss two-thirds of the recommended daily intake of vitamins and minerals compared to those who don’t skip breakfast.
Should we completely give up cereals?
While brands debuted and retired slogans, mascots and ingredients, cereals as a whole remained.
Lots of current cereal iterationssuch as Special K Protein Nuts and Wonderworks Keto-Friendly Cereal, are a direct rejection of less nutritious brands. These new products are often low in sugar and high in essential vitamins, minerals and fibre.
Like many millennials, I don’t always have time to sit down for a bowl of milk and cereal. As a market research firm mintel points out, many more millennials ate cereal as a guilt-free snack compared to the previous generation, shifting the focus away from breakfast.
Still, cereal will always have a place at the breakfast table, at least in the United States. IBISWorld estimated that national grain production has grown at an annualized rate of 1.4% over the past five years, resulting in an industry estimated to be worth $11.1 billion in 2021.
The best use cases for cereal often reside in the eyes of the beholder. One person’s healthy breakfast is another’s work snack in a plastic bag. Even I, a 30-year-old man, usually start my day with a single glass of orange juice or a cup of coffee, while filling in the gaps throughout the day, which often includes a Cinnamon Toast snack. Crunch.