At least initially, it doesn’t seem to make sense that sugary junk-food cereals are back in style. In many other aspects of American eating, we’ve been moving away from artifice and vice. Fast-food companies tout freshness. Salad chains are hot. “Plant-based eating” is the buzz-phrase for the year. Trendy paleo and keto diets made eschewing sugar cool. Companies have worked to eliminate artificial colors, flavors and preservatives.
And, for a while, cereal seemed aligned with that movement. Sugary cereals were blamed for childhood obesity, and the industry made moves to improve the nutrition content in their products. A report on sugar in children’s cereals by the Environmental Working Group noted that a 2012 study by the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, then a part of Yale University, found that the average sugar content in children’s cereals had decreased from 36 percent to 33 percent from 2009 to 2012. General Mills pledged to cut sugar in its cereals in 2009. Kellogg’s cut sugar in three cereals, including Rice Krispies, last year.
But in 2017, two years after General Mills made a version of its fruity cereal Trix with no artificial colors, the company brought back the old, Technicolor neon version of the cereal. Customers had complained that the all-natural version, which was colored with vegetable and fruit juices and turmeric, looked dull. Meanwhile, cereal sales continued to tumble for a variety of reasons — people were choosing breakfast sandwiches or yogurts instead, and one much-derided report found that millennials hated cleaning bowls. More healthful adult cereals were performing poorly, too.
So, to counter declining sales, cereal companies are reversing course: They’re doubling down on the junky, sugary rainbow colors and flavors that kids know and love. Turns out, all that fiber and nutrition and lack of sweetness just wasn’t very fun.
That’s why sugary cereals are back in a big way. Cereals modeled after Pop-Tarts, Oreos, Nutter Butter, Chips Ahoy and Nilla wafers have been revived or made their debuts in the past year. For the third time since 2015, Lucky Charms is in the midst of a promotional giveaway of marshmallow-only boxes of its cereal. And The Washington Post has written about a number of sweet cereals over the past year: Unicorn cereal (“we’ve unicorned pretty much any food that can be unicorned at this point”), Dippin’ Dots cereal (“tastes suspiciously like another General Mills cereal, Kix”) and Sour Patch Kids cereal (“it opens up a portal to hell”).
In the midst of this sugary cereal boom, there are so many new flavors! Let’s try them, and see which ones we will live to regret.
Sugar: 13 grams per serving
Making a cereal out of a candy that is just marshmallows dipped in sugar — so, yes, sugar-covered sugar — shows precisely how far we’ve strayed from the light. This is a marshmallow-flavored cereal with marshmallow bits in it, and it’s basically what would happen if you took the marshmallows out of Lucky Charms and put them in Froot Loops instead (except Lucky Charms has only 10 grams of sugar per serving). For a pretty fun-to-eat cereal, it’s not much to look at: The yellow, pink and blue loops are supposed to emulate the colors of standard-flavor Peeps. And the marshmallows are plain white circles. Are they . . . Peep eggs? They’re not egg-shaped, though. It seems lazy. Though Lucky Charms marshmallows often come out as indistinguishable rainbow blobs, they at least try to make them look like unicorns and pots of gold. How hard would it be to make chick- and bunny-shaped marshmallows?
Banana Creme Frosted Flakes
Sugar: 10 grams
Frosted Flakes has introduced several new flavors — chocolate, cinnamon and honey nut, among them — but banana cream seems like a real gamble. People either love or hate artificial banana flavor, and more often, they seem to hate it. If you don’t mind fake banana, you might think that this tastes like banana bread. If you don’t, you’ll think it tastes like Laffy Taffy in a bowl of milk.
Cinnamon Toast Crunch Churros
Sugar: 8 grams
Somehow, a cereal modeled after these cinnamon-sugar fried pastries managed to have the least sugar of the entire bunch we’ve tried. But Cinnamon Toast Crunch Churros are just Cinnamon Toast Crunch in a more worldly and sophisticated shape. They taste the same, but the shape makes a big difference: The churros are thicker and crunchier than expected, and bigger, too — almost the size of a Cheeto. I measured one, and it was one and a quarter inches long, which seems, quite frankly, enormous for a cereal. Honestly, you should just eat these plain, for dessert. Don’t even bother with milk. This is a pretty good snack food pretending to be a cereal.
Hostess Donettes Cereal
Sugar: 13 grams
Well, they look just like miniature versions of Donettes, the powdery snack you’d get as a reward for making it through Sunday school or the last sad snack always left over in the teacher’s lounge. They even nailed the powdery residue. The loops are larger than Cheerios but smaller than Froot Loops. They taste like absolutely nothing, though. The texture is Styrofoam.
Hostess Honey Bun Cereal
Sugar: 14 grams
Set aside the rather off-putting shape of this cereal — it looks like a snail or like a misshapen funnel cake, if you’re being generous — it’s delicious for all the reasons it’s not supposed to be. Which makes sense, because it has the most sugar of all the ones we taste tested! It somehow manages to have more sugar in it than the cereal with marshmallow bits, which is truly an achievement. It is just a bowl of sugar, and therefore, it is a delight. It gets soggy fast, and it barely tastes like the cinnamon you’d expect in a honey bun. Somehow it works anyway!
Maple Bacon Donuts Honey Bunches of Oats
Sugar: 9 grams
There is no pork in this cereal, in case you were worried. But that doesn’t make it any less weird of a combination. It’s your typical Honey Bunches of Oats flakes, with some doughnut loops thrown in — they even have red sprinkles, like a bacon-topped doughnut. Which were all the rage in 2010. The bacon flavor seems to come from some sort of artificial smoke flavor, but it’s unclear from the ingredient list — “natural and artificial flavor” is quite a catchall — so it’s hard to say. What I can tell you is that it is altogether rather unpleasant.
Chicken & Waffles Honey Bunches of Oats
Sugar: 9 grams
If you recognize those adorable waffle-shaped pieces, it’s because Post, the maker of Honey Bunches of Oats, used to make a cereal called Waffle Crisp. It was discontinued last summer. Are the waffles in here just the leftover bits of Waffle Crisp? Seems possible! Anyway, all you need to know about this cereal is that the chicken drumstick-shaped pieces contain onion powder, garlic powder and a spice blend of black pepper, marjoram and thyme. In milk. Let me reiterate: Garlic. Onion. In milk. With sugar. It tastes sort of like a sweet corn bread stuffing for Thanksgiving decided to cosplay as breakfast. Maybe next time we mess around with meat-themed cereals, we just stick to the cutesy shapes?
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