Why Your Favorite Sugary Breakfast Cereal Is Suddenly Everywhere

Nostalgia for childhood has led to new, fanciful flavors of maple syrup, snacks and even legal marijuana

Cereal foods illustration
Sugary breakfast flavors have expanded beyond the cereal aisle. Illustration by Emily Lankiewicz

If you’ve ever eaten Cap’n Crunch Berries, smelled the leftover milk and thought:

“Wow, I’d like to smoke that,” you’re strangely not alone. It’s the scent of the best-selling strain of legal marijuana in California: Cereal Milk by Cannabiotix. Cereal Milk is just one of dozens of weird and surprising cereal-themed products marketed to adults, many of which, like Cannabiotix’s, are not officially associated with cereal brands. Froot Loops has inspired a vodka flavor (“Loopy”), Lucky Charms infuses an IPA beer (“Saturday Morning”), and vape liquid is scented like knock-off Frosted Cheerios (“Frosted O’s”).

Cereal has become one of the go-to flavors in both unofficial cereal-adjacent products and official branded items like the scarlet-colored Fruity Pebbles syrup (which one Facebook user labeled as evidence of “a health crisis in the USA”), that you can drench your Lucky Charms pancakes in while swigging coffee topped off with Golden Grahams creamer. No cereal flavor is more ubiquitous than Cinnamon Toast Crunch, which is now available as a cake mix, popcorn, spice (“Cinnadust”), creamer, protein bar, frosting, oatmeal, milk, and ice cream (among other things). As the co-host of the cereal podcast The Empty Bowl, Justin McElroy joked in one episode, “Before long we will reach a singularity where there is no longer the flavor of cinnamon sugar, no one will know what that flavor is, it is just all Cinnamon Toast Crunch.”

So why cereal and why now? And are these products merely trying to recreate cereal flavor or the nostalgia that goes along with it?

According to the cereal companies themselves, cereal has become the ultimate nostalgia-driven comfort food, reminiscent of childhood and a pre-pandemic time when death and disease weren’t looming around the corner.

“Because of the of the stress from the pandemic and everybody being cooped up at home, we saw this resurgence of nostalgia, ‘kidult’ culture, to be on the rise, where people are looking back to familiar products, trusted brands, brands that take them to a happier simpler time,” says Claudine Patel, the chief marketing officer at Post Consumer Brands, which manufactures Fruity Pebbles, Honey Combs and Waffle Crips, among other cereals.

A Mintel survey of 1,806 internet users on July 2021, found that over half of participants (58%) agreed with the statement that “the flavors of cereal I enjoyed as a child are still my go to.” So it makes sense that many of these cereal spin-offs feature kid-friendly flavors marketed in adult products, like Fruity Rings Vape liquid.

The trend started before the pandemic, but has accelerated during it. Since 2016, sales of cereal have been declining or stagnant, but cereal sales increased 10.4 percent in 2020, and cereal has become “cool again,” according to CNN Business. “The reason cereal had been trending down in the years pre-covid was…you can't carry a bowl with milk in it and eat it with two hands while you're driving,” says Russell J. Zwanka, director of the food marketing program at Western Michigan University. “[During the pandemic] everyone was finally home again, so they returned to eating a slower breakfast.” While customers were noshing on cereal on home, a slew of new cereal products blossomed. “Now that we've seen a resurgence of people coming back and loving cereal, we have to think about how do we make sure we look to the future as people are going back to work? How do we make sure the category stays relevant?” asks Patel.

No products typify this cerealization trend more than the bright red Mrs. Butterworth’s Fruity Pebbles syrup, released earlier this year, which the company claims “is perfect on pancakes and waffles,” and suitable for “birthday celebrations.”

“It's basically like the junk food equivalent of clickbait…More thought is given to the spectacle of this vibrant red syrup and less thought is given to a. how it tastes and b. how many people are really going to want to use a whole bottle of the stuff?” asks Daniel Goubert, co-host of The Empty Bowl podcast and creator of Cerealously. In a review of the syrup on his blog, he called it “noxious…pestilent… fetid and foul,” and says “It stains countertops and rankles tongues and soils pancakes with its atomic potency and I do not recommend it to anyone.”

So why does such a product exist? Zwanka says it makes sense from a branding point of view: syrup and cereal are both breakfast foods that likely appear in the same aisle of the grocery store. And it makes sense for Mrs. Butterworth too. “You could have called that strawberry tropical flavor. [But] it actually would have been more difficult for someone to understand, than if you just call it Fruity Pebbles. The majority of population knows what Fruity Pebbles tastes like,” he says.

Not everyone dislikes the syrup, most notably the Cooking Goth, a YouTube food reviewer and cook who specializes in fast food, sweets, and cola. In a video titled, “I Reviewed the New Fruity Pebbles and Didn’t Get Diabetes,” he bravely squirted the syrup into his mouth, triumphantly lifted the bottle into the air and declared, “This is going to be a brand-new staple in my house for whenever I eat pancakes.”

So naturally I had to buy some. I scoured the aisles of my local Wal-Mart, Target, Kroger and Publix and came up empty. I searched online and found it selling for $25 a bottle on eBay and referred to as “rare.” This was literally too rich for me, so I bought the closest product I found: Cap’n Crunch’s Ocean Blue Artificially Maple Flavored Syrup, which was the same color and viscosity as Dawn dish liquid.

I tried the syrup on a buttered waffle, squirting it with abandon, turning my waffle into some kind of poor-man’s edible Jackson Pollock homage. I hesitated before my first bite. In nature, bright colors signal poison and danger. But I reminded myself that in cereal spin-offs, the colors signal social media opportunities.

I bit into the syrup-drenched waffle, and the syrup tasted nothing like Cap’n Crunch, so, in desperation to make a connection, I gazed at the image of Horatio Magellan Crunch on the bottle, his googly eyes looking back at me, his blue hat and jacket matching the syrup color, his mouth agape, white moustache spread with approval. Then, I was hit by nostalgia, not just from the mascot, but also from the artificial maple syrup taste I’d loved from childhood. So I kind of get the appeal, but not totally.

I asked Goubert to explain. Cereals that have spinoffs are the ones “that have the cult appeal, the recognizable mascots and distinct flavors,” he says. Grape Nuts syrup just wouldn’t cause much of a furor on Instagram. Patel, however, argues, not quite convincingly, that the Mrs. Butterworth’s Fruity Pebbles syrup wasn’t created for social media appeal. The rainbow cereal, which is over a half-century old, just happens to be “an Instagrammable product because of the colors, movements, the fun,” Patel said.

Spin-offs exist, she says, because “we constantly have to think of fresh new ways to excite our consumers to make sure we continue to stay relevant with them, with culture.” Post has to look “beyond the cereal bowl,” to do that, she said, which is why things like Fruity Pebbles Shake Ups, a Chex Mix-esque snack that features Fruity Pebbles “boulders” alongside pretzels and Waffle Crisp cereal, and Honeycomb Big Bites, a larger version of the cereal for snacking, exist.

But the spin-offs frustrate Goubert, because what he really wants is better, more interesting cereal. “It seems like the more attention and creativity that's being given to these cereal-adjacent products, the less often we're seeing truly innovative and forward-thinking flavors for actual normal cereals,” he says. He wants cereal companies to focus on innovations like General Mills’s CinnaGraham Toast Crunch, which brings “graham flour to the forefront…[It’s] not as outlandish as something like a cereal-flavored syrup or anything, but it's a more intelligent and strategic innovation to take a different basic grain and put it in your cereal instead of using corn again,” he says. New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie gave the cereal his first five-spoon review in a video for Serious Eats, saying it has the “structural integrity of Golden Grahams and the flavor of Cinnamon Toast Crunch.”

Some spin-offs are more natural than others. “Cinnamon Toast Crunch baking mixes make a lot of sense just because cinnamon and cookies and cake are already natural complements to each other,” Goubert says. He also thinks the ice cream spin-offs work. The upscale New York City-based Milk Bar has been making one for over a decade (grocery store versions just hit shelves earlier this year). “Ice cream is perfect because ice cream is really just a carrier for whatever flavor you want to put on it,” Zwanka says, adding that ice cream sales also increased during the pandemic.

I tried a bunch of cereal-adjacent products with mixed results: the Duncan Hines Epic Fruity Pebbles boxed cake, with its pebbles-infused frosting was delicious. Cinnamon Toast Crunch soft-baked bars were like food clouds of joy. Fruity Sandwich cookies from Kroger were blindingly neon and surprisingly tasty. But duds remained. Cinnamon Toast Crunch Popcorn was like Cracker Jacks on a bad day. Fruity cereal Kit-Kats were one-note boring sugar wafer sticks. The MetRX fruity cereal crunch bar was a chalky hunk of protein aftertaste and regret.

Whether these products will remain on shelves is unknown, but Zwanka is bullish on their chances. “Kellogg's owns [a lot] of the shelf space in the aisle for cereal, but cereal doesn't give you a breakfast on-the-go, so they need something handheld.” Mintel, too, predicts that as more people return to their workplace’s physical offices, consumers will seek more portable cereal products, perhaps in the little remix packages that pair cereals with things like pretzels, or in the Carnation Instant Breakfast drinks, which are flavored like Froot Loops, Frosted Flakes, Golden Grahams and Rice Krispie Treats.

It may be, however, that it’s the more adult cereal products that have staying power, like Cereal Milk marijuana, which wasn’t intended to smell like Cereal Milk. Cannabiotix co-founder and CEO Neema Samara says it started as a cross between two strains of marijuana: strawberry lemonade and mint cookies. The breeder grew 50 seeds from the cross-strain, and phenotype number 15 smelled like the after milk from Cap’n Crunch Berries. It first went on sale about two years ago, in the relatively early months of the pandemic.

Its popularity is driven by a number of factors, Samari thinks. “The nostalgia of that milk when you're done with the bowl of cereal is something that everyone can relate to… When you bring that name to something like a cannabis strain: it just caught fire right away,” he says. But it’s not just the nostalgia that’s driving customers, of course. Cereal Milk also has a “unique aesthetic look… it produces just these really chunky like green buds that are just so frosted in THC and so draped in resin [which results] in a high THC and resin content, which causes it to be very potent, consistently,” he says.

Is Cereal Milk cannabis a good thing? It kind of skirts “the rules about appealing to kids,” Zwanka says, in reference to laws about advertising cannabis. (California’s Bureau of Cannabis Control, for example, writes that marketing may not be “designed in any manner likely to be appealing to minors or anyone under 21 years of age.”)

But, he added, if it's legally advertised and legal to have in their jurisdiction, then let the customer decide whether or not they should be partaking in it. “We have so many products that can be misused, that it's a slippery slope to pick one and say this one is bad for you,” he says. And perhaps Cereal Milk cannabis will lead to more sales of actual cereal. “People are definitely smoking the cereal milk and maybe eating a bowl of Luck Charms afterwards,” Samari says.

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