When I was a kid, my mother had a trick for taking my little brother and me to the grocery store. To prevent us from running amok in the aisles and demanding every box of cookies or bag of candy or tub of ice cream we saw, she gave us a weighty task: We could pick any one thing we wanted—just one, don’t even try to negotiate—from anywhere in the store, so long as we behaved and didn’t start nagging her for something else.
On these grocery store excursions, one thing became evident immediately. To get the very most from Mom’s money, go with a box of cereal. Not just 8 or 12 cookies or one large block of ice cream, but hundreds of tiny dessert-worthy treats, beautiful as gemstones—pink and blue and red and yellow and green—and tasty, too, sugar-laden and crispy and sometimes even shaped like toys (ghosts or leprechauns or whatever crazy things people were cooking up in the ’80s). Once we discovered that a box of cereal was better than anything else in the whole store, on every grocery trip we’d make a beeline for the cereal aisle, where we’d stand transfixed in front of the shelves, gauging for sweetness, quantity, and that most important quality of all: fun. What brand to pick that week? What shapes would make for the most enjoyable eating? How sugary could you go and still survive without a trip to the dentist? It was undeniable. Cereal was fun.
But cereal wasn’t always fun. In fact, in the early days of boxed cereal, it was supposed to be the opposite of fun: Healthy. Natural. Shades of gray and beige and brown. Heather Arndt Anderson, culinary historian and author of Breakfast: A History, explained the advent of cereal-as-we-first-knew-it to me by email: “John Kellogg was dicking around with new grain products in the kitchen at ‘the San’ [Battle Creek Sanitarium in Michigan], and he got called into the other room. When he came back, the wheat he'd been cooking was mushy and dried-out and gross. His younger brother Will was keeping an eye on the bottom line, so he ran it through some rollers to flatten it into a sheet, then he crumbled it up and served it to the guests at the San.” Everyone loved it, and production began.
Before cereal, the working class had tended to eat leftovers or porridge for breakfast, while rich people “had a full spread like their Victorian counterparts: stuff like mutton chops, eggs, toast and pancakes or ‘Indian’ [cornmeal] pancakes with honey or syrup, sometimes even oysters or calves' brain croquettes,” says Arndt Anderson. All that meat wasn’t the healthiest either; Kellogg and his ilk were hoping to quell a burgeoning American obesity epidemic with their vision of healthy living, which included exercise, lots of fresh air, and a whole grain-heavy, vegetarian diet. (John Kellogg also believed that eating cereal would prevent people from masturbation and becoming overwrought by sexual desires; don’t tell that to your corn flakes.)
Cereal is born, and soon enough, there’s strife. “Kellogg's cereals, while initially made as a health food, soon began their descent into the nutritional wasteland they are today because of a fraternal rift between John and Will Kellogg,” says Arndt Anderson. “Will wanted to add sugar to increase the shelf life, but John was ardently opposed to it. Will ended up starting Kellogg's, while John's more nutritious cereals stayed at the Sanitarium.”
All along, people naturally sugared their bland cereal (sometimes with molasses) to improve the taste, but in production, “the amount of sugar begins to increase starting in about 1900, and by about 1930 it expands rapidly,” says Andrew F. Smith, an author and culinary historian who teaches Food Studies at the New School University in New York. “As soon as the price of sugar drops, you have much more sugar added in and then after World War II, you have cereals that will be 50 to 60 percent sugar, and even 70-plus percent sugar.”
Industrialization and urbanization and advertising, including the advent of radio, come into the picture, along with moms starting to work outside the home and World War II rationing of meat and eggs. All this helps push cereal to the top of the breakfast list. It was easy, “a food that Jr. could fix himself, freeing up Mom to go full Rosie the Riveter,” says Arndt Anderson. “By the end of the war, we start seeing the first cereal box prizes, but even before the war had begun we see advertising directed at children.”
And that’s why cereal starts getting all its color, from the boxes to the characters to the Fruity Pebbles themselves. “The Rice Krispies elves were introduced in the 1930s (coinciding with the explosion in American convenience foods like frozen bagels and instant oatmeal),” she says, “but marketing was more directly targeted toward children post-war, and the sugar content skyrocketed.” Smith adds, “As far as I know, it's the first commercial product that really is targeted at kids.” As manufacturers realize their real target isn’t moms who shop, advertising transitions, introducing characters like Snap, Crackle, and Pop, and bright, cheery colors. Still today, says Smith, the sweetest, most colorful cereals are positioned at the eye level of kids in grocery stores. Perhaps it wasn’t that my brother and I were geniuses with an eye for economical treat purchasing. We were just marketed to very well.
Of course, these things go in cycles. Just as Kellogg wanted to put a stop to American obesity in the 1800s, today we’re on another kind of cleanse. Sugar and additives are being purged from much processed food, including cereals. At the gym recently (John Kellogg would have been proud), I saw a General Mills commercial promising that artificial colors and excess sugars were being slowly but surely removed from those cereals I used to gaze at fondly in the grocery store as a kid. Even though it seems like a wise health move, I felt a little bit deflated, like watching the end of The Wizard of Oz when everything goes back to black and white after experiencing a truly dazzling array of colors.
After all, there’s an intense nostalgia related to the foods we eat as a child, and when faced with the new versions, it’s hard to feel the way we used to—which may be more about growing up than it is about flavor or color anyway. Hey, no one likes change. Particularly not ardent cereal fans, as Topher Ellis, editor, author, and cereal marketing consultant, tells me. “The most vocal complaints about cereal reformulations in recent years have been with connoisseurs of the General Mills Monster Cereals (Boo Berry, Franken Berry, and Count Chocula),” he says. “The formula change from an oat-based cereal to a whole grain corn cereal resulted in a loss of texture. They are less sweet and the flavors and aromas are now less intense.” And then he asks the kind of question only a true cereal lover could ask: “They may be ‘healthier’ but they’re not ‘healthy’ anyway, so why change a good thing?”