6 Controversial Moments in the World of Breakfast Cereal

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1. “Fortified” Cereal Scandal Rocks Scandinavia

Scandinavia has long been home to some of Europe’s lowest obesity rates, but they certainly don’t have diet cereal Special K to thank. In 2004, Denmark embarked on a ban of Kellogg’s enriched cereals like Special K, which contain added vitamins. The Danes claimed that the high levels of vitamin B, calcium, folic acid, and iron added to such cereals could reach toxic levels if consumed on a daily basis. As a result of the toxins, young children could be at risk for liver and kidney damage. While a stand so seemingly anti-diet-food may seem shocking for a nation that once instituted a "fat tax" to considerably raise the prices of fatty foods, some company officials blamed Denmark’s persnickety reputation. Chris Wermann, former director of Kellogg’s corporate affairs in Europe, noted, “The Danish diet is pretty frugal or austere at the best of times. They’re protective of their diet.” Wermann went on to say that the cereal giant is, nevertheless, “incredulous” of the ban, adding that the extra minerals only accounted for less than 25 percent of the daily allowance.

The ban also garnered support among Denmark’s Dutch neighbors. In an episode that aired on October 15, 2009, the Dutch television show Keuringsdienst van Waarde examined Kellogg’s nutritional claims, specifically the addition of iron to “fortified” cereals like Special K. The show provided evidence that the claim of “iron” added to Special K was a bit deceptive; the scientists alleged that the cereal contained traces of metallic iron, rather than the compounds found naturally in spinach and red meat. When asked about it, a Kellogg’s telephone helpdesk employee claimed the ingredients in the cereal to be a company secret. Dutch food authorities later concluded that there is little danger in consuming the cereal, as long as Kellogg’s stays within legal limits. (And guess what? All iron-fortified cereals contain tiny metal pieces.)

2. Meet So-Hi

Today we may know Lucky the Leprechaun as our resident exaggeratedly ethnic cereal mascot, but 50 years ago, there was a different sheriff in town—or sensei, or head ninja, or some other ambiguously Asian title. Point is, in the 1950s and '60s, the popular Post cereal Sugar-Coated Rice Krinkles (think Rice Krispies crossed with Frosted Flakes) was touted by a squinty-eyed, quaintly “oriental” mascot named So-Hi.

So-Hi, essentially a younger, more chipper version of Mickey Rooney’s character in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, spouted charmingly pronoun-less phrases like, “Today, So-Hi have exciting story to tell about beautiful new Ford Mustang Car!” and, “You go ‘vroom, vroom’ when you get free car inside Post Rice Krinkles!” with a few “Ah-so’s” thrown in for good measure. For a time, he even came with his own rickshaw.

So-Hi ruled the airwaves and cereal aisles from the '50s to the early '60s, when he was replaced by a terrifying clown.

Rice Krinkles were taken off the market altogether in 1969 to make room for the fruity, gravelly versions we now know as Cocoa and Fruity Pebbles.

3. Not so “natural”

Scandinavians weren’t the only ones to ever scrutinize Kellogg’s cereal. In 2011, the Kellogg’s-owned health food titan Kashi came under fire for some allegedly dubious advertising. Specifically, the Cornucopia Institute—a farm policy watch-dog group—released a report [PDF] claiming that Kashi cereal wasn’t as natural as it seemed. Besides pointing out that using the label “natural” in food advertising is effectively meaningless (very few federal standards for such “naturalness” actually exist), the study found that “natural” cereals, like some under the Kashi brand, contained GMOs (genetically modified organisms) in their ingredients.

The New York Times reported this to widespread consumer outrage, prompting many angry health nuts to take to Kashi’s Facebook page and express their disgust: “All natural, yet genetically modified?”… “I've been a loyal Kashi consumer for years, but unless I see a USDA Certified Organic seal, I won't be buying any more of your products. After the Cornucopia Institute report, I just can't justify spending more money on Kashi when you use the same ingredients as any other company."

Kashi quickly went on the defensive, owning up to some of the claims; a representative admitted that, “While it’s likely that some of our foods contain GMOs, the main reason for that is because in North America, well over 80 percent of many crops, including soybeans, are grown using GMOs. Factors outside our control ... have led to an environment where GMOs are not sufficiently controlled.” And so a vicious back-and-forth ensued between Kashi and the Cornucopia Institute, eventually ending with Kashi vowing to produce new cereals that are Non-GMO Project verified. With 11 different GMO-free cereals on the shelf to date, Kashi proved that one should never underestimate the power of an angry Facebook post.

