Breakfast cereal is so ubiquitous today that it’s hard to imagine a grocery store or breakfast table without the brightly colored boxes covered with exclamations about taste, colors, shapes, and various statements about health. But is cereal bad for you?
Unfortunately, cereals did not gain popularity because of their nutritional value, but rather because of very successful marketing campaigns and people’s desire for convenience.
The sad truth is that breakfast cereals are taking the place of more nutrient-dense foods, and they are full of harmful ingredients including glyphosate residues from the pesticide used while growing the grains. The World Health Organization classified glyphosate as a “probable human carcinogen,” yet it is still the most widely used pesticide in the US.
Glyphosate was found in all 28 samples of oat-based cereals the Environmental Working Group (EWG) tested in 2018, and most of them tested at levels above the EWG’s health benchmark of 160 parts per billion. So, not only do breakfast cereals lack the nutrients that our kids need to be energized for the day and develop their growing bodies, but they also contain residues of potentially seriously harmful chemicals. Yikes!
So is cereal bad for you? Let’s look a little closer at how breakfast cereals became so popular in the first place. Understanding how a norm came to be can sometimes help us shift towards something better and have grace for ourselves when we fall back into what is easy.
Is Cereal Bad for You: A Short History
The history of the cereal we know today starts with a name you already know: Kellogg. J. H. Kellogg was a vegetarian and Seventh Day Adventist who ran a sanitarium in Michigan in the early 1900s. He intended his dried dough creation to be a “healthy” alternative to the rich, meat-heavy breakfasts that Americans were eating at the time. A patient at his sanitarium, C.W. Post, created a similar product called Grape Nuts. These cereals were advertised as healthy, claiming that they “Enriched the Blood” and were “pure, clean, and good.” But ads also emphasized how delicious the corn flakes were and how cereal would “make your job easier” as a parent.
J. H. Kellogg’s brother, W. K. Kellogg, shortly took over the company and added sugar to his cereal, which apparently was what everyone was doing at home anyways. Post followed suit and so did other cereal companies that cropped up. The sweetened puffed and flaked grains grew in popularity and the diversity of shapes, colors, and flavors increased.
Why Did Breakfast Cereal Become so Popular?
Breakfast used to be like any other meal. People ate things like roast chicken, pies, steak, fruit, oats, and grits. So how did we get to purple puffed corn and sugar-dusted wheat shreds?
The three main reasons we see are: they are cheap to make and cheap to buy, they are convenient, and the leading companies had killer marketing. Notice that none of these reasons include the consideration of nutrition…
Breakfast Cereals are Cheap
Breakfast cereals are made up mostly of processed grains and refined sugar. These two ingredients are not a recipe for healthy breakfast. In fact, refined sugar has been widely acknowledged to cause a range of health problems if eaten regularly. Highly processed grains offer little nutritional value beyond simple carbohydrate calories to fill you up. But both of these ingredients are super cheap to make and purchase and store—so cereal became a great opportunity for someone to make money. The low cost of cereals also make them appealing to institutions like schools who are feeding many children on a low budget. However, these breakfasts just don’t cut it for us!
Convenience is King
Families used to spend much more of their time in the home. As the industrial revolution took off, parents were spending more and more time working outside the home. Early work schedules necessitated regular, often more rushed breakfasts with less time to cook. This trend continued as more women began to work outside the home too.
Today’s modern parents are often both working (sometimes at more than one job), getting kids to school and sports practices and social gatherings, managing a household without the help of other adults, and trying to have a social life of their own. Modern parents are busy! It’s no wonder we welcome any easy way to feed the kids in the morning!
We’re not here to judge anyone for choosing an easy way to get food on the table. In fact, I am always looking for convenient, quick meals to make for my family. The pressure of time and exhaustion is so real. This is why we love making things ahead of time (like Oatmeal Bliss Bars or boiled eggs) that we can grab and go when the morning hustle is on!
