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State College Cereal Killer at Bay

by on February 04, 2015 6:30 AM

Like my father before me, I can never resist a bad pun, which is why, when my wife and I hosted a reception for Sarah Koenig last week, we decorated the house with cereal boxes.

Get it? Koenig's "Serial" has made her the world's first podcast superstar, so we bought Trix, Froot Loops, Cocoa Puffs, Frosted Flakes and my favorite, packaging-wise, Quisps, in her honor.

There's journalistic precedent for serial-cereal puns. Twenty years ago, when Mark Willes moved from running General Mills to slashing jobs at the L.A. Times, he became known as "The Cereal Killer."

In this vein I note that Quisps, in the great tradition of the back-of-the-box reading experience, features a comic strip in which a sentient comet, hurtling toward Earth, says, "I'm interrupting this 'serial' with a major disaster."

Our only standard in shopping for cereal was aesthetic: We wanted the boxes with the most eye-popping graphics, which tend to be the kiddie concoctions. We also wanted to hang individual serving-sized boxes from the chandeliers and curtain rods and were dismayed when the only single servings we could find came in potato chip-style snack bags. Pouches, they're called in the industry.

Had I missed the end of an era in the cereal world? Were the youth of today and tomorrow to be deprived of the experience of boxes that open like the doors of a storm cellar, allowing them to pour in milk and eat right out of the package?

Fortunately not. At a second supermarket we found that the Kellogg's Variety Pak lives. The offerings haven't changed much. Tony the Tiger still tells us that Frosted Flakes are "gr-r-reat!" The elves Snap, Crackle and Pop still pour milk into the bowl of Cocoa Krispies. Toucan Sam still swings from a vine on the Froot Loops box.

The Stetson-wearing, gun-toting prairie dog Sugar Pops Pete, however, was long ago put out to pasture, along with his jingle: "Oh, the Pops are sweeter and the taste is new/ they're shot with sugar, through and through."

Clearly, being shot with sugar is no longer a selling point in the cereal world. Sugar Pops became Corn Pops, just as Sugar Smacks became the more wholesome-sounding Honey Smacks, and General Mills' Sugar Crisps were renamed Honey Crisps, though the cereal's totem, Sugar Bear, lives on, along with the Trix Rabbit and the crazed cuckoo on the Cocoa Puffs box.

Downplaying the sugar content is not the same as reducing the sugar content, of course. In a recent Environmental Working Group ranking of the most shamefully sugary cereals, two of our purchases made the worst 10 list – Apple Jacks and Froot Loops, each with 12 grams of sugar per serving. To give you an idea of how bad that number is, Kellogg's two stalwarts, Corn Flakes and Rice Krispies, have 3 and 4 grams of sugar per serving, respectively.

Amid rising concern about childhood obesity and diabetes it's shocking that the cereal kings even make the sweet stuff anymore – that is, until you check the sales figures.

According to the latest data I could find, Frosted Flakes (10 g sugar per serving) is No. 2 behind Honey Nut Cheerios. Froot Loops is No. 8. The only non-sugary cereals in the Top Ten are Cheerios (No. 4) and Rice Krispies (No. 10). Corn Flakes isn't even on the list. How the mighty have fallen.

Our original plan was to put out bowls, spoons, milk, yogurt and fruit and actually serve the cereal, but we succumbed to qualms about the sugary grossness of it all and offered more conventional hors d'oeuvres instead. The cereals would be merely decorative.

Our most inspired idea was to pour the Trix into martini glasses. Just opening the box released a flood of childhood olfactory memories. And the multi-colored cornballs looked quite pretty thus displayed.

At the end of the evening, we tried to get our guests who have little ones to bring some sweet treats home to their darlings. Most were way too responsible to do so.

I then proposed donating everything to the Food Bank, but my guests said Food Bank clients shouldn't have such nasty stuff foisted on them either.

So what are we to do with all this cereal now that we have been guilt-tripped into protecting local children from them? Until I come up with a better idea, I'm going to buy cereals with minimal sugar and add a few morsels of my sweet stash to every bowl. That way I'll have months, maybe even years to enjoy the one truly admirable thing about these cereals, which is their ka-pow packaging.

And by eating all the cereals myself I cannot stand accused of being a cereal killer. To quote the aptly named Sydney Carton, "It is a far, far better thing that I do."

If Dickens were writing "A Tale of Two Cities" today he'd probably name him Sydney Pouch.


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A collection of Russell Frank's columns, titled “Among the Woo People: A Survival Guide for Living in a College Town," is available from the Penn State University Press. His columns for won first place for commentary in the 2019 Society of Professional Journalists Keystone Chapter Best in Journalism contest. The winning columns: The Women’s March: Notes from New York, It’s Time to Change the Script and Mixed Messages at Bellefonte High. Frank is a member of the journalism faculty at Penn State. Before launching his academic career, he worked as a reporter, editor and columnist at newspapers in California and Pennsylvania. He is, by academic training, a folklorist (Ph.D., UPenn), which means, when you strip away the academic jargon, that he loves a good story. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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