Lileks: Back when kids were kids and breakfast meant a sugar high

  • Article by: JAMES LILEKS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 22, 2011 - 8:14 PM

Local foodstuff mega-company General Mills, which was formed in 1904 by the merger of Specific Mills and Vague Mills, announced that its profits have been hit by high ingredient costs.

There's the price of corn, which previously had one purpose: being eaten as corn. Now it's used for high-fructose corn syrup, which some say will give a brick diabetes if soaked long enough, and it's used in plastics, as people who subscribe to the Star Tribune's popular "dog-waste disposal system" know. (It's a great deal -- sign up for daily bag delivery and we'll include a newspaper inside at no charge.) And there's ethanol, of course. So the price goes up, and a box of cereal shrinks until you're paying four bucks for something the size of a paperback book.

Perhaps General Mills has deeper problems. The ingenious joy that once fueled the breakfast cereal industry seems to have sputtered and died, replaced by a grim insistence that you eat so much fiber it starts shooting out your cuffs like hay from an overstuffed scarecrow.

Anyone who spends a lot of time in the cereal aisle, trying to decide which indistinguishable fiber-fortified stuff is cheaper this week, gets a twinge of nostalgia for the days when cereals boasted that they were sweetened. Promised it. Fortified with Dextrose! Gives you energy! So does licking a nuclear fuel rod, you say, and that's not healthy. Granted.

But no one's introduced a sugary-cereal mascot for decades, not since Cookie Crisp's fat happy baker. (I think they realized they crossed the line with that one.)

In the old days you had basic cereals that were aimed at adults who were perfectly capable of adding sugar, thank you, and a few grim, joyless brands aimed at old men who believed that economic problems were the result of constipation, and if people just chewed these here Chester Graham's Oat Rocks 300 times per mouthful, we could get industrial production back on track.

But most of the shelves were for kids, and most of the products had happy cartoon mascots who vibrated with sugary joy like a tuning fork tapped with a Tootsie Pop. Let us remember:

Alpha-Bits was hawked by a cross-eyed dancing mailman who looked like Phil Silvers after someone slipped mescaline in his morning Folgers. You had Frankenberry, which exploited the natural, obvious relationship between sugar-infused oat nodules and a pink creature made of disparate reanimated body parts.

There was Pink Panther, which turned your milk the color of attic insulation; Trix, the ads for which displayed the eternal cruelty of children -- they may be "for kids," but it does not logically follow that they are forbidden to rabbits; Captain Crunch, which had the same effect on the roof of your mouth as a spoonful of screws; Cocoa Puffs, which induced manic psychosis in its mascot; and Sugar Smacks, whose name made no sense at all -- it's like "Salt Punches."

Bring on the Froot

At least it was better than Froot Loops, which obviously did not have Froot. Legally, they were on firm ground with Loops, but "Fruit" would be pushing it. The patent probably says it's a "circular edible object infused with dihydroxiline-7HD to impart a simulacrum of vague, fruitlike flavor." You know what? I'd love a bowl right now.

But no. Sugary cereal is something adults deny themselves, so they can feel like their day has a Healthy Start -- which is particularly good if you're planning on an Unhealthy Finish. No Cocoa Puffs for me! It's Fiber Plus Ultra Fiber with added Fiber for Fiber Action, hopefully not during a meeting at work, and look: There are no cartoon characters on the box, so I'll live longer.

Kids are different. Most kids would opt for a bowl of BooBerry, even if the mascot is the ectoplasmic remnant of a dead man, over something that looks like it came out the business end of a wood chipper. Sugar is fun.

Yes, it contributes to childhood obesity, but they can lose that weight in adulthood when they take up smoking. I'm kidding. All of this, I'm kidding. Relax.

But as cereal gets boring, it makes you wonder if the act of shaking flakes out of a rectangular cardboard box will cease to be the default setting for breakfast. General Mills is probably looking ahead to that day; teams of sociologists are studying trends, making predictions:

In 2045, breakfast will be a rutabaga dipped in warm marrow. Maybe they'll call them Root Loops. But it just won't be the same.

jlileks@startribune.com • 612-673-7858 More daily at startribune.com/popcrush.

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