January 13, 2013

Vanishing childhood: When cereal was kiddie food only

For the first case study, let's look at something light. Chief among the taboos of any culture in the world are those regarding food -- who can or cannot eat what food with whom in what situation. Part of the emphasis on children as a qualitatively different type of person from an adolescent or adult is that they have their own set of foods that grown-ups won't eat, and grown-ups will have their own foods that the children won't get to eat until they begin their rites of passage out of childhood.

So why not look at breakfast cereals? They started off in the early 20th century as health food for adults, though by the 1950s were marketed both to children and adults. But starting in the '60s and peaking in the '80s and early '90s, they became largely relegated to kids-only food.

Over the past 20 years, though, they've returned to the mid-century pattern of being for both kids and adults, kind of like how the syrupy "juice" boxes have disappeared and been replaced by fruit juice for both kids and adults, and the kiddie candies have been replaced by fruit snacks for young and old alike. There don't seem to be very sharp boundaries between kiddie and grown-up food anymore.

To pursue that hunch, I found the Cereal Project at mrbreakfast.com. Each entry has data on when it was introduced, and they have also grouped cereals into families like those with bran, those based on movies, etc.

I see three lines of evidence showing that cereal is no longer a kiddie food, and that its kiddie status has been declining since 1993 or so, after an increase from the '60s through the early '90s.

First, there's the cereal's ingredients. The prototypical kiddie food is pure sugar and candy-like, no fats needed. So I left aside the chocolate family of cereals, as fatty chocolate appeals to adults too. What about marshmallows, though? You don't see them very much in sweets aimed at adults. Yet there are dozens of cereals with them. Or at least there used to be. After compiling these lists, I checked my local middle American supermarket, and only one in the entire cereal aisle had marshmallows -- Lucky Charms, introduced nearly 50 years ago.

See the footnote for the boring methodology. *

At any rate, here are the cereals in the marshmallow family by year of introduction:

1964  Lucky Charms
1969  Kaboom
1971  Count Chocula
1971  Franken Berry
1972  Baron Von Redberry
1972  Sir Grapefellow
1973  Boo Berry
1973  Freakies
1974  Fruit Brute
1982 Marshmallow Krispies
1982  S'mores Grahams
1983  Pac-Man
1985  Ghostbusters
1986  Rocky Road
1987  Smurf Magic Berries
1988  Yummy Mummy
1989  Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
1990  Dino Pebbles
1992  Marshmallow Alpha-Bits
2002 Mickey's Magix
2002 Cinnamon Marshmallow Scooby-Doo
2003 Mud & Bugs
2003 Monopoly
2003 Smorz

It's hard to believe that it took cereal makers so long to come up with the idea of marshmallow bits, but it wasn't until 1963 that they hit on the idea after cutting up circus peanuts into regular cereal. This gave birth one year later to Lucky Charms, and began a decades-long mania for marshmallows. It chugs along through 1992, and then more or less disappears, aside from a brief resuscitation in 2002 and 2003.

It's hardly surprising -- can you imagine helicopter parents letting their kids eat marshmallows for breakfast every morning? In their minds, children are not a different type of person that will undergo a transformation and become an adult, giving up their kiddie ways. They are always mini-adults, they just get incrementally closer to full adults as they age. So if you start them on marshmallows at age 5, they'll be chowing down Count Chocula in their 50s. So, you can't let them have it in the first place.

Instead they have to make cereal more palatable to adults in taste and marketing. So you have granola flakes or whatever aimed at kids, and supposedly kids-only cereal by a company called Envirokidz that has naturalistic illustrations on the packaging, clearly appealing to adults rather than kids, who would prefer cartoony drawings. Cereal is no longer distinctly kiddie or adult.

Next is a category I made myself, going through all cereals in their database. And those are cereals made to look and taste like an existing dessert, candy, or sweet junk snack. That clearly marks it as something for kids only -- no adult should want a cereal made out of Oreos. I kept out those based on breakfast pastries like Cinnabon and Pop Tarts, since those still have an innocent breakfast-y feel to them, unlike cereal made to taste like ice cream. Here they are:

1977  Cookie Crisp
1980  Powdered Donutz
1982  S'mores Grahams
1982  Strawberry Shortcake
1985  Nerds
1986  Rocky Road
1987  Ice Cream Cones, Vanilla / Chocolate Chip
1988  Dunkin' Donuts
1998  Oreo O's
2003 Choco Donuts
2003 Smorz

Again we see a solid run through the '80s, a single entry in the '90s, and more of an exception during 2003, as we saw above.

Those were some of my favorites growing up -- like, I can't believe I'm getting away with eating cookies for breakfast! Most of those didn't last too long, like the Rocky Road that I used to bring to day care every day in a plastic baggie -- that stuff was good enough on its own. S'mores was the best of these, although Cookie Crisp has hung around for longer.

I still remember collecting a bunch of box tops from vanilla Ice Cream Cones and sending away for a digital wristwatch that had the logo on it. That's another thing that has changed very suddenly -- cereals don't have prizes anymore. When they did, it was a clear marker of the food's kiddie status. But now that kids and adults aren't allowed to have their own distinct cultures anymore, they'd either have to put toy prizes in all foods or remove them from cereals.

That's it for the ingredients. What about the marketing? Here there are two families whose names, mascots, etc., show that the cereal is clearly aimed at children:

Girl's Stuff

1981  Orange Blossom
1982  Strawberry Shortcake
1985  Cabbage Patch Kids
1985  Rainbow Brite


1971  Count Chocula
1971  Franken Berry
1973  Boo Berry
1974  Fruit Brute
1988  Yummy Mummy

I excluded Smurfs and Flintstones cereals from the Girls Stuff family since they aren't uniquely girly. At any rate, cereal specifically for little girls was an '80s-only phenomenon. That was during a low-point in ideological feminism -- mothers back then did not worry about what message they were sending their daughters by buying them Rainbow Brite cereal. Most of the loud-mouthed feminism of the mid-1970s came from and was made for Silent Gen women like Gloria Steinem and other 30-to-40-something career women. By the time Baby Boomers became parents in the '70s and '80s, they wanted wholesome, sex-typical childhoods for their offspring.

Now that childhood per se does not exist, but only mini-adulthood, there can be no cereals that would strike adults as uniquely kiddie, like Boo Berry. There are no exceptions to the decline during the '90s and later.

Finally, there are those based on TV shows or movies. You'd think maybe the change would take the form of making cereals based on PG-13 tent-pole "family-friendly" movies. Lord of the Rings Rings, or something. But planning a cereal around a movie is a little too obvious to get past adults; they would instantly see it as a kiddie marketing gimmick. As explained in the boring methodology, I only counted those that were not limited edition promotions, but an honest attempt to launch an enduring cereal line based on a TV show or movie.


1984  C-3PO's
1984  E.T.
1985  Ghostbusters
2002 Buzz Blasts
2003 Mud & Bugs


1969  Fruity Pebbles
1973  Pink Panther Flakes
1983  Smurf Berry Crunch
1984  Mr. T
1985  G.I. Joe
1985  Rainbow Brite
1988  Croonchy Stars
1989  Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
1991  Urkel-Os
2001 Bart Simpson
2001 Homer's Cinnamon Donut
2002 Cinnamon Marshmallow Scooby-Doo

The movie cereals are mostly an '80s thing, with an exception during 2002-'03, as before. TV cereals got started somewhat earlier, but also all but vanish after the early '90s, aside from the exception in -- once again -- 2002, and now a pair in 2001. The two Simpsons cereals show somewhat of the expected change of making TV/movie cereals come from grown-up sources, as no kid was watching the Simpsons by that point.

Overall, then, the pattern is one of greater kiddie-ness of cereals from the '60s through a peak in the '80s, a not very gradual decline over the past 20 years, and a brief reversal of that decline around 2002-'03. This is the familiar rising-crime vs. falling-crime timing, with the brief exception in '02-'03 being a reaction to 9/11, which provoked somewhat of a rising-crime zeitgeist, though not very broadly or long-lastingly. I'll tie all these things into the trend in the crime rate after the case studies themselves.

Helicopter parents frame these changes as trying to look out for the long-term health of their kid. But they aren't feeding them less carbs and sugar -- more, if anything, given how much yoghurt (always sweetened), fruit juice, nuts, granola, etc., they give them in place of Cookie Crisp. Mom doesn't make bacon and eggs served with buttered toast and whole milk anymore. And anyway, kids grow out of eating cereal if it's understood to be a kiddie thing. If anything, treating it as a food for all ages makes them continue eating junky cereal their entire lives.

Rather, the change has been to remove the distinctly kiddie aura surrounding breakfast cereal. Kids are no longer their own class of creatures with their own tastes and their own culture -- they are slabs of wet clay that will develop whatever tastes the parents impart to them through regular training. Again I'll get to why once more cases have been studied.

* In all of these lists, I excluded cereals that were temporary promotional tie-ins or limited editions. I want to see what kind of stuff kids could rely on finding during a random trip to the grocery store. And there are a bunch of cereals that no one's ever heard of, so I only kept those that had at least 100 votes for being the best cereal. That still keeps in most of the cereals that lasted a few years or longer, and serves more to exclude obscure ones that a kid would never have encountered in real life. I also excluded minor variations on existing product lines, unless they took the line into a new family, e.g. by introducing marshmallows when the original cereal didn't have them.

Also, I took these lists at face value, and did not look through all cereals not on the list to see if they missed any. I'm sure they didn't mean for them to be exhaustive, but they won't be biased in favor of my hunch since they didn't know what it was when they made their lists. If anything, it looks biased against it. I remember a cereal from the '80s called Circus Fun that had lots of marshmallows in it, yet is not included in the "Marshmallow Madness" family.


  1. In the 90s, TV began showing those advertisements for "Special K" other diet cereals - obviously targeted towards adults.

    I vaguely seem to remember that in college (mid 2000s) it was usual for young people to eat kiddie cereal(Lucky Charms, Golden Grahams, etc.) as a meal.

    Come to think of it, I don't remember seeing any advertisements for kiddie cereal anymore..


  2. Kellogg's used to promote another hit cereal as being healthy for kids and revitalizing for adults -- Kellogg's Pep.


    The ads geared toward adults are from the late '30s and early '40s; the ones about kids are from the early '50s.

    Click on any picture to read the panels clearly. They pitched it just like Geritol, Enzyte, etc. Is your lifestyle running low on energy? Wish you could please the people who count on you to have lots of zip? Well you may not be getting all of your necessary vitamins. But that's nothing that a healthy bowlful of Pep can't solve! And say, it tastes great too!

  3. Also notice the emphasis on how Pep isn't specifically for kids or for adults. Eating it is a way to collapse boundaries between age groups.

    "Daughter and Dad both go for crisp, delicious Pep."


You MUST enter a nickname with the "Name/URL" option if you're not signed in. We can't follow who is saying what if everyone is "Anonymous."