Back of the Box: Is the End of Great Breakfast Cereal Fiction Nigh?

Back of the Box: Is the End of Great Breakfast Cereal Fiction Nigh?

In the last two months, the FDA cracked down on General Mills for the heart health claims on Cheerios boxes, stating that the wording situates the cereal as a drug, which it isn’t; and the Federal Trade Commision put its foot down about Kellogg’s inference that Frosted Mini-Wheats increased children’s attentiveness, which — as anyone not reading this propaganda while placidly sworking up sugar cereal could guess — just isn’t particularly true.

Because I’m addicted to breakfast cereal, and the word-covered (edible?) boxes it comes in, it pains me to acknowledge that the central part of “this nutritious breakfast” is pure capitalist evil (take this statement, from the Kellogg’s site: “Contrary to popular belief, sugar is not linked to the development of obesity, hyperactivity in children, type 2 diabetes or heart disease when eaten as part of a healthy diet.”)

This very morning, I enjoyed a bowl of flakey health claims sweetened with millions of dollars of marketing. Yet I’m well-versed in the works of Frances Moore Lappé, Marion Nestle and Michael Pollan, all of whom point to my habit as an example of what’s wrong with our food system. Nestle’s “What to Eat: An Aisle-by-Aisle Guide to Savvy Food Choices and Good Eating” offers a particularly clear-sighted appraisal of the industry. Did you know that companies pay for good shelf positions in supermarkets? That most of the dizzying varieties on the cereal shelves are brought to us by one of four huge corporations (Kellogg’s, General Mills, Post and Quaker)? Crunchy-granola-seeming Kashi? Owned by Kellogg. Pure, organic Cascadian Farms? General Mills. And about those health claims (many from studies funded by these corporations)? Pollan recommends reading them as a warning (“a health claim on a food product is a good indication that it’s not really food, and food is what you want to eat”).

Nestle explains that mini-marshmallow-studded human kibble is equated with breakfast mostly because multi-billion dollar companies want to corral us through the central aisles of the supermarket (lest we discover the real foods, which both Pollan and Nestle point out are on the fringes). By doing so, subsidy-supported industrial agricilture can fatten us up on doctored grains while keeping us hungry for more (a good ploy, Pollan tells us, since publicly traded companies must grow faster than the population that buys their products). Once we’re craving box after box of “breakfast,” they slaughter us at the checkout counter where we pay enormous mark-ups for the privilege of eating heavily-advertised brand-name fodder.

I know these things, and yet I snarf up my mix of deprived carbs and faux enrichments with frisky delight each morning, only to find myself nosing hungrily around the  trough an hour later. Today I’ve mixed Barbara’s Organic Crispy Wheats, Cascadian Farms Purely O’s, and the Kellogg’s Special K that I bought on sale at my local Key Food. It’s a particularly nice combination, the O’s remaining crunchy, the Crispy Wheat squares retaining their quilted complexity even as they grow limp, and the Special K flakes developing a uniquely springy softness. As I eat, I enjoy the fine literature on the back of each box. “Eat breakfast, weigh less,” says Special K, while the O’s purport to be “good for you, your family, and the world we share.” If you ask me, nothing is more pleasurable than reading some optimistic, feel-good fiction while enjoying a lightly sweetened, texturally delightful, refreshingly milk-covered bowl of breakfast.

So, Obama, are the entrancing lies on the back of the cereal box headed the way of the ozone layer, the paper book and mealtime conversation? In theory, I’m all for truth in advertising. And I probably wouldn’t allow myself to buy cereal if the box proclaimed its contents “almost as tasty as doughnuts, with fewer calories than a fudge sundae, less protein than yogurt and better value than a ballpark beer!” But eating cereal is seriously entrenched, and those health claims? I don’t think they’re going anywhere. I suspect the industry will simply pour more into working around increasingly stringent guidelines, inspiring back-of-the-box writers to ever greater heights of creativity.

Meantime, in an effort to work for change and greater integrity at the breakfast table, I hope to make some improvements in my habits. After breakfast today, I got all grassroots and tried making my own cereal (see recipes below). I know, most crunchy granola types make…granola, but I was wondering if I could make a cereal more along the lines of my beloved Puffins or Mini-Wheats — you know, kibble-style. The experiment yielded surprisingly pleasing, thrifty results. But realistically, I won’t be going off the breakfast grid anytime soon. Instead, I’ll take Home Ec blogger Sarah Sliwa’s advice about how to seek out independent, natural brands (like Peace Cereal and Nature’s Path) at my local food coop, even though all that earnest back-of-the-box copy leaves me craving…. a good book.

Cinnamon-Wheat Mini Victories
It would cost me 150 million dollars to convince you that these are the heart-healthiest, cutest, most convenient and crunchy-staying cereals ever, but perhaps you’ll allow me to point out — for free — that it’s very tasty, quick, and a perfect use for ingredients that are frequently wasted? Egg whites, a byproduct of much baking, custard- and ice cream–making, will keep for ages in a container in the fridge or freezer. You can also hold onto the ends of old bread in the fridge or freezer — their thinner, crustier quality makes them that much crisper here.

Serves 1

2 slices whole wheat bread, preferably stale (the end slices are ideal), cut into ½ inch cubes or diamonds
1 egg white
1 teaspoon each sugar and cinnamon
Pinch salt

1.    Preheat the oven to 300˚. Spread the bread cubes on a baking sheet and toast the hell out of them, tossing halfway through (5 to 15 minutes depending how stale they were).
2.    In a medium bowl, lightly beat the egg white. In a second medium bowl, combine the sugar, cinnamon and salt. Toss the toast cubes in the egg white mixture, then use a fork to transfer them to the cinnamon sugar and toss to coat.
3.    Line the baking sheet with parchment paper. With the fork, transfer the cubes to the parchment and spread them out. Bake until crisp and golden, about 15 minutes. Let cool, then eat with milk. Can be stored at room temperature, covered, for up to a day.

Honey-Oat Mini Victories
Serves 1

2 slices whole grain oat bread, preferably stale (the end slices are ideal), cut into ½ inch cubes or diamonds
1 egg white
1 tablespoon honey
Pinch salt

1.    Preheat the oven to 300˚. Spread the bread cubes on a baking sheet and toast the hell out of them, tossing halfway through (5 to 15 minutes depending how stale they were).
2.    In a medium bowl, lightly beat the egg white with the honey and salt. Toss the toast cubes in the egg white mixture.
3.    Line the baking sheet with parchment paper. Using a fork, transfer the cubes to the parchment and spread them out. Bake until crisp and golden, about 15 minutes. Let cool, then eat with milk. Can be stored at room temperature, covered, for up to a day.

Zoe Singer is a freelance writer and co-author of The Flexitarian Table. Her food writing, photography and recipes appear in publications including The Financial Times, Body & Soul Magazine, Epicu ...read more

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