What Part of a Complete Breakfast?

03/06/2015 09:46 am ET | Updated May 05, 2015
Joe Raedle via Getty Images

In the latest educational music video for kids produced by my non-profit, my own 15-year-old son, our front man, essentially asks the question: if multicolored marshmallows in a cereal box are part of a complete breakfast, what part IS that?

By posing the question, I think he is also answering the one Kellogg's seems to be asking, namely: what happened to us? How did we lose control of the American breakfast?

That story is elaborated in a Bloomberg Business profile that chronicles the century-spanning rise, and recent fall, of Tony the Tiger, Toucan Sam, and the rest of the menagerie. I defer to the business experts on the sociocultural trends that figure in Kellogg's travails, such as working mothers, smaller families, and breakfasts preferentially eaten on the run.

From my perspective, at least some of the answers are just about as blatant as the psychedelic glow of those marshmallows in my son's lyric.

There has been a tremendous concentration of attention over recent years to the adverse health effects of miscellaneous food adulterations, from the general harms of added sugar, to the specific ills of high-fructose corn syrup; to the liabilities of refined grains; to the potential harms of food chemicals; to the insidious (and ill-defined) menace of genetic modification; to the willful sabotage of appetite control with hyper-processed concoctions. When dietary worry was all directed at excess fat intake, pseudo-fruit (Kellogg's makes Froot-Loops and Apple Jacks) and multicolored marshmallows (actually, General Mills makes Lucky Charms) were able to fly under the radar. A widening array of worries has cost them that cover.

There is also a movement under way to expunge the magical thinking attached to added nutrients. Historically, food companies have applied vitamins and minerals much like lipstick on a pig: whatever the general character of the product, it would introduce itself with bold assertions about fortification. The banner ad across the front of the package, like some honorific bandolier, never says: "my first ingredient is added sugar!" true though that may be. It is far more likely to say something about "essential nutrients!"

That, in fact, is the basis for the classic marketing line: "part of a complete breakfast!" The typical TV commercial for a kid's cereal features multicolored, madly frenetic antics -- followed by the sonorous voice of an announcer, presumably allaying the concerns of mom or dad: "fortified with 11 essential vitamins and minerals, part of a complete breakfast." The inevitable juxtaposition of the two assertions implies that the latter follows naturally from the former. In other words, our concoction deserves to be part of your family's "complete breakfast" because, after all, it is fortified with these very important nutrients.

But as I have been motivated to opine before, nutrient additions to a vat of gloop cannot exonerate the gloop. The new book, Vitamania, by Catherine Price, about which she and I recently corresponded, apparently develops the same theme.

So the public has learned that low-fat does not a wholesome food make; and that nutrient additions to junk produce, well, nutrient-fortified junk.

And that's where a whole lot of breakfast cereals fall. Kellogg's is by no means alone in those dietary badlands.

The result is that health-conscious eaters are likely rejecting cereals they formerly embraced -- and they are quite right to do so. Eaters that aren't at all health conscious weren't eating cereal in the first place -- they were having donuts, Danish, and muffins; or maybe sausage and egg sandwiches. Either way, they are probably uninterested in cereal.

Personally, I am an inveterate cereal eater, but have long favored the exceptionally wholesome offerings of especially virtuous companies. My standard choice most days is one of the whole grain offerings of Nature's Path, a cereal line noteworthy for purity, and simplicity, with minimal additions of sugar, salt, or anything else unwelcome -- and maximal preservation of the native grain nutrients. My very favorite product of theirs, a cereal called Synergy, is no longer available in the U.S., because I was apparently the only one down here eating it! It is made from eight whole grains, with no added sugar and no added salt. I guess it was a bit like cardboard to the typical American palate, but my taste buds don't have that unfortunate condition, and I loved the stuff.

I have long been a fan of KIND for their simple and wholesome bars, and have embraced their cereal line for the same reasons. There are others, too, including Wholesome Goodness, a company I advise on nutrition; and some of Kashi's offerings (Kashi is owned by Kellogg); and so on. But most of the cereals that cater to the prevailing American palate have far too much added sugar and salt for my taste. Many popular (or formerly popular?) cereal brands have more added salt, relative to calories, than almost anything in the salty snack aisle (go ahead -- check the nutrition facts panels). The only reason they don't taste overtly salty to most Americans is because (a) the salt is masked by even more copious additions of sugar; and (b) the typical American's taste buds are in a sugar- and salt-induced coma. Perhaps that's changing, to Kellogg's apparent dismay.

Of the dubious concoctions over which we poured our milk all these years, the cereals preferentially marketed to children are by far the worst. How we ever got the idea that "junk" could be food, I'll never know; but that we then got the idea that the junkiest of all foods could be "kid" food is utterly astounding. Food is the one and only construction material for the growing bodies of children we love. How does "junk" sound now? Apparently, less good. Perhaps health conscious parents are seeing past the bright glow of that lipstick at last.

To the extent that Kellogg's lost breakfast -- and I'm not sure the final chapter has yet been written -- it is because they were playing the wrong game for much of the past five decades or so. They, along with all of the others in this same space, were looking for best ways to put makeup on a pig, rather than looking for ways to make up the best, most nutritious formulations.

They lost the game because we finally caught on, and figured out what game they had been playing -- and who was actually losing.


David L. Katz, MD, MPH, FACPM, FACP apologizes for any unintended offense taken by pigs. He likes pigs.

Director, Yale University Prevention Research Center; Griffin Hospital

Editor-in-Chief, Childhood Obesity