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How Cereal Earned a Place at the Breakfast Table | by heidi

As a child growing up in the suburbs of Charlotte, North Carolina, my family had a variety of breakfast options rotating over the course of a week: Eggo waffles here, scrambled eggs there, and the highly-anticipated Sunday bagel breakfast with bacon. During the week, though, I often deferred to cereal. The weeks when my mom found Cinnamon Toast Crunch on sale were my favorite.

Perhaps my latent, fond memory of pouring way too much milk into the bowl lent itself to my professional life much later, when I was tasked with analyzing the cereal industry at the research firm IBISWorld. I reported on the cereal business from an economic standpoint, but the opportunity also provided a window into the cultural implications of this breakfast staple.

A Brief History of Cereal

Derivatives of hot cereal items like oatmeal and porridge have existed for centuries. But cold cereal is a relatively new, distinctly American creation, arising in part due to improved technology for oat production and processing in the late 1800s.

At the same time, a mostly Christian-driven interest in vegetarianism, along with the labor shift from factories and fieldwork to sedentary office jobs, created an opportunity for plant-based breakfast items. People wanted lighter alternatives to heavy farm breakfasts, such as fritters and steaks, to compensate for a more stationary lifestyle and combat indigestion.

Cereal Timeline

1863: While running a hydropathic (“water cure”) institute in Dansville, New York, James Caleb Jackson invented the first cold cereal, Granula (not to be confused with granola). Preparing it, however, proved to be too inconvenient for widespread adoption: the bran nuggets had to be soaked overnight.

1876: John Harvey Kellogg joined Ellen G. White, a disciple of Jackson’s health views of temperance and a co-founder of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, as a director at Battle Creek Sanatorium, a medical facility for long-term illness.

1878: A devout Seventh-day Adventist himself, Kellogg invented corn flakes, in accordance with the denomination’s pro-temperance and health-oriented lifestyle. He would file for a patent for the product in 1895.

John Harvey Kellogg, who invented cornflakes in 1878, was a fervent advocate of clean living and wanted to reform the meat-heavy American diet. By the early 1900s, over 100 cereal companies had emerged and marketed cereal’s alleged health benefits despite having added sugar to the products.

Trix Are for Kids

Snap, Crackle, and Pop, the Rice Krispie elves, were the first cast of characters aimed at marketing cereal to kids. The trio first appeared in radio ads in 1932 and were added to the cereal’s 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 came a reduction in the price of sugar, and sugary cereals entered a prolonged heyday. Industry executives, bolstered by nutritionists, contended that even especially sugary cereals had their value as a means of getting kids to drink milk, an idea which continues to persist among cereal advocates today.

Is Breakfast the Most Important Meal of the Day?

Many modern cereal products are ultra processed and full of sugar and carbohydrates, but they’re still the most readily available breakfast option for American households. According to a national survey, 51% of respondents said they ate more cereal during the COVID-19 pandemic than before.

Commercials tout cereal as “part of a complete breakfast," and nutritionists stress that breakfast is “the most important meal of the day.” Both are largely a result of aggressive marketing.

 Skip Breakfast? Study Finds You're Missing Out on Key Nutrients

Cereal Marketing

Modern-day cereal is particularly problematic. The average children’s cereal today consists of more than 33% sugar, but these products are often marketed with at least one nutrition-related message—often about whole grain, calcium, or vitamins.1

Cereal marketing professionals, at least, take the approach that anything in the morning is better than nothing.

The data backs this up: A study showed that 74% of people who skip breakfast entirely do not meet two-thirds of the recommended daily intake for vitamins and minerals as compared to those who do not skip breakfast.2

Should We Abandon Cereal Altogether?

While brands have debuted and retired slogans, mascots, and ingredients, cereal as a whole has remained. 

Many current iterations of cereal, such as Special K Protein Nuts and Wonderworks Keto-Friendly Cereal, are a direct rejection of less nutritious brands. These newer products are often low in sugar and rich in essential vitamins, minerals, and fiber.

Like many millennials, I don’t always have time to sit down for a bowl of milk and cereal. As market research firm Mintel points out, many more millennials have eaten cereal as a guilt-free snack compared to their predecessor 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 domestic cereal production increased at an annualized rate of 1.4% over the past five years, resulting in an estimated $11.1 billion industry in 2021.

Cereal’s best use cases often lie in the eyes of the beholder. One person’s balanced breakfast is another’s work snack in a plastic bag. Even I, a 30-year-old man, usually begin my day with a single glass of orange juice or a cup of coffee, while filling in the gaps throughout the day, which often include snacking on Cinnamon Toast Crunch.