I couldn’t bring myself to just come out and ask the General Mills spokesman the question that was really on my mind: Aren’t Chocolate Peanut Butter Cheerios — introduced to U.S. consumers barely a month ago — a freakish abomination?
I mean, come on. Et tu, Cheerios? I thought Cheerios had always resisted the tartification of the American breakfast cereal, and here it was, the matron in the tasteful double-knit twin set and sensible shoes forced to prance around in chocolate stilettos and a peanut butter miniskirt.
It’s cognitive dissonance in a bowl, as if Quaker Oats were to come out with Quinoa Cap’n Crunch.
“We’re big on consumer choice, meeting just about everyone’s individual needs, from yellow box Cheerios being a first finger food for toddlers to people who love their Lucky Charms,” General Mills spokesman Mike Siemienas said from his office in Minneapolis.
But, Mike, you’ve already got Reese’s Puffs! That’s the original chocolate and peanut butter cereal, forged in the great Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups crucible.
“Reese’s Puffs are corn-based,” Mike patiently explained. “Cheerios are oats.”
And then Mike schooled me in the history of Cheerios. When they were created in 1941, they were called Cheerioats. Another cereal company protested, saying the name was too similar to that of one of its products. In 1945, the name was changed to Cheerios.
“It wasn’t until 1979, after a lot of consideration and discussion, that the decision was made to launch an additional flavor, which was Honey Nut Cheerios,” Mike said. “That’s when we started to realize: Hey, people love Cheerios and they love having some flavor options.”
Some of those options are seasonal, such as autumn’s Pumpkin Spice Cheerios (of course) and Banana Nut Cheerios (rolled out each winter). Others have joined the permanent ranks of the Cheerios army: Multi-Grain Cheerios, Very Berry Cheerios, Apple Cinnamon Cheerios . . .
Cheerios is the No. 1-selling cereal brand in the United States, Mike said, with Honey Nut Cheerios the top-selling cereal.
Today, there are 16 varieties of Cheerios, including Chocolate Cheerios, which were introduced in 2010. More flavors are on the way, Mike said, though he was mum on specifics. (“I’m not going to give any away now,” he said.)
What does this all mean? I asked Marty Gitlin, co-author, with Topher Ellis, of 2012’s “The Great American Cereal Book: How Breakfast Got Its Crunch.”
Marty pointed out that there are actually fewer brands of cereal now than there were in the cereal heyday of the 1960s and 1970s. “I’m 60,” he said, “and when I was a kid there were more cereals out.”
Some brands, he said, lasted only a few years before vanishing. “One that I remember very, very well was called Puffa Puffa Rice,” he said. “It was a brown sugar cereal. I don’t believe there has been another one since. It was really delicious.”
Another cereal that Marty remembered: Sugar Jets.
“So many of the cereals back then for baby boomers had ‘sugar’ in the name: Sugar Pops, Sugar Frosted Flakes, Sugar This and Sugar That,” he said. “At a certain point, they took ‘sugar’ off it. They didn’t take the sugar out of the cereal, but they took the word out. A lot of parents were freaking out about sugar content.”
I remember when Sugar Pops suddenly became Corn Pops, a bit of marketing legerdemain that struck me as positively Orwellian. Sugar had gone down the Memory Bowl, er, Hole.
Then, said Marty, “in the ’70s, all the healthful cereals started coming out.”
That’s when flannel-shirt-wearing nature enthusiast Euell Gibbons appeared in TV ads shilling for Grape-Nuts, a cereal that has all the visual appeal of a bowl of grass clippings.
More recently, cereal manufacturers started taking existing brands and playing with those, Marty said. Rather than introduce a new type of cereal, they introduced a new iteration of an existing one.
“Frosted Flakes now has marshmallows on it,” Marty said.
Or consider the doughnut-themed cereal from Quaker Oats, which is described as “vanilla donut-flavored piece[s]” that are “topped with colorful sprinkles and the stuff of dreams.”
In the past, this might have been a stand-alone cereal, with a name like Donutios or Sugar Circles or Dream Disks. Instead, it’s called Cap’n Crunch’s Sprinkled Donut Crunch, even though it doesn’t have a single one of the Cap’n’s signature abrasive pillows.
Said Marty: “I think what happened was the whole thing got played out. There was nothing else the manufacturers could do. How many different things can you do with cereal?”
I guess he’s right, though I miss the days of near-infinite cereal, with each scrappy brand displaying its unique charms.
Cereal manufacturers have become like risk-averse Hollywood studios. Everything is a sequel.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.