Getting Real About Cereal

I’m sure they must be terribly alluring. Those colorful bins of sweetened treats, the cute workers in their pyjamas to ring up your order. Even the sneaking knowledge that you’re getting away with something, by ordering up a bowl of your favourite childhood breakfast cereal instead of something more, well… grown up.

But here’s the deal. Cereal companies are corporations. They have a duty to their stockholders to expand their market share every quarter. Which means cereal companies have to come up with new and innovative ways to get all of us to eat more cereal. In recent years, someone clued in to the fact that cereal is comfort food for many people, and started marketing it as a tasty snack designed to replace the chips, pretzels and ice cream we used to eat.

Sounds great, doesn’t it? After all, cereal is good for you.

Not so fast. Because most pre-packaged, pre-sweetened cereal is no better than eating a pile of cookies or a slice of cake. According to nutritionist Marion Nestle in her latest book What to Eat:

Breakfast cereals are supposed to be good for you, and the relatively unprocessed ones still are, but most are now so thoroughly processed and sugared and filled with additives that they might as well be cookies.

Most cereals are low in fibre, and high in sugar, sodium and artificial colors, flavors and preservatives. Oh, yeah, and calories. Maybe not quite so many calories as a big bowl of ice cream, but if you’re eating cereal three or four times a day, especially if you’re eating it as a snack, you might find those comfy pyjama pants getting a little snug.

MIT researcher Judith Wurtman said people often crave cereal when they are feeling depressed or anxious. Wurtman discovered that when people stop eating carbohydrates, their brains stop regulating serotonin, a chemical in the brain involved in elevating mood and suppressing appetite.

The need to make more serotonin is felt, and it’s felt in the form of a craving for carbohydrates,” said Wurtman.

The problem, she said, is that some cravers eat cereal without paying attention to how much they have consumed, leading to weight gain.

The recent trend in cereal restaurants now has people eating cereal not just at home, but at school and at the office. The underground shopping PATH in downtown Toronto boasts a restaurant called The Cereal Bar (similar in concept to the Cereality chain) and at all times of day, well-suited executives can be seen heading to their offices carrying little bowls of cereal and containers of milk. It all seems a little bit odd, doesn’t it? After all, those crazy frosted sugar-coated cereals are meant for kids. Aren’t they?

There are some theories that the sweet colorful cereal is appealing to adults because of our tendency to want to stay kids forever. Rejuveniles have spurred the current food trend towards fancy cupcakes, and may well be behind the resurgence of the bowl of cereal, as food companies play on our desire for something fun and bright and exciting, as well as our longing for the comfort food of our childhood.

Health experts advise that cereals should be chosen for their nutritional value, and most of the cereals being purchased from fast-food cereal restaurants lean towards the colored, frosted varieties. The inner cheapskate in me balks at the trend as well. If someone really wants to eat cereal at the office, how hard can it be to buy a box or two at the supermarket and then fill a tupperware container before heading out for the day? Last I checked, milk of all varieties comes in small cartons, or tetrapaks, and can also be brought from home if necessary.

In some ways, I find the cereal restaurant trend even more insidious than standard fast food (speaking of which – how long will it be before at least one of the fast-food chains jumps on the cereal bandwagon?). Burger chains pull at a lot of emotional strings to get us to associate their food with good memories, but for most adults, cereal has a built-in allure all of its own. That’s good news for cereal manufacturers and cereal restaurants, but not such great news for consumers wallets – or their waistlines.