Breakfast Cereal: The Food That Makes Billions

By Kate Barnes

A bowl, a spoon, a box of cereal and a bottle of milk, that’s breakfast. Done. As soon as the kids can pick up a box they can make breakfast. There are no pots or pans to wash up and minimal preparation time. In fact you don’t even really need a kitchen! Brekki in a box easily shaves 15 – 20 minutes off the morning routine, gets us out of the house and on with our day. It’s easy and convenient.

But with this convenience and the promise to save our precious time has come the demise of our health, our family unit and importantly an energetic connection to our food.

Exaggerated? I don’t think so. Let me explain.

Last week we were all in the kitchen making brekki. Someone on eggs, someone on bacon and someone making tea, (I was acting sous chef). This moment made me so happy. It was chaotic, but we were all in there together in our little kitchen cooking, chatting, creating and connecting. A humble meal that had the power to bring our family together, create memories and connection. Our tummies were full and so were our hearts. For me, it was the perfect way to start the day.

(By the way, there are many mornings that are definitely not so perfect…and I’ve thought how a box of cereal and milk would be SO much easier)!

And after a chat with my gorgeous neighbour it got me thinking. We all know the importance of a good breakfast, but many of us still find it difficult to break up with breakfast cereals. Why is that?

It’s much more than the ease of getting it ready. There are a few, very good reasons.  

In this post I share a new perspective on our attachment to breakfast in a box. It’s about time, convenience, billions of dollars and importantly, the emotional bonds of childhood.

A brief history

Some form of porridge has been enjoyed as breakfast for centuries. The arrival of packaged cereal in a box
is only recent, in the early 1900s, with Kelloggs Cornflakes. Kelloggs Cornflakes originally began life as a health food created by a doctor, John Harvey Kellogg, to nourish patients at his Sanitarium.

“His brother Willian K Kellogg  worked for him for many years until, in 1906, he broke away, buying the rights to Cornflakes, to set up the Kellogg Toasted Corn Flake Company.” A savvy entrepreneur, “William Kellogg discarded the health food concept, opting for heavy advertising and commercial taste”. (wikipedia)

How cereals make billions and why we have such a strong emotional attachment to them
  1. Cheap ingredients. Breakfast cereals use very cheap ingredients packaged into a convenient product that we believe we don’t have time to make ourselves, which means they can be sold at a higher margin and become very lucrative products. “The breakfast cereal industry has gross profit margins of 40-45%.” (wikipedia)
  1. Global appeal. The arrival of TV created cereals as a global brand and allowed corporations to begin advertising directly to consumers and into our homes.
  1. Emotional appeal. To sell more, they created friendly characters to sell their products. Characters that are still linked to the cereals today, e.g. the Coco Pops monkey, Cornelius (corny) the rooster, and Tony the tiger.   Because of the childhood connection and love of these characters and the cereals, there is an emotional attachment that’s automatically passed on from one generation to the next. It’s also usually the food we are weaned on. So then as we get older, life gets hectic and our responsibilities change, we want to hold onto things that are a constant and that give us comfort. “The bonds we make in child hood are the hardest to break.”
  1. Social acceptance. Australia’s breakfast cereal products market is worth over $1.2 billion annually, AFN Australian Food News 2012 (probably more in 2016). Today, 94% of us have a box of cereal in our cupboard. 100 years ago, nobody did. Fast forward to today and we all eat them or have eaten them. They are socially acceptable. I grew up eating Kelloggs Cornflakes every day, they were part of my childhood. Except on a Sunday when one of my fondest memories is of dad getting in the kitchen and making a massive cooked breakfast with eggs, bacon, mushrooms, tomato and… fried toast. Then we’d all sit around the table and eat together. I realise now, how a simple act had so much power in what it created.
  1. It’s VERY hard to say ‘no’.  There is more money spent on marketing cereals than any other food. The advertising targets children and mothers. In my research, a quote given was – to get one product to market, the research took 2 years to get it right, and then $3M pounds was spent on marketing and advertising that one product alone! Then add in the emotional appeal, the convenience, and as a parent it’s very, very difficult to say, “NO lets trying something new for breakfast” – I know.  

Transforming the fabric of food and family life

Until breakfast cereals arrived there was no such thing as convenience food. Breakfast cereals, Cornflakes, heralded the beginning of convenience. Then with women entering the workforce more in the mid 1900s and mornings becoming time critical, it was at a time in history that was ripe for anything that saved time, i.e. convenience and cereal in a box. It was marketed as being good for us. We didn’t know otherwise and had no reason to question it.

Breakfast in a box took off at lightning speed, leaving its nourishing country cousin, the cooked breakfast, far behind back in the paddock, our bodies depleted and families fragmented.

“The number of different types of breakfast cereals in the U.S. has grown from 160 (1970) to 340 (1998) to 4,945 (2012).” (wikipedia)

For busy women entering the workforce, breakfast cereals and convenience food offered a perfect alternative to cooking. It was understandable, and one that the billions of dollars spent on advertising made very attractive, but without realising WHAT that meant for the wellbeing and socialisation within our families.

An amazing breakfast / brunch we had with family that was whipped up by our cousin in the middle of the South African bush. Fond family memories of a magical time and place. (Don’t think the memories would be quite so fond with a box of cereal)!

So is breakfast in a box really that bad nutritionally? … Yes

Most of us know this, but here’s a quick recap on what this “food” really is.

  1.  A disruptive food. By the time a cereal is refined and processed the nutrient integrity is destroyed. There is literally NOTHING LEFT, e.g. the germ and the bran is stripped away, natural fats become rancid and any protein-based nutrients that are left become denatured. Ingredients are added to give it taste and flavour, e.g. sugar, together making it a very difficult “food” for our bodies to recognise, potentially contributing to inflammation, blood sugar swings and digestive complaints.
  2. A dead food. After processing, the grain that’s left is nutrient-void and basically a dead food. Cheap additives, sugars, salts and vegetable oils are then added to give it “taste”.
  3. A filling food. We can feel satiated after having cereal and milk for breakfast, but perhaps it’s more because our bodies physically can’t use that food and it sits there in our digestive systems not being able to be properly absorbed. OR, perhaps we are absorbing it and at 9 or 10am we’re starving – literally, because our bodies just aren’t getting the nourishment they need.
  4. A foreign food. It is fortified with many nutrients that we need. However, those nutrients are isolated nutrients. They are not packaged in a form, i.e. as a whole food, with the co-factors, e.g. other nutrients, enzymes, fats and proteins that together give the nourishment our bodies need and can recognise for easier absorption and digestion.

See next page for tips on how to break up with cereal…

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