What we don’t think is okay is when companies capitalize on and take advantage of overworked, tired parents by playing on their need and desire for convenience. This is what the big breakfast cereals have done—make it as easy as opening a bag and pouring it into a bowl with some milk, then convince the parents that it’s healthy. Unfortunately, nearly all breakfast cereals (despite the bold claims of fiber and whole grains and being fortified with vitamins) are not nutrient-dense foods and even contain concerning ingredients like artificial colors, processed sugars, and natural flavors.
Marketing is Powerful
How did cereals get so big? The answer is marketing. First, dry cereals were marketed to adults as a convenient health food. Then, the companies making them discovered the power of marketing directly to children. Convenience and pressure to please their kids had parents raising up generations of daily box cereal eaters. Breakfast is the most marketed meal of the day because it is the easiest meal for people to outsource, and the morning routine of breakfast means that people are often loyal to their favorite breakfast foods. That makes it a very appealing meal for businesses to get a foothold in.
Exciting characters like Tony the Tiger and Snap, Crackle, and Pop still reign today on the shelves of grocery stores everywhere (and usually at kids’ eye level too). These characters also took to the screen, on advertisements and even on their own TV shows. Of course, once children saw these, they wanted the cereal boxes with Toucan Sam, Trix the Rabbit, or Cap’n Crunch. This marketing was and is extremely effective on children.
Meanwhile, the cereal boxes kept up their “healthy” marketing on boxes, adjusting the language to whatever health craze was popular at the time: “heart healthy” and “low calorie,” along with “high protein” and “fortified with vitamins.” Natural flavors, artificial flavors, and food coloring got added in as food scientists continued to update the recipes. Plus, games on the boxes and toys inside attracted kids even more.
What about fortified cereals?
Fortifying food came about as a way to get necessary nutrients to people around the Great Depression and the World Wars, when many folks were eating mostly simple, cheap, grain-based foods and suffering from nutritional deficiencies. In these taxing times, people did not have access to the diverse diets that allow humans to get all the nutrients that they need. While this was not the best way to feed the country, it was an achievable and effective way to address certain deficiencies in the short term. Fortified foods remain common practice today.
Unfortunately, foods are fortified with low-quality nutrients like synthetic vitamins and flakes of iron that are not the same as naturally occurring vitamins and minerals in whole foods. Without the complete network of nutrients in a whole, living food, isolated vitamins can act quite differently in our bodies. These synthetic vitamins can sometimes cause complications (like constipation from too much iron or kidney stones from too much calcium).
The fortified vitamins and minerals in breakfast cereals are just not as good as getting those vitamins from whole food sources like fruits and vegetables, grass-fed meat and dairy, and seafood.
Are any breakfast cereals healthy?
So is cereal bad for you? Most of them, yes. At best, they are nutrient poor. At worst, they are full of refined sugars, processed and potentially toxic ingredients, and empty calories. The best “cereal” that we recommend is your own homemade granola. When you make granola at home, you get to choose the ingredients and you know it’s fresh.
We also like LoveBird and Coconut Crunch by Nuco, which are both grain-free, organic cereals made with simple ingredients.
Breakfast cereal is a $21 billion dollar industry with an extensive marketing campaign and lots to gain from convincing parents that cereal is healthy. While we get the appeal of convenience and even have a few brands we trust, we value making time (even just a few minutes, even just a few days a week!) to make a whole food, nutrient-dense breakfast for our kiddos.
A healthy breakfast can make a huge impact on our kids’ health, from their moods, to their performance in school, to their physical activity. If you’re not sure where to start with making breakfast at home (or want some new ideas), check out our meal plan and cookbook: Sunny Side Up: A 28-Day Breakfast Meal Plan for Busy Families. It’s full of tools and recipes that will make it easy to trade out ultra-processed packaged foods for hearty, nutrient-dense breakfasts that will set your kids up for success with a better mood, stronger focus, improved behavior, and sustained energy. Plus, it’s designed for cooks of all levels.