Breakfast cereal, after years of ups and downs at America’s breakfast table, has abruptly fallen off 15 percent since April 2013. The big cereal companies did not seem to want to recognize the trend until last month, when it was five straight quarters of declines, but now that they see it, they still don’t seem to know what’s going on.
The move away from breakfast cereal has to be seen in the context of a much broader move away from low-quality food that has seen 15-year declines in beer, soda, hot dogs, lunch meat, and Twinkies and more recently has affected pork, beef, McDonald’s, and pizza. It has also taken its toll, in the last few years of steep price increases, on milk, and this begins to explain why breakfast cereal is falling out of favor. If you don’t have milk in the house, the twentieth-century breakfast of milk and cereal is hard to do.
There is much more to it than that. Corn and wheat, along with sugar the primary ingredients in boxed cereal, have been getting beaten up in popular culture in recent years. Corn finds its way into almost everything you eat and drink, as Americans have learned from one documentary film after another. Virtually all American corn is contaminated with genes from genetically modified strains, genes which actually generate pesticide chemicals right up until the time the corn is cooked. This means it is basically impossible to eat corn without getting pesticide residues in your gut, a problem that is linked to a range of symptoms, the most common of which is skin inflammation in various forms. If you ever got blisters or itchy skin after eating corn, it will not surprise you at all that people besides you are eating fewer corn flakes than before. As for wheat, I am sure you have heard the term “wheat belly” by now. In several recent best-selling books we have learned how modern, post-1970 strains of wheat have bizarrely modified proteins that are the cause, many people believe, of gluten sensitivity. Even if you are not one of the many people sensitive to gluten, these stray proteins tend to accumulate in the skin over a period of years where they can cause skin rashes and the buildup of layers of fat — forming the “wheat belly” you hear about. When three fourths of Americans want to lose weight the idea of a wheat belly can change the way they think about breakfast cereal. These illnesses caused by genetically modified corn and modern optimized strains of wheat might have been considered speculative ten years ago but are solidly supported science now, and word is getting out to the public.
The funny thing about this trend is that I am not sure very many people are aware they are eating less breakfast cereal. I did not notice I was eating less boxed cereal until I discovered this trend. Then I stopped to think about it. I am eating more cooked oats for breakfast this year, but that means I must be eating less of the corn- and wheat-based cereals that used to be my go-to breakfast. I checked and I have six boxes of wheat- and corn-based cereals in my pantry, along with two boxes of granola. It may take a few months to finish them, and then I suppose I will buy more, but I will probably want to limit myself to just one box at that point. I obviously am not eating boxed cereal as quickly as I expected myself to. When a habit starts to fade, you can sometimes reduce your consumption of a product by 50 percent before you notice that anything has changed. For example, if you eat boxed cereal once every six days instead of once every three days, that is a minor lifestyle change. For the factories that crank out the products, though, every percent along the way matters, with cuts in overtime and then in staffing.
Food habits, of course, are known to change unconsciously. If a food changes and it doesn’t make you feel as good as it used to, you’re no longer as drawn to it, even if you don’t know why. It’s entirely possible that something has changed in the chemical residues we consume in corn and wheat that repels us without our noticing it.
Cereal companies don’t know anything about chemical residues, of course. They’ve done studies and found that the fastest-growing breakfast food is Greek yogurt, so they are looking for ways to make boxed cereal seem more like Greek yogurt. This will mean more cereal brands that are gluten-free (just like Greek yogurt) and have protein boosted by additives such as concentrated soy protein (a bit of a puzzle, since grains have plenty of protein to begin with). I don’t think these innovations will do anything to stop the loss of customers, though. After all, if you aren’t hungry for cereal, you aren’t likely to be wandering the cereal aisle of the supermarket reading the feature claims on every box you see. But at least it gives the cereal companies the feeling that they are doing something.
The cereal habit is also affected, like everything in consumer culture today, by consumer time pressure. Milk and cereal is actually, if you stop and think about it, one of the most inconvenient convenience foods you can imagine. It is not that easy to set yourself up with milk, a box of cereal, a bowl, and a spoon. The milk especially is an obstacle. If there is no milk in the house, the whole process doesn’t work — and you’re not likely to make a special trip to buy milk just so you can eat a convenience food. The fact that there are so many pieces in the milk and cereal habit is not a favorable thing for the cereal companies. Once the pattern is broken, it is difficult for a person or household to put it back together — so a consumer lost to the cereal companies is, in most cases, a consumer lost forever.
The way that so many consumers are eating less cereal without being aware of the change is the strongest indication that this trend will continue. When people know they are doing something and know the reasons for their decisions, you can argue with them and possibly change their minds. When people don’t realize they are doing something and don’t know why, persuasion has no impact. I believe most milk-and-cereal consumers are, like me, barely noticing the breakfast they are eating. Breakfast cereals already don’t have the mind share that their market share would suggest. In people’s minds breakfast cereal could make the jump directly from daily habit to nostalgic novelty, with the obligatory ten years going by unnoticed in between.