Toucan Sam has changed. Back in the sixties, the Froot Loops mascot was a little flatter and paler, with contemplative oval eyes. Now, he’s anthropomorphized into a googly-eyed craaaaazy dude, with a near 3-D beak, ****-eating grin and psychedelic stripes. He looks like a bird who has scarfed a bucket of sugar cereal and is now coming to peck your eyes out − but in a fun way.
One of the delights of The Great American Cereal Book, besides being a fascinating artifact of commercial design, lies in observing the evolution of cereal mascots. The relatively muted mid-century cereal-box look, with its Mad Men fonts, has given way to something much more aggressive: mascots with muscles (Tony the Tiger has been working out) and wide-open mouths, as if in the midst of an extreme sport, or French kissing.
Flipping through the pages of this encyclopedia of factoids and archival photos on the singular subject of breakfast cereal, I was shocked to see how many images had been seared into my subconscious. No wonder: Cereal is the first “meal” a kid can make by herself. It’s also how Canadian kids learn about the Two Solitudes, reading the box and asking, “Hey, what is that – French?” (or: “Qu’est-ce que c’est – anglais?”).
Any child of the eighties who grew up gorging on Saturday-morning TV will remember short-lived additions to the aisle like Mr. T cereal or E.T. cereal. The breakfast-ing of these former superstars underlines the fact that cereal ads weren’t really about eating actual cereal (and many of the cereals in the book never made it to Canada, even if the ads did). E.T. and Mr. T, like the Lucky Charms lunatic elf and the Crispin Glover-esque Trix rabbit, were the players in an unpoliced, parent-less theatre of amoral, education-free entertainment. Cereal ads are the first experience of pop culture aimed solely at kids.
We now suspect that the confluence of uncritical kiddie consumers, junkie food and entertainment is a problem. The Environmental Working Group recently reviewed 84 cereal brands sold in the U.S. Of those, 44 contained more sugar per serving than three Chips Ahoy cookies, and Kellogg’s Honey Smacks proved to be 56 per cent sugar by weight – sweeter than a Twinkie. But such foods are being sold to kids through animated mini-features with vaguely insane protagonists. In a position paper, Dietitians of Canada has asked the government to regulate food advertising aimed at children, as it “may be one of the many factors that contribute to poor food choices and potentially lead to excess weight gain.”
After the Second World War, cereal was the ultimate space-race food: a meal in a box! But now, looking at Snackables – plastic-wrapped packs of processed things resembling luncheon meat and cheese – one must ask, What has cereal wrought?
Toronto-based writer (and, full disclosure, a friend) Andrea Curtis spent years researching her upcoming children’s book What’s For Lunch?: How Schoolchildren Eat Around the World. The picture book uses school lunch to investigate global food politics. “Sugar cereal is the gateway drug for convenience foods,” Curtis says.
“It’s a kind of kiddie primer for a life of processed food, and on the continuum with Snackables, and the Candwich – a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in a can.”
The librarians and teachers that Curtis interviewed for her book repeatedly mentioned the real-world effect of sugary breakfasts: spaced-out, volatile and unfocused students. Curtis believes healthy hot lunches in schools are one way of making up for bad breakfasts: “At least kids would be guaranteed one good meal a day.”
But cereal is not what it used to be: According to analysis by the UBS Securities, cereal sales had been in decline for the five years prior to 2010. The food of the future may actually not be convenient enough: You could send three Tweets in the amount of time it takes to pull out a bowl and pour.
Cereal, despite its nostalgic cachet, may have developed an image problem. In advertising, the simplicity that is its selling point has made cereal the “embrace failure” food for dudes. Ad after ad shows dads hoarding cereal, hiding boxes from their hectoring wives and children or swiping it from their babies. It’s the main staple of the diet of any guy who hasn’t grown up – Seinfeld or a Judd Apatow character. In the film The Lorax, a box of “Empty O’s” symbolizes the plastic, prefab community where the hero is exiled, far from the trees.
Of course, it’s not like cereal is being replaced with hot oatmeal and family time. Cereal has morphed into the more portable cereal bar. Food-industry marketers are happy about the prevalence of “second breakfast”: eating a protein bar here and a yogurt there. Breakfast becomes at once non-existent and endless. Suddenly those four minutes reading the Cheerios box seem as retro as a tranquil Toucan Sam.
Follow Katrina Onstad on Twitter: @katrinaonstad