4. Elijah’s Manna

Back in the late 1800s, the classic cereal we know as “cornflakes” was invented in the Battle Creek, Michigan sanitarium run by Seventh-Day Adventist Dr. John Harvey Kellogg and his brother, Will Keith Kellogg. In an effort to acclimate the patients to the church-recommended vegetarian lifestyle, the duo experimented with foodstuffs derived from grains such as wheat, oats, barley, and corn. After accidentally discovering a process that “flaked” wheat berries, the brothers landed on a palatable formula for flaked corn.

The Kelloggs created cornflakes in 1904 and served them to patients at the sanitarium, but didn't market the cereal commercially until 1906; this allowed a former patient named C.W. Post to create his own version and start shilling it to the masses. Shortly after inventing Grape Nuts cereal, Post decided to try his hand at cornflakes, which he debuted under the name Elijah’s Manna. This biblically-named cereal—its box depicting the prophet Elijah hand-feeding manna to a birdsparked controversy in religious communities across the nation, where it was denounced as sacrilegious. Across the pond, Elijah’s Manna was even barred from being imported into Britain. Post fervently defended his brand, saying, “Perhaps no one should eat angel food cake, enjoy Adam's ale, live in St. Paul, nor work for Bethlehem Steel ... one should have his Adam's apple removed and never again name a child for the good people of the bible.” But it was too late; Elijah’s Manna was already marked as heretic, and in 1908, Post begrudgingly changed the product’s name to the more recognizable, less incendiary Post Toasties. The prophet Elijah was ousted in favor of Mickey Mouse.

5. Berry Sneaky

Adding fruit to your cereal is a healthy choice, but what if that “fruit” is mostly other stuff? Other stuff like corn syrup, hydrogenated oil, artificial flavors, and food dye blue no. 2? A 2012 report by the nonprofit Consumer Wellness Center stated that such fruit imposters are alarmingly common in breakfast cereals. According to the report, the claim of “real fruit!” in many well-known brands may actually refer to fruit “bits” that are mostly sugar and dye, with a dash of fruit juice thrown in for flavoring. For example, the blueberry variety of Frosted Mini Wheats contains no actual blueberries—instead, the box lists an ingredient called “blueberry crunchlets” made from soybean oil, sugar, red no. 40 and blue no. 2.

If that seems like a lot of engineering to recreate something already found in nature, you’re probably right; as Mike Adams, author of the report, explained, “[…] real blueberries are expensive. And artificial blueberry bits, made with sugar, partially hydrogenated oils and artificial colors, are dirt cheap. If these companies can fool consumers into thinking they're buying real blueberries in their products, they can command a price premium that translates into increased profits.” However, the report did offer a simple solution for those wishing to avoid berry imposters: read the ingredients list. If it contains red or blue food dyes, those berries are probably fakes.

6. “Just Checking” keeps bigots in check

An ad for a popular cereal depicts a biracial couple, only to be received with widespread outrage. If that sounds familiar, it’s not because you read it in a history book. No, a 2013 Cheerios commercial featuring an interracial family spurred so many hateful comments, ranging from peeved to extreme (some included talk of Nazis and genocide), that its YouTube comments section had to be disabled. Some credit the amount of racist backlash to its exposure on YouTube, which many online commenters see as an anonymous soapbox from which to spout the most extreme views with little threat of accountability.

The commercial, titled “Just Checking,” currently has over 4 million views—fortunately, for every commenter who claimed the commercial “made [them] want to vomit,” there were many more who were grateful for the bi-racial representation in the ad. Said one viewer, “Having been mixed in the '70s, I'd like to thank everyone at Cheerios for making a commercial with an interracial couple! Going to buy boxes today! Many thanks for reflecting what my family looked like.” Cheerios stayed calm amidst the backlash; as vice president of marketing for General Mills Camille Gibson told Gawker, “Consumers have responded positively to our new Cheerios ad. At Cheerios, we know there are many kinds of families and we celebrate them all." In final response to the outcry, another YouTube video was made, showing the reactions of children after watching the commercial. They didn't see what all the fuss was about.