Food, Wine & Spirits in St. Louis

Tuesday, December 13, 2011 / 4:05 PM

Food World Stunned: Children's Breakfast Cereal May Contain Sugar

Parents. They fret their kids will fall under the spell of some peddler of extra-legal pharmaceuticals that’ll forthwith have Ashley and Aiden inhaling Columbian cocoa like an Easter Island moai sniffing the trade winds. Turns out, though, there might be more malevolent evildoers lurking than Bogota’s version of Willy Wonka. Like Dig’em Frog, the ostensibly amiable t-shirted amphibian fronting for Kellogg’s Honey Smacks. Or one Captain Horatio Crunch who is transporting just exactly what in the hold of the Guppy?

Or Wilfred Brimley.

Turns out, in fact, that the real chemical threat to youngsters doesn’t come in little plastic bags or prescription bottles with child-proof, junkie-friendly caps. No, it comes in cardboard boxes with free prizes inside. And goes great with milk.

According to something called the Environmental Working Group, the percentage of sugar in children’s breakfast cereals is now higher than Michael Moore’s cholesterol levels at a bratwurst festival. As their spokesman said in early December, when the study was released, “It’s like having dessert for breakfast.”

He says that like it’s a bad thing.

“The fact that a children’s breakfast cereal is 56% sugar by weight…should cause national outrage,” says the EWG. Damn, we say, right. This is a country that’s put a man shanking with a six-iron on the surface of the moon, a country that invented the vaccine for polio, created Doritos and the Sham-wow. And the best we can do is squeeze only 56% sugar into a bowl of cereal? It’s a good thing Thomas Edison never lived to see this day.

Concurring with the EWG on the dangers posed by Tony the Tiger and the Froot Loops Toucan Sam is the Interagency Working Group on Food Marketed to Children. They’ve issued guidelines, suggesting cereals contain no more than 26% sugar by weight. Yes. Seriously. Please think about this tomorrow morning when you get up and go to work. We’re not talking about the guidelines of the Interagency Working Group on Food Marketied to Children. We’re talking about that agency. While you’re off to your job, in which you are actually expected, sooner or later, at least from time to time, to produce something useful or profitable, there is a guy—probably a lot of them—heading out to “work” at the Interagency Working Group on Food Marketed to Children. And doubtless they’re nuzzling on the dollar-swollen papillae of the government. Which—something else to consider as you step into the traces for another day’s struggle for your daily bread—means you’re paying their salaries.

But we digress. Back to the EWG’s study.

It would be uncharitable to observe that the Environmental Working Group (as with the Interagency outfit, your first hint on this should have been the name) has something of a reputation of, shall we say, exaggerating their dire warnings. Like the time, back in 2007, when the EWG cautioned that lipstick has deadly amounts of lead—which turns out to be technically true, provided you gobble tubes of Lancome like they’re Three Musketeers bars. Or in 2008, when the Cassandras of the EWG crowed that the water Pensacola-ites were drinking was laden “with 45 impurities”—without bothering to say that the water they used in their sampling came right out of the ground, before it was treated at the Pensacola waterworks.

Their penchant for supersizing the truth aside, we’ll take the EWG at their word this time. Which still begs the most important question this whole study presents, at least from our perspective. Those top ten toxic treats: What do they taste like?

A trip to the store found all ten. That, and a gallon of cow juice, along with our own, sugar-sensitive palate, were all we needed. Well, that and a Costco-size drum of insulin standing at the ready.

10. Kellogg’s Original Froot Loops (41.4%) The first impression of a spoonful of these festively hued rings is that somebody at the Foot Loops Factory has a heavy hand with the flavorings. Froot Loops may not be the most nutritious foodstuff ever to pass our piehole, but, man, they do not skimp on those artificial flavors. These crunchy rings have more fruit than a Carmen Miranda impersonator contest on Christopher Street. The Loops resist sogginess effectively. They stayed crunchy right to the last, lonely rings floating in a pool of milk that had, during breakfast, gone from white to something that looked like the canvas of Monet’s Water Lilies after it was left out in the rain.  We found ourselves distracted too, wondering why it is that in commercials for this cereal, Toucan Sam, who would come from Central America, always sounds like Ronald Colman in The Prisoner of Zenda.

9. Cap’n Crunch’s Crunch Berries (42.3%) Quaker Oats puts out this manically dyed kiddie catnip. The same Quaker Oats for which noted thespian Wilfred Brimley shills. We trust Wilfred to sell us everything from home delivered medical supplies to diabetes meds (though there is a certain irony in the latter). So we had high hopes for the Crunch Berries. And they were different. The “berries” here are violently colored balls of treacle-sweetness—the turquoise is particularly stunning—scattered among tiny squares of a grainy texture that feels like a mouthful of raw oatmeal. The flavor of corn is a subtle undercurrent lazing across the stream of our tongue. All in all, it’s like eating stale Fritos dipped in cake frosting. Lots of frosting.

8. Kellogg's Apple Jacks (42.9%) We were less excited about this one once we discovered Apple Jack wasn’t “applejack,” the brandy. Even so, how can anything with “apple” be less than wholesome? Indeed, the fragrance of cinnamon and apples that wafts up when you tear open the box of these is like strolling into Grandma’s kitchen.  And if Grandma insisted you call her by her first name, lived in a Las Vegas condo, and wore leopard print capri pants and stiletto heels, chances are good it tastes like breakfast at her house as well. That’s a weird artificiality to these dust and dry grass-hued rings, spackled with what might be cinnamon flecks. The sweetness is there, to be sure. But like Grandma’s eyelashes, it’s just fakey and disturbingly inappropriate.

7. Kellogg's Smorz (43.3%) Okay, we’ll be honest. There are limits beyond which even we won’t go. A breakfast cereal putatively meant to replicate the only thing more unappealing at a campfire than that jackass who shows up with an acoustic guitar? We’re eating professionals, yes. But we’re just not willing to go there.

6. Quaker Oats Honey Graham Oh’s (44.4%) Oh as in “Oh my, am I eating cereal or driveway gravel?” The Quakers put out this Tribute to type-A diabetes in a box and are apparently trying to cash in on making it hard to find. Not many stores carry it and there’s a healthy (okay, poor choice of words) trade in the Oh’s market on the Internet where, like illegal fireworks and Mexican cancer cures, devotees can have the stuff delivered right to their doors. It tastes like ground graham crackers and honey. Which is okay. What’s not okay is that the stuff has a texture that makes Grape Nuts feel positively mushy. It’s hard. Chunky, metal hexagon nuts in your bowl hard. Give it some time to marinate in the bowl after you pour on the milk—like a day or two—or risk losing not only your battle with sugar addiction but a molar as well.

5. Quaker Oats Cap’n Crunch Original (44.4%) “Crunchalize me, Cap’n!” reads the box. Exactly what that might entail we probably don’t want to know. These are just the same cereal as the Crunch Berries, minus those psychedelic toned “berries.” Tasted the same. What we couldn’t figure out was how the Captain’s crew there at Quaker Oats managed to take out those “crunchy berries” and still upped the sugar content for this blander version. Suggested ad campaign for them: “Hey kids! No pretense of anything berry-like—but almost 1 ½% more sugar!”

4. Cap’n Crunch’s Oops! All Berries (46.9%) Have you gotten the point by now? The folks at the EWG have a stick of a sustainably harvested, non-threatened species of wood up their you-know-what over the Captain. The grandiosely mustachioed old salt is at the helm of three of their Top Ten sugariest ways to start your day. We’re thinking somebody there had an ancestor who spent less time before the mast and more lashed to it, getting flogged. Anyway, this version goes in exactly the opposite direction as the original. Instead of taking out those tasty, toasty “berries,” and leaving in just the original cereal, the original crunchy square pellets are gone; Oops! is just the berries. Amazingly, they didn’t taste any different than the original. And we do have to wonder about the marketing geniuses who came up with “Oops!” as a brand name. Sort of like calling a car the “Oh crap, the brakes’ve locked!” Coupe.

3. Froot Loops Marshmallow (48.3%) Are you the sort who says, “Golly, these Froot Loops are tasty as all get-out but, darn it, they’re just not sweet enough?” Well good news, pal. You can get that much needed booster shot o’ sugar with marshmallows scattered in. And in a thoughtful touch, Kellogg’s makes them fruit shaped. We found the marshmallows compromised the textural palette, though. Milk seems to congeal the little marshmallow limes and bananas into tough nuggets that stick to your teeth like taffy—only with more sugar and less nutritional value.

2. Post Golden Crisp (51.9%) Sugar Bear’s still their official spokes-mammal. He’s still got the “SB” on his t-shirt. Other than that, “sugar’s” disappeared from everything on the box. In the box is another story. With almost half its weight azucar, we could tell, with the first spoon of these handsome golden little pillows of saccharine, this is some serious breakfast fare. Remember those Pixie Sticks of your childhood that you tipped into your mouth and which crossed your eyes with their overwhelming sweetness? Well, uncork a couple of dozen of them over a bowl of Styrofoam packing peