It’s Grrrrreat!: Cereal’s colorful past makes for a nutritious future

From the time we are toddlers to well into our geriatric years, cereal is consistently a part of our diet. So it isn’t surprising that 95 percent of Americans like cereal, nor that our tastes in cereals are forever changing – and the same holds true for the cereal industry.

A bowl of sexy cereal history

It appears we’ve come a long way since Sylvester Graham, a health nut who made his mark in the mid-1800s by leading America on a health-food crusade. He believed that ill health was due to sexual excesses so, as a part of his anti-sex, pro-health diet, Graham created a staple ingredient that he called graham flour. He claimed that eating it helped reduce sexual excess brought on by foods that supposedly caused erotic thoughts and desires. Today Graham’s theory is dead, but the legacy of his attempt to reduce sexual excess lives on: A sweetened, processed form of his flour that we know as the graham cracker.

So what does that have to do with cereal? Fast forward to the late 1800s, the year Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, who preached the dangers of masturbation, walks into the cereal arena. In order to reduce these supposed dangerous habits, Kellogg introduced a health food that eventually came to be called granola.

At the turn of the century, Kellogg faced some competition from another health-food enthusiast named Charles W. Post, who created easier-to-chew Grape Nuts, a version of Kellogg’s granola recipe that he sold commercially, becoming the first packaged cold cereal product.

Around the same time, John Kellogg’s brother, Will Kellogg, discovered how to make more appealing flakes when he ran a batch of stale, ground wheatmeal through rollers and roasted the flakes and named them Granose. Several years later, Will Kellogg repeated the same process using corn and named the cereal Corn Flakes. In 1902 he began mass production of the cereal, marking its end as a health food and dropping the claim that it reduced sexual excess.

However, according to author and former television reporter David Hoffman, “Breakfast wasn’t worth a grain until 1949, when Sugar Crisp, the first sweetened cereal, was introduced.” Hoffman is the author of “The Breakfast Cereal Gourmet,” a book that details statistics and interesting bits of cereal history as well as original cereal-rich recipes such as frosted banana pancakes, black-bean burgers and Cinnamon Toast Crunch ice cream.

Alongside the cereal facts and recipes, the book is fortified with vintage cereal photos, promising a little trip down cereal memory lane. But where did Hoffman’s undying love for cereal originate? “I’m a baby boomer – so for me, cereal is comfort food, nostalgia … a reminder of Saturday morning in front of the TV.”

Cold cereal is hot!

Hoffman’s book tribute to cereal couldn’t have come out at a better time: “I’m a writer and reporter who covers trends and pop culture – and everywhere I turned, cold cereal was ‘hot.’” Recently, some Harvard students staged a protest when university officials removed all brand-name cereals from the dining hall and replaced them with generic versions. In addition, cereal cafés called Cereality are beginning to spread across the nation.

Cereality is reflecting the trend that cereal isn’t just for breakfast anymore. The cereal bar concept caters to customers by recreating a cherished childhood experience like the one Hoffman described. “We don’t just sell cereal; we sell Saturday morning,” said Cereality CEO and co-founder David Roth.

At Cereality, cereal is served by pajama-clad “cereologists”; milk is dispensed from a Moo Machine; cartoons play on a big screen; special spoons, called “sloops,” are deployed with built-in straws; and more than 30 types of cereal come in Chinese takeout-esque containers, with a choice of 40 different toppings ranging from bananas and raisins to Pop Rocks and malt balls. “At Cereality, you are the chef – the idea is to give customers a lot of choice, putting them in charge,” added Roth.

Currently, the closest Cereality to St. Louis is its newest location in the Chicago Loop. However, due to Cereality’s popularity, catering is now available, bringing the Cereality experience of “Always Saturday Morning” anywhere in the United States.

“Because the Cereality concept has been so captivating and well-received around the country, we’ve had a huge demand from meeting and party planners who want to bring the excitement and fun of our menu and our brand to their events,” explained Roth. “Cereality Catering provides a memorable and efficient solution that’s easy to order and manage.” Aside from catering, Roth estimated that within the next 18 months, St. Louis would be seeing some form of Cereality.

Complex carbs

Since creating custom combos of cereal and toppings at Cereality hasn’t quite made it to St. Louis, why not make your own flakes and puffs? Unfortunately, there’s no such thing as homemade cereal – unless you are talking about granola.

Ann Gallardo, owner of City Coffee House and Crêperie in Clayton, says granola is more than just a breakfast item for her customers. “Customers purchase our granola at all times of the day, especially in the afternoon for a snack,” said Gallardo. “We make a batch of granola four or more times a week.”

Years ago, Gallardo was looking for a good granola recipe to add to the menu at the restaurant, and, lucky for her, her sister had just the recipe she was looking for. “We let the customers sample it, and it was a big hit,” said Gallardo. “Now customers are saying we should package it and sell it in stores.”

But when it comes to creating ready-to-eat cereals, these carbs are complex. Take Corn Flakes for example. The process for making them goes like this: formulation, mixing, cooking, dumping, delumping, drying, cooling and tempering, flaking and finally toasting. Not to mention the fact that complex scientific equations are used for batching and drying rates. It turns out there is a whole science behind the creation and classification of ready-to-eat cereals. So the next time you find yourself munching on some shredded wheat, remember there is a lot more to your biscuit than you might think.

Marketing cereal as a health food once again

Step into the cereal aisle of any major grocery store today and you’ll notice that cereal is once again being marketed for its health benefits (this time without the anti-sexual excess message). Cereal boxes are boasting claims for reducing cholesterol, preventing heart disease and providing an excellent source of fiber.

With major yogurt producers like Yoplait claiming that yogurt may help burn fat, it comes as no surprise that little yogurt bits are ending up in cereals such as Special K and Life Cereal. Even Cereality offers yogurt-covered nuts as one of their many cereal toppings. “We’ve also had huge sales around our yogurt granola parfaits,” said Roth.

As consumers are growing more and more focused on their personal health, it appears that their awareness and desire for organic products is increasing as well. Dustin McVey, a spokesperson for Cascadian Farm, a grower, manufacturer and distributor of organic products owned by General Mills, says the prevalence of organic cereals will continue to grow.

“With more convenience and choice available to consumers, people are finding an organic lifestyle easier to live every day. They see more organic options everywhere, most of all in the grocery store. Increased convenience and availability of organic foods are two factors driving growth of the category,” said McVey.

Whether it is organic, is packed with sugar, claims to make you regular or promises to reduce cholesterol, the fact that on any given day, roughly one out of every two Americans starts the morning with a bowl of cereal tells us that cereal continues to be an “important part of a balanced breakfast.”