Brown Bag March 2024

Brown Bag March 2024

The Breakfast of Champions

Down for the count? Are Tony the Tiger; Snap, Crackle, and Pop; and Cornelius the Rooster destined to be the has-beens of the breakfast table? Is America out of love with cereal? Say it isn’t so.

Cereal as we know it has long been considered an American invention serving first under the guise of a digestive aid. However, before it dominated our breakfast choices in the 1950s, it also often reflected trends that reached far beyond the breakfast menu.

From artifacts obtained from Ancient Egypt and Rome, we know that a meal was often eaten in the early morning as laborers and soldiers prepared for long days in the fields. In addition to outliers like beer and onions, most early morning meals included grain-related items, such as bread, pancakes, or polenta. Breakfast as an important meal faded during the Middle Ages as the upper class often just had two meals, the first at the beginning of midday. In fact, during this time, eating breakfast was an indicator that you were just a poor laborer who needed energy long before noon.

By 1400 the concept of the modern “continental breakfast” was practiced in most European countries, with eventual additions of meat and caffeinated drinks (thought to “aid the body in evacuation of superfluities”). The British, of course, expanded on the bread and beverage items, adding meat, beans, eggs, tomatoes, sausages, and sometimes fish, making me disappointed to not wake up in a small town near London.

The movement toward cereal consumption was interestingly promoted in America during the 30 years between 1830 and 1860 as part of the Jacksonian-era Clean Living Movement. This claimed that eating bacon, eggs, pancakes, and hot coffee was indicative of an “indulgent lifestyle” — a theme inconsistent with our 20th century emphasis on “breakfast as the most important meal of the day.”

The best-known name to American shoppers in the cereal aisle is Kellogg, credited with making the first “flaked cereal” under the name Corn Flakes. Invented in 1876 by J.H. Kellogg, it represented the first widespread distribution of a quick and nutritious start to the day. Not only did Kellogg revolutionize our concept of breakfast, but he was among the first to recognize that including prizes in cereal boxes, with an eye toward enlisting pressure from children to buy certain products, would be a good marketing strategy. In 1909, for example, the first premium offered was “The Funny Jungle Book Moving Pictures Book”. Over the next 23 years, over 2.5 million copies of the book ended up in America’s homes. He continued this marketing strategy during World War II by offering pin-back buttons that had military and popular comic-book characters, sparking a collecting frenzy to see who could secure all 18 images.

Including colorful characters as cereal mascots on his packaging also propelled Kellogg to dominance in the early cereal market. Fruit Loops, for example, used Toucan Sam as its spokesperson and the obvious Spider-Man as the hook for purchasing Spider-Man Spidery-Berry.

From the beginning, however, Kellogg faced competition from what is now the company’s chief competitor. C.W. Post developed then very popular, at least for pudding, Grape Nuts.

Kellogg and Post were soon challenged in the marketplace by the Quaker Oats Company, whose method of forcing rice to explode under pressure led to the introduction of Puffed Rice and Puffed Wheat. Cleverly touting them as “the food shot from guns” and “the eighth wonder of the world” they gained a significant following.

Although the pandemic caused a slight increase in the sale of cereal, high protein items, including breakfast sandwiches and burritos are dominating our breakfast menus. High protein bars and nutritional smoothies also fit better into our highly mobile lifestyle.

For me, breakfast cereal stirs a bit of nostalgia, because my favorite bowl, when emptied, revealed the very handsome Hop-Along Cassidy with his beautiful white horse Champion. However, I will admit I have joined those resorting to more portable breakfast foods. And, my favorite, Tony the Tiger, is now relegated to a handful mixed into my diet yogurt. This admission is consistent with the notion that sugary breakfast treats are the secret indulgent choices of many adults. Be honest!

Author’s Notes:

  • The most popular brand of cereal in the USA today is Honey Nut Cheerios, followed closely by Cinnamon Toast Crunch and Honey Bunches of Oats with Almonds.
  • According to a survey conducted in 2020 almost 284 million Americans consumed cereal at some point during that year. Sales of cold cereal are expected to top almost 10 billion annually.
  • Which brings me to my last point. My last visit to the market confirmed that I will have to resort to alternative breakfast food. A family-sized box of Tony the Tiger was $8!
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