Can Technology Save Breakfast?

Cereal companies, maligned for overprocessing, are now using the same techniques to put some nature back in the bowl

Nestlé researchers prepare to discover whether consumers will like reformulated cereal. (Nestec S.A., Nestlé Research Center, Lausanne, Switzerland)
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What do foodies want? It’s not hard to answer, at least not for right-minded ones: locally raised food grown organically, completely unprocessed, delivered by hand or mule-driven cart. As the author of one of the first books about the slow food movement, I certainly want that kind of food to be both affordable and widely available. But that’s not what most of the industrialized world can get. I break from my soul mates in believing in the power of evolving technology and, yes, the food industry to help people find and afford—and even like—food that new machines and processes can bring near its unprocessed, whole state.

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Technology and food aren’t supposed to go together in any context but angry scorn. Technology and industry, in unholy collusion with all forms of media, are responsible for most every ill that food has anything to do with—particularly the U.S. epidemic of childhood obesity, laid squarely at the doorstep of cheap, greasy fast food and sugary sodas. The food industry, in large part, denatures food, often to sickening effect. Think of “pink slime,” only the most recent outrage, with its bits of mechanically stripped scraps extruded into ammoniated filler that turns up in school-lunch hamburgers.

But maybe the food industry can re-nature products. Maybe it can make the best of the food we care about—whole grains, fiber, and vitamins, minerals and antioxidants—convenient and accessible. Sure, it’s unlikely. But not impossible. If technology, scale, industrialization and relentless marketing have been the forces of nutritional evil, maybe they can be the forces of nutritional salvation. The food industry, pretty much everyone recognizes, has a lot to answer for. Some forward-looking companies are already beginning to find some of the answers—and more need to follow.

Finding current examples isn’t simple. Huge corporations do manufacture “better-for-you” foods—a term they’re glad to use, though of course they don’t talk about “bad-for-you” foods. But good-for-you foods can be bad for the bottom line. Public commitments, like Pepsi’s to become more nutrition-minded and Wal-Mart’s to reduce sodium and added sugars and eliminate trans fats from many private-label foods, can curdle with a bad quarterly profit-and-loss statement. When Campbell’s retreated from a very loud commitment to cut salt in a wide range of its soups, admitting that its “health-inspired low-sodium push failed to lift sales,” as one report said, its stock price went up the next day.

One packaged, industrialized food that practically everybody buys is an exception: cereal. From the time of its wacky origins, manufacturers have been glad to trumpet breakfast cereal’s wholesome attributes. It has also been the object of ridicule when it has gone too far in saying just how good it is for you, and for blatantly advertising to children. Advertising food to children under 12 is now considered second only to advertising cigarettes to minors. Children, the anti-advertising argument goes, are unable to judge what is good or bad for them; and the companies that have the money to buy TV time will spend it not telling children what’s actually good for them but pushing the highest-sugar and -sodium foods, which sets children up for impulse eating, unbalanced meals and obesity.

The cereal industry, however many black eyes it gets, still likes its healthy image. It might be the food industry least afraid of slow food types with prying eyes. And so it was that I found myself at a long white table in front of nine plastic bowls of Cinnamon Toast Crunch.

Like all professional food people, I have food peculiarities. One is that I am incapable of keeping a box of dry cereal in my cupboard without consuming it in a very short period—say, before daybreak. When it comes to burgers, fries and soda, I am immune to the diabolical neurotransmitter mechanisms that David Kessler, in his bestseller The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite, accuses the food industry of mastering. Industry tripwires our brains, he and others say, to consume limitless quantities of food with insidiously increasing levels of fat, sugar and salt. I pride myself on distinguishing, and rejecting, artificial flavors like the ones Eric Schlosser describes in Fast Food Nation, engineered to taste better than, say, strawberry, and to make fat even more craveable. In a fairly excruciating smell test in which I had to distinguish the smell of rotted fish in ever-tinier concentrations (laugh, but then think of Vietnamese fish sauce and Worcestershire), I was declared a “supertaster.” Yet I am helpless before a box of dry cereal.

“Ready-to-eat” cereal happens to be a prime contender for the title of most manipulated food product. It’s also the likeliest to make outlandish health claims. Cereal was initially marketed as a health food, as has been documented in books and movies (The Great American Cereal Book; The Cornflake Crusade; T.C. Boyle’s novel about the promiscuous revivalist sanitarium community of Battle Creek, The Road to Wellville, which was turned into a movie with Matthew Broderick as a patient and Anthony Hopkins as Harvey Kellogg). Its creation and rise have been products of ever-devout American beliefs in the power of technology and marketing, and of food to improve health.

Marion Nestle, the influential New York University nutrition professor, has taken special delight in collecting cereal boxes making unproven claims along the lines of preventing heart attacks and cancer. The main evil that cereals pump into the mouths of unsuspecting children, according to her and others, is sugar. Nestle says that high-sugar kids’ cereals are just cookies by another name. Salt levels can be high, too: 170 milligrams in a serving of Lucky Charms, when the recommended daily allowance (RDA) for children is less than 1,500 milligrams a day. And even if the benefit of the whole grains many cereals have can make up for the sugar and sodium, as manufacturers claim—they like to point to the many studies showing that children who eat breakfast do better in school and maintain lower weight—nutritionists say that presweetened cereal is the equivalent of a gateway drug to soda, potato chips and obesity.

General Mills, the world’s sixth-largest food company, did make two pioneering commitments. One, the most sweeping, was to increase whole grains and fiber in all of its products, and to make whole grains the single greatest ingredient in all of its cereals by this year. The second was to reduce sugar in presweetened cereals to less than 10 grams per serving, or 40 calories, when some of them, like Lucky Charms—its leading children’s cereal—had 15 grams. The RDAs don’t set a limit on how much sugar a child’s diet should include, but they do recommend that added sugars make up no more than 5 to 15 percent of a child’s daily diet of 1,000 to 2,000 calories.

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