Las Vegas SUN
May 02, 2001
No sugarcoating it: Cereals still a nutritious confection
By Kirk Baird
LAS VEGAS SUN
With his layers of gold chains, Mohawk and bad attitude, everyone's favorite former bodyguard, Mr. T would seem a natural as a breakfast treat.
And face it, who hasn't driven by a Dunkin' Donuts store and thought: "If only their doughnuts came in convenient cereal form ... "?
Oddly enough, both have, along with the Cabbage Patch Kids, C-3PO from "Star Wars," Pac-Man, the Smurfs, G.I. Joe and the Nintendo Entertainment System (as the cleverly titled Nintendo Cereal System).
Welcome to the wacky world of breakfast cereal. A place where "frosted goodness" somehow manages to walk hand-in-hand with "part of a balanced breakfast."
Lest sugary cereals seem only for children, consider this: In the United States, the ready-to-eat cereal industry accounted for $7.72 billion in supermarket sales in 2000, according to ABCNews.com. Its nearest breakfast-food challenger, snack bars/granola bars, generated $1.29 billion.
So why is cereal so popular?
"Breakfast cereal is at the nexus of several powerful drives," said Ian Golder, of Sacramento, who hosts the frequently asked questions section on the Usenet newsgroup alt.cereal. "Nostalgia, because people associate it with their childhood; food, especially sweetened 'junk' food; the U.S. advertising biz; and it's American, as it's the birthplace of breakfast cereal."
Then there are the prizes.
It used to be that cereals came with all manner of prizes, from a decal or a plastic sub, which would alternately dive and rise with a little help from baking soda, to collectible dinosaur coins and plastic figurines.
Even though the ready-to-eat cereal industry has gotten away from such gimmicks during the last decade, recently it has come around offering prize redemption over the Internet.
"I think prizes play an important role historically, culturally and nostalgically," said Topher Ellis of Charlotte, N.C., webmaster of Tophers Breakfast Cereal Guide and editor of "The Boxtop" netletter, a monthly Internet publication for cereal lovers. "There is no question that people will buy cereal to get to the prizes. Prizes definitely encourage impulse buying in the cereal aisle.
"I think we stand a good chance of seeing a prize renaissance in this decade. Baby boomers loved prizes growing up and will buy prize-inside cereal for their kids."
That sense of nostalgia is one of the main ingredients of cereal's success among adults, Ellis said. Not just for the prizes, but for the characters who have hawked them.
Everyone knows Tony the Tiger and his Frosted Flakes, L.C. Leprechaun and his Lucky Charms, the Silly Rabbit and his Trix, and Cap'n Crunch and his myriad flavors of cereal.
But what about Waldo the Wizard, who replaced the Leprechaun for a brief time in the mid-'70s? Or the Freakies, a group of lovable creatures who lived under the Freakies tree and ate their cereal? And even "the Dog, Girl and Boy of the future," who appeared on a series of Post Honeycomb boxes in the '70s.
"There is a lot of aloha (warm feelings and goodwill) for the cereal characters and the prize," Ellis said. "A week doesn't go by that I don't get an e-mail from someone thanking me for providing information on a particular cereal that they were able to prove really existed to their doubting friends."
His site -- geocities.com/tophers-castle/cereal-guide -- averages between 1,200 and 2,000 hits a day, he said, and was started in 1997 after he discovered there were no websites devoted to cereal characters.
"So I built it, and continue to add to it as I locate new images and information, or when visitors and cereal-company employees (current and retired) send me information and images," Ellis said.
As for his own tastes, he said prefers the less-sugary cereals. And he's not alone: Five of the top-10-selling brands, according to Advertising Age, are unsweetened, with Cheerios, at No. 2, being the most popular. Frosted Flakes is the most popular cereal overall.
And what about sweetened cereals? How healthy are they?
More than you might think, local nutritionists say.
Most cereals -- even of the frosting-added variety -- are low in fat and are often enriched with vitamins. And while there are healthier choices out there, starting the day off with a bowl of most any type of cereal is better than nothing at all.
"In terms of food there are no bad choices," said Barbara Leslie, coordinator of food service for Clark County School District. "It's all about the combination and total intake -- not just for the day, but for the week."
Among the items on the CCSD breakfast menu, Leslie said children are offered a choice of three types of ready-to-eat cereals -- two sugar-coated, one without.
She said the cereal helps provide children the nutrients they need -- including iron, which helps fight disease -- and, when mixed with milk, is a strong source of calcium.
"The main thing about eating breakfast is that it gets your metabolism going," said Lori Rhode, a dietician with University Medical Center for 17 years. "Cereal is not an unhealthy food."
When it comes to sugar-coated cereal, among Rhode's choices are those made from whole grain, such as Lucky Charms, Honey Nut Cheerios, Pokemon, Kix and Raisin Bran. But even other cereals not made from whole wheat, such as Frosted Flakes and Rice Krispies, have enough added vitamins to be reasonably healthy choices.
She said generally adults mimic their behavior as children, and if they ate healthier foods as a child, they'll more than likely do the same as an adult.
Although, parents take note: There are exceptions to the rule.
Limited to only "healthier" cereals growing up, Golder said he is now very fond of pre-sweetened cereals and has amassed a nice-size collection of boxes of those types of cereals.
"I couldn't stand being raised on Special K, knowing that all my friends were eating Frosted Flakes or Cocoa Puffs," he said. "The sugary cereal that was once denied me is now an object of endless fascination."
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