Healthy Cereals Suck

Chris Mohney

Between ages 5 and 18, I housed several thousand bowls of Cocoa Puffs (12 grams of sugar per serving), and I stand before you mostly intact. That is not a dietary recommendation by any means, but I’m not ashamed to have been a dedicated fan of sweat cereals in general and the puff in particular. (I enjoyed the occasional discreet dalliance with Count Chocula (9 grams of sugar), but those monster cereals were always so elusive.) I was far from alone. In the eighties and early nineties the cerealosystem was binary offerings: sweet stuff for kids and tree bark for adults. The choice was clear. Nowadays, it’s not so easy.

The transformation of cereal from health fad to breakfast candy was—raise your hand if you’re surprised, then remove yourself from class—catalyzed by the insight that more sugar equals better sales. But that got complicated once parents became a bit more health-conscious and Millennial about the thing. The modern cereal persona is a little classier, with even a sweet standby like Cocoa Puffs described as “a whole grain corn puff cereal frosted with natural flavors” rather than “hell yeah punks it’s chocolate for breakfast.”

For example, my kids’ favorite is Multi Grain Cheerios (6 grams of sugar per serving), which sounds wholesome. Not just one, but multiple grains! While this cereal does indeed have a lot of grains, it also has brown sugar syrup, which makes the O’s kind of… sticky. In fact, my kids call the stuff “stickies,” which is why my wife now asks “Should we get more stickies?” when we’re at the grocery store, confounding and disgusting our fellow shoppers. Our beloved stickies have only slightly less sugar than Chocolate Peanut Butter Cheerios (8 grams of sugar per serving), which is how they get you.

We generally steer clear of the really, really sugary cereals. In short, I have declined to let my children enjoy the full pleasures of my own youth, but neither am I rigorously supervising their cereal intake. It’s a weird compromise that I tend to see as the product of a weird food group.

“Cereal has so many levels,” says legendary cerealologist Leandra Palermo Levine, a colleague I bonded with over a shared love of milk-soaked sweets while working at Serious Eats, where we received and devoured copious free samples. “For many, it’s nostalgic. For others of us, we’re catching up on lost time. Cereal should not be viewed as a breakfast food, or really even a food. It should barely be in the same category as candy. Cereal is an entity, an icon, a cultural touchstone. It’s a friend on a lonely night, it’s a journey into varieties (how many iterations of Cheerios can they make?), it’s breakfast, it’s dinner, it’s dessert, it’s a snack, it’s a topping.” 

Cookie Monster says that cookies are a “sometimes food.” Perhaps cereal is the antithesis, an every-occasion food and thus a hard comestible to pin down.

So I ask myself—between bites of the Cap’n Crunch’s Peanut Butter Crunch (9 grams of sugar per serving) I don’t give to my kids—is it for the best that my kids don’t eat sort of Chocolate Frosted Sugar Bombs (absurd fictional amounts of sugar and caffeine) that once so pleasurably juiced my young brain? Am I denying them for their sake, or for the sake of my delicate parental ego? Could they attach the same sentimental significance to cereal as I once did and clearly still do, or was that my own generational hangup?

Because I am a believer in science, I am also a believer in employing the scientific method to answer questions. So I recruited my own children to test a variety of sugary cereals and determine not just what they liked and disliked about cereal, but how they felt about the whole experience. I allowed them to pick two cereals they’d never had before, then supplemented the selections with two “classics.” My son, my beloved son, chose Cocoa Puffs. My daughter, who I also love in a different and now more guarded way, chose Baby Shark (15 grams of sugar per serving), a cereal product inspired by the song that appears to consist of repurposed Froot Loops with marshmallow discs added, perhaps meant to represent illegally caught shark filets. The classic choices I supplied were Lucky Charms (10 grams of sugar per serving) for ultimate marshmallow overdose and Honey Smacks (18 grams of sugar per serving) to test the limits of human sugar endurance. This is what it’s like to practice ethical scientific research! On your children! 

Cocoa Puffs provoked extreme reactions, with my 7-year-old daughter covering her mouth and clutching her forehead in dismay, muttering in disgust that it “tasted like coffee” and had “too much chocolate.” By contrast, my chocolate-loving 10-year old son was immediately jazzed about the Puffs, declaring them “sooooo good” while scarfing down his sample bowl. 

The particular species of Lucky Charms in review was larded with marshmallows shaped like unicorn heads, which my daughter loved, bopping in a chair dance while crowing “awesome” and inhaling her rainbow horse-head treat. My son, by now fiending pretty hard on the sugar, was more focused on the “sweet green milk” produced by the deliquescing marshmallows.

Baby Shark cereal, which was almost as loud in odor as in coloration, got positive reviews for it’s “many berry” flavor from my daughter; when pressed, she admitted that she chose the cereal because she thinks the song is cute. (Send a round down the bar to the folks in marketing!) My son added approvingly that the marshmallows in Baby Shark tasted “thicker” than those in Lucky Charms, which I don’t really want to explore here or anywhere.

Last was Honey Smacks, which I chose both for its nostalgic appeal to my wife and its reputation as the heavyweight of sugar. My kids said it had either “too much honey” or “too little honey,” so I guess it really depends on taste and your susceptibility to acute diabetes. Both kids were allowed to finish whichever cereal samples they liked as a reward for playing along, and both were vibrating well beyond bedtime.

And yet, after sleeping off their sugar bender, my kids immediately forgot the whole affair. In fact I had to remind them in subsequent days that we had several boxes of sweet cereal they could in fact continue to eat for breakfast. They were happy to eat it when thus reminded, but otherwise didn’t seem to care. I’m ashamed to say I polished off most of the experimental leftovers myself. Well, I’m not really ashamed, but I feel like I should pretend to be.

Clearly there is no dietary justification for eating sweet cereal on the regular, and my experiment suggests the nostalgia factor may not make the leap past my generation. I could tell that while my children appreciated the treats, they just weren’t emotionally invested in the cereal experience, like I was as a child and remain to this day. 

So on the one hand, I’m glad my kids can cheerfully do without the morning sugar fix I once craved. But I’m bummed they can so easily cast aside a formative culinary delight of my own youth. Cereal culture will never be the same, I’m afraid, and so I’ll just have to eat my crunchy feelings solo and wash it down with sweet green milk.

RATING SWEET CEREALS

From 1 to 10 (with 10 being a good thing).

Novelty

10 – Any opportunity to eat sugar in any form is to be treasured and leveraged for future sugar consumption opportunities, dietary consequences be damned.

Obscurity

8 – The idea that parents of ancient times would regularly allow or even require children to eat sugary breakfast cereals seems as likely false as any “when I was your age” story.

Digestibility

2 – With their palates and guts trained on moderately healthy food, the modern child is tragically ill-equipped to choke down sugary cereal in quantity without succumbing to subsequent fits of physical mania and/or incoherent rage.

Spirituality

1 – Relishing daily sweet cereal as a kid’s vital lifestyle journey seems to have passed from this world into the land of myth.

Junior Revisitor Rating

7 – It’s fun to eat candy for breakfast! But there’s no need to make a whole big “thing” about it.

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