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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Cinnamon Toast Crunch, which made its debut in 1984, is being reformulated to reduce sugar and sodium and increase whole grains, and will appear on shelves in June. The bowls in front of me reproduced the triangle test every reformulated product must pass before the company green-lights it: No more than 10 percent of consumers must be able to tell the difference between the old and new versions. I had to taste three sets of three bowls of little Chex-shaped cereal pieces and say which one of the three was different from the other two.

The man seated on the other side of the table had a twinkle in his eye as he explained the rules, as if he were the Father Christmas of breakfast cereals. And at General Mills, he is: John Mendesh is a vice president in research and development at the Bell Institute of Health and Nutrition, a research center named not for Alexander Graham but James Ford Bell, the founder of the group of flour mills that in 1928 became General Mills. That a research lab is named for Bell is only appropriate, given that he once referred to the need to design products, according to Cerealizing America: The Unsweetened Story of American Breakfast Cereal by Scott Bruce and Bill Crawford, that would attract “those sensitive little nerves that fringe the tongue...[and] ... carry messages from the hu­man tongue to the human pocketbook.” The lab building is big and fairly new, though with Bauhaus touches that make it look like it’s charting the future in the 1950s—just when sugared cereals grew to their current dominance, thanks to ads on children’s TV. On one floor, down the hall from Mendesh’s office, is a pilot plant with pressure chambers called guns, extruders and rollers that make test batches of Cheerios, Wheaties, Kix, Lucky Charms and Cinnamon Toast Crunch.

Mendesh likes cereal—making it, eating it, talking about it. He believes in what he does. Two of his maxims are “All food is processed” and “It’s not nutrition if people don’t eat it.” He explains that fortification with vitamins and iron is easy: It just means spraying cereal with supplements, and, though there’s an actual taste to that spray (I tasted one cereal sample before and after, and it was better without the slightly bitter vitamins), it doesn’t pose many technical challenges. Taking out sugar is hard. As with sodium in soups and fat in breads, sugar is not just for taste but also plays a functional role, affecting a food’s texture, color and bulk. Home bakers know that it’s often harder to cut down on sugar than butter or shortening, and so do cerealmakers. Cerealmakers’ strategy is to move sugar from the inside of cereal pieces, as they’re called, to the coating, and to rejigger the sugar’s crystal size—all to increase the sensation of sweetness while reducing the actual weight of sugar used. The problem is the “bowl life,” a term I loved upon hearing—how long before cereal in milk gets soggy or slimy. General Mills wants three minutes of bowl life.

The reformulated cereal I was about to try to guess, Mendesh told me, wouldn’t have been possible to make some 30 years ago. An extrusion cooker he showed me in the test plant that allows less sugar in the cereal piece without sacrificing bowl life—a giant screw press in a stainless-steel tube, with a tiny glass dome-shaped window at one end through which I could see Cheerios being shot out of a gun—didn’t exist then. How, exactly, did they thin the layer of coating sugar?

Wouldn’t Kellogg’s like to know, Peter Erickson, senior vice president of innovation, responded when I asked him later. “We pay a lot of attention to the foam structure of that cereal piece,” he said, using another term I loved upon hearing, explaining that even if Cheerios, Kix, Chex and Cinnamon Toast Crunch aren’t called puffed, they are: subjected to heat and pressure that expands them like a kernel of popcorn.

As I ate little dry squares from each of the nine bowls, I was at first confused, but a preliminary impression I’d formed only grew stronger: The old version was not just too sweet but left an oily film on my tongue and a strong, strong taste of salt. This was consonant with the differences between old and new, Mendesh told me: modest one-gram changes in sugar, from 10 to 9 per serving and 11 to 12 in whole grains, but a full 40-milligram reduction in sodium, from 220 to 180 milligrams. The old version seemed greasy and salty—just like a snack food, though not sweet enough to be a mini-cookie. The new was still sweet and unsubtly cinnamony, but didn’t make me reach for water afterward, or for milk. I aced the test.

Just how salty, artificially flavored and way-sweet many mainstream brands remain became vivid when I later visited the cereal floor of General Mills headquarters, where a big, high, circular tasting table is ringed with tall plastic cylinders of different commercial cereals, like bulk bins at the supermarket. Cap’n Crunch, from Quaker Oats, had the annoying malty corn flavor I remembered from childhood and was terribly sweet and salty. Chex cereals, always good, have been engineered to be gluten-free (with the exception of Wheat Chex and Multi-Bran Chex). The pastel-colored marshmallow pieces in Lucky Charms still taste like sweet chalk, but the actual cereal pieces, whose resemblance to Cheerios I’d forgotten, tasted pretty good. As for the silly, exaggerated colors of those marshmallows, one food-industry source suggested that they might soon be less lurid. “Colors are the new frontier,” she told me, predicting that General Mills will commit to reducing or eliminating artificial colorings ahead of possible future FDA restrictions based on years of intermittent food-safety alarms.

Whether colors are, in fact, next, Susan Crockett, director of the Bell Institute, wouldn’t say. But then, Crockett makes changes carefully. “Stealth health,” she likes to say, referring to the “stepwise” reduction of fats, say, in Pillsbury refrigerated biscuits, or sodium in Progresso soups, or sugar in kid cereals. Crockett, former chairwoman of the food and nutrition department at Syracuse University, has a confident, warm demeanor that would qualify her to be the new face of Betty Crocker, a General Mills icon that changes every decade or so to suit the times—usually based on a composite ideal rather than an actual person, let alone a company executive. Her commitment to increasing whole grains in all of the company’s cereals, though, was very public, and came five years before the USDA Dietary Guidelines recommended increasing them. She claims it paid off: Cereal sales have risen, though the company won’t break them out by brand. Since 2005 it has increased whole grains by 40 percent, and since 2004 increased the amount of its R&D budget focused on health by 75 percent. Sodium reduction is the stealthiest: an announced five-year, 20 percent reduction in 400 products by 2015, including several cereals, and a roughly similar reduction in some Progresso soups. Anyone who makes soup understands how unappetizing low-salt soup is, Crockett told me. “I’ve tried to sell low-sodium soup to family and I’ve been unsuccessful.” This is part of the reason companies make change slowly, and a history of bland or off-tasting “healthy” foods explains the reluctance of companies to advertise lower sodium on packages.

Startlingly, Crockett makes no apology about paying for Lucky Charms commercials. “We think it’s a great thing to market cereal to kids,” she says, citing the milk and whole grains that cereal contributes to their diets. “What’s not to like in advertising to children?” (Pretty much everything, most nutritionists would say.) “Yes, we’d rather have children eat steel-cut oatmeal,” she says with warm but unmistakable disdain that means, That isn’t gonna happen. The alternative to presweetened cereals, she says, is Coke for breakfast—and in fact, since coffee started losing ground in the late 1960s, cola is increasingly a choice for both kids and their parents.

The world’s largest food company, Nestlé, maintains a campus-like research facility near Lausanne, Switzerland. At the center, which includes a pilot plant for manufacturing test batches of liquid, powdered and other processed foods, 350 scientists (the staff numbers 700) measure responses to taste receptors on the tongue using a “gustometer,” a device that looks like an old telephone switchboard with stacks of metal bars for each taste receptor, on which a machine precisely deposits bits of food. Partly based on the result of gustometer findings, Nestlé started making some of its chocolate bars with squares that have sloped indentations like the swooping roof of a Le Corbusier chapel (rather than the usual flat top), which it says gives a more intense and longer-lasting flavor by changing the rate at which it melts and the way it makes contact with the palate.

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