Chocolate cereal is a disgrace to both chocolate and cereal. Even as a kid I knew it was a ruse. And it’s not like I had a refined palate or anything: My favorite cereal was Frosted Flakes with sugar spooned on top, slopped into my mouth when my hippie granola-eating mom wasn’t looking. Yet from a young age, I watched my friends munch Cocoa Puffs with resentful jealousy, because despite my Augustus Gloop fantasies, I knew the dusty crumbs and waxy pucks called “chocolate” were a bait-and-switch. They tasted nothing like the decadent goodness of, say, chocolate brownies.
That’s not to say I haven’t dipped my spoon into the cocoa-tinted milk once or twice. My passion for cereal and all things chocolate has led me to try it many times. Most recently I was duped by the commercial for Special K Chocolatey Delight: rich chocolate chunks and crisp rice slivers drizzled with refreshing milk. But instead I found leaden brown objects accompanied by gummy rice chunks in skim liquid (okay, the skim milk was my fault).
Back when I was a kid, though, I couldn’t put my finger on my revulsion for chocolate cereal. Twenty years later, I’ve learned that it’s because what we know as “chocolate” doesn’t contain much actual chocolate: What it does contain is misleadingly labeled crud that drags down our expectations of the category as a whole.
To be called “chocolate,” a product must contain at least 10 percent actual cacao. Otherwise it can only be called “chocolatey,” which is why labels on cereals like Cocoa Puffs have to use that descriptor. That means those little black lumps are mainly made of, well, something else. In Special K’s case, that’s sugar, hydrogenated palm kernel oil, cocoa processed with alkali, cocoa, soy lecithin, artificial flavor, and milk. If I read that list to bean-to-bar chocolate makers like Patric, Dick Taylor, or Dandelion, they would start sobbing. It’s like a guide for how not to make chocolate.
Hydrogenated palm kernel oil, aside from being one of those trans fats everyone is so afraid of, is about as far away from cacao as you can get. Most experts agree that a good rule of thumb is to avoid chocolate that has non-cocoa butter fat. You’re also in trouble when the first ingredient isn’t cacao (it’s sugar, then oil in this case). Soy lecithin and artificial flavor don’t give me much confidence either. The chocolatey flavor comes from alkalized cocoa, which you’re probably most familiar with in its hot cocoa form.
That same hot cocoa flavor dominates Cocoa Pebbles, which, I must admit, I halfway liked as a kid. I got what I expected when I tried it during a recent cereal binge: They still taste like Post disposed of its surplus of Fruity Pebbles by covering them in dust and marketing them as a new product with a ’60s-era cartoon on the front. I was excited about the package’s claim that it “turns milk XTREMELY chocolatey” and tastes “like an XTREME milkshake,” but the scruff at the bottom of the bowl looked more like thin brown milk with a delicate aftertaste of synthetic vanillin.
Before you accuse me of being a joyless snob, let me just say that I don’t need chocolate cereal to taste like high-end dark chocolate. I’d just prefer that there be a hint of chocolate somewhere in there.
But what does chocolate even taste like? That sounds like a dumb question, but, really, it’s a complicated one. For the Aztecs and Mayans, it tasted like a bitter, sometimes spicy drink often made with corn and achiote. When Europeans discovered it, they added sugar to make it palatable to them. The core taste didn’t change much, though, until the 1800s, when a Dutch chocolate maker named Coenraad Johannes van Houten figured out how to separate cocoa butter from what became known as Dutch cocoa powder (that less-bitter alkalized cocoa that we know so well). In the 1850s Joseph Frye figured out how to add cocoa butter back into the Dutch cocoa powder to make a solid bar. Around that time, when companies started mass-producing candy, they began to mix together low-quality beans from different places and over-roast them to mask their bitterness and create a uniform product. They also realized that it was much cheaper to use sugar and vanilla than precious cocoa beans to flavor chocolate.
Now we consumers have been tricked into thinking that when something is brown and sweet, it’s chocolate, just as we’ve been trained to think “red” tastes like strawberry or cherry. Even our chocolate bars have very little real chocolate in them: Hershey’s squeaks by with 11 percent cacao, and bars like Butterfinger don’t even make the cut. The result is that what we know as “chocolate” is mainly sugar and vanilla, and we’ve grown to love the curdled milk taste of Hershey’s and the alkalized-cocoa tang that passes for hot chocolate.
I’m not immune. Even after my recent taste test, I still can’t stop eating Kellogg’s Krave Double Chocolate squares. (“Just throw it away,” my mother advised, but it’s still in my cabinet.)
Recently, I washed down my Krave-based breakfast with a piece of Amano milk chocolate. The real chocolate tasted like so many different things — chocolate but also nuts, caramelized sugar, cooked milk. It melted in my mouth like butter in a skillet, coating every part of my tongue with its sweet goodness. The chocolate cereal, on the other hand, tasted stagnant, like hot chocolate left out overnight. I’m not saying I didn’t have more for breakfast the next day, but I’ll tell you what, I knew I wasn’t eating real chocolate.
And that’s really all I’m asking for: some acknowledgment that “chocolate” cereal is nothing of the sort. It’s a flavor that’s almost totally separate from the real thing. And that’s OK. We can appreciate our Cocoa Puffs, Chocolate Cheerios, Cocoa Pebbles, and Chocolate Frosted Mini-Wheats for their warm, nostalgic glow and ability to turn milk into candied soup. But let’s collectively stop committing this category error that lumps these imposters in with a fine piece of single-origin chocolate from Fruition or Dandelion. As chocolate enthusiasts, as cereal lovers, and as humans who love breakfast, we can all do better.