Whatever Happened To Eating A Bowl Of Cereal?

Growing up, I ate at least one bowl of cereal every single day. Life Cereal was my favorite, though we also always had a few other boxes in the pantry: some version of Chex, Special K, Puffins (original flavor — the peanut butter and cinnamon flavors, I’ve always thought, have a strange texture), bite-sized Shredded Wheat (plain), Crispix. We weren’t allowed “sugary” cereal; Life was the sweetest type we had in the house. While my parents ate Cream of Wheat or eggs, I shoveled bowl after bowl of the cold, crunchy stuff into my mouth before shooting out the door to school. 
But when I went to college, and gradually became an adult with a tepid concern for my health, I stopped eating it. Empty calories, I thought. Not good for you. Turns out, I was merely part of a larger trend: In the United States, consumption of cold cereal peaked in the ‘90s, and has steadily declined since, in large part due to health concerns about the product. 
Until 2020.
Cereal purchases surged for much of last year before finally dipping at its end, making 2020 a reversal, in many ways, of the trends that led to cereal’s decline in the past two decades. Suddenly, all the people who dropped their morning rush to the office now have the time — and the apparent disinterest in a “healthy” breakfast — to sit down in the morning with a bowl of cereal, just like they did as kids. Can it last?
Cold cereal in the United States has a strange, fascinating history, studded with religious mania, mind control, food shot from guns, and the commercial realization that children have immense market power. But this history may be coming to an end. Fewer Americans are eating cereal every year, despite some of them offering a substantial amount of fiber, a critical nutrient in which 95 percent of Americans are deficient. Decades of marketing that focused on children, however, has convinced millions of Americans that cereal is merely a sugary treat, not a healthy breakfast option; it’s something to grow out of, not aspire to. It didn’t have to be this way. 
The origin story of the breakfast behemoth, is actually a very adult one. The first cold cereal was introduced in 1863, when a religious conservative vegetarian and health spa (then called a “sanitarium”) proprietor named James Caleb Jackson created what he called “granula” made out of graham flour. The cereal was so hard it needed to be soaked overnight. John Harvey Kellogg, another religious vegetarian (specifically, a Seventh Day Adventist) and sanitarium owner, similarly introduced his own version of “granula,” which he named “granola” when Jackson threatened to sue. Unfortunately for Jackson, who’s been lost to mainstream history, it was granola — and Kellogg — that stuck. 
Kellogg’s divine inspiration for granola derived from his concern about proper bowel movements and, most famously, his preoccupation with masturbation, which he believed caused a whole litany of health problems, including epilepsy, mood swings, and acne, among other ailments. The solution, he thought, was a well-balanced diet, devoid of heavy spices, flavors, and sugar; so, he developed granola and, with the help of his less religious brother, cornflakes. His brother Will, not being obsessed with masturbation and dietary purity, was convinced that adding sugar to their recipe would make it more popular. Though John disagreed, Will won the fight, wrenching the company from John and ultimately popularizing the lightly sweet cornflakes we’re familiar with today. 
In the 1910s, the Quaker Oat Company touted their Puffed Wheat and Puffed Rice inventions as food science breakthroughs and “the eighth wonder of the world.” They were also, according to the company, the first “food shot from guns,” as the rice and wheat grains were puffed in a cannon-like cylinder that was heated from the outside. 
Other forms of cereal would soon follow. The Ralston Purina company developed an early version of Wheat Chex for followers of Ralstonism, a strict — and racist — religious sect that believed in mind control. But it was Cheerios, originally called Cheeri-Oats, that was born at the exactly right time: 1941, right before America entered World War Two. As the war ended, men returned to America from overseas, while women, after spending several years in the workplace, were sent back to the kitchen. Cereal provided a way for tired, frustrated housewives to quickly and wholesomely feed their rapidly growing families before the kids headed to school and their husbands to work, and so cereal, which had been merely one of many breakfast options in the decades prior, soon became dominant.
“Families with children were becoming more time pressured. Therefore, there was a consumer need for a more convenient breakfast option that can be more quickly prepared than the traditional heartier eggs, bacon, et cetera breakfast,” says Jon Quinn, the Director for the Center of Brand Leadership at the Indiana University Kelley School of Business. “The rise of mass media advertising, like radio and television, drove demand” as well, he says.
It was around this time that Tony the Tiger would emerge as a mascot that directly targeted children with sugary Frosted Flakes. With Tony, this new form of youth advertising, which would compel children to request that their mothers buy them specific brands of sweet cereal, would catapult cereal into millions of American pantries. Breakfast cereal, which had originally been developed as a nutritious food that people ate at health spas, was transformed into the almost dessert-like product most of us think of today.
This strategy worked — until recently. In the 2000s, Americans were quickly latching on to the idea that low sugar, low carb diets were the secret to good health — or, at least, weight loss. This meant that the effort of decades of marketing, which had focused on getting kids hooked on sugary cereals, was backfiring: Raised on Frosted Flakes, Fruit Loops, and Cocoa Puffs, many Americans thought of cereal as sugary junk food, not as the nutritious, fiber-rich food its inventors had intended. “Look at millennials: they want health, nutrition, wellness,” says Diane Badame, an associate professor of clinical marketing at the University of Southern California Marshall School of Business. “They want fresh fruit. They want things that have higher levels of protein.” Despite efforts by some cereal companies in recent years to tout their whole grain, protein-rich options, many Americans aren’t buying it. When they think of cold cereal, they don’t think about high-fiber Shredded Wheat, which could be just as filling as an egg sandwich. They think about (and buy) Honey Nut Cheerios, Cinnamon Toast Crunch, and other cereals designed to appeal to kids, according to a December 2020 report from global market research firm Euromonitor.
Cereal’s perceived status as a nutrient-devoid sugar bomb, however, was only one of many nails in the coffin for the industry. Just as Americans had begun eating more cereal as they had more children in the post-WWII baby boom, and then again in the economically robust ‘80s; once the birth rate went down, cereal consumption also saw a drop. Eighteen percent of Americans don’t even eat breakfast, and those of us who do will often grab something on-the-go, such as a protein bar or fast food. Cereal isn’t very portable, which has contributed to its diminishing popularity: You can’t exactly eat a bowl of cereal as you drive to work. “As Americans spent a greater portion of their time working and commuting for work, a growing portion of them wanted something they can eat when they’re on-the-go — if they ate anything for breakfast at all,” Quinn says. “It is somewhat ironic that the trend that led to the category’s initial growth also contributed to its decline.”
2020 changed all that. For a short time, at least. 
Last year, there was a 20.9% surge in hot and cold cereal, according to Badame. Part of the reason, she says, is that people aren’t relying on the drive-thru breakfasts they’re used to eating on their harried commutes to their jobs. “People are staying home,” she says. “They're not doing food service. They're not going to McDonald's getting a Big Mac or a McMuffin on the way to work.”
Americans have more time to sit down and eat breakfast, but we’re also stressed out, and don’t necessarily want to cook. Instead, we want something easy that still feels like comfort food, which many people consider cereal to be. 
“When confronted with a threat to our lifestyle and what we hold dear, our normal reaction is to retreat into what gives us comfort and reminds of a simpler time and/or of our childhood,” says Quinn. “Cereal fits this psychological need perfectly. Any sort of health concerns take a backseat until the threat is mitigated or removed.”
Those threats, though, are being mitigated and removed, if gradually. As 2020 progressed, the economy slowly opened up, and people either returned to work or at least acclimated emotionally to their new reality; people stopped buying cereal in large quantities, according to Quinn. Some of cereal’s market “stickiness” will remain if people continue to work from home, he says. But the need for nostalgia and comfort has largely faded, which explains some of that end of 2020 dip. This decline is likely to continue further, with Euromonitor predicting that U.S. sales of cold cereal will drop more than eleven percent by 2025.
It’s unfortunate for cereal’s market longevity that the industry focused on its sweet and junky products. Kids eventually become adults, and usually move past the things they’d treasured when they were young (except in times of crisis and stress, as 2020 shows). Advertising to an audience that will age- out limits the reach of that product, particularly when the now-adults aren’t having kids at the same rate their parents did.
People also, quite simply, aren’t consuming ads in the same way they used to. Television, which played a crucial role in marketing cereal to a young audience, has pivoted to streaming, where there are often far fewer ads. People under 40 “are not watching TV anymore. They're going to Netflix, they're streaming. And so they're not seeing the commercials that we used to see,” says Badame. Millennials and kids are either streaming or online; if cereal marketers want to reach these young audiences, says Badame, “they've got to promote their products online. Because that's where everybody is.” Influencer partnerships, including with micro-influencers, could be a great start, she says.
We could also benefit our health if we ate more cereal — certain cereals, anyway.
Most adult Americans still struggle to eat a balanced diet, which is understandable: Worked to the bone, we’re tired when we get home from the office or a long shift (or two), and shopping for and cooking a delicious, healthy meal takes energy many people have already spent, to say nothing of having the time to develop cooking skills. Cereal could be an answer to this cooking fatigue, but it will take some reprogramming of how we think about food to really lean into it. 
But, it might be possible. I love to cook, but I have a digestive disorder that makes me sensitive to a lot of healthy, fibrous fruits and veggies (I still eat and delight in them, but they sometimes give me stomach aches). Only once I came back around to cereal did I realize I could easily and gently reintroduce regular fiber (pun not intended) into my diet. Now, I eat extremely fiber-rich Shredded Wheat, Wheat Chex, and Puffins several times a week; I’m cheaply and easily tackling the issue of getting enough fiber in my diet, something 95% of Americans could also stand to do more of.
Turns out, the original Kellogg was right about at least one thing: Cereal, at least some cereal, is good for your gut. Though the 200-year-old invention will almost certainly never disappear, the gains of 2020 are projected to slow and slide back into the downward spiral the industry had experienced over the past decade. This isn’t the worst thing, since few people should eat quite as much Chocolate Cheerios and Lucky Charms as everyone did in the ‘90s. But I’ll be sorry to see the industry go, especially if my beloved bite-sized Shredded Wheat continues to get harder to find.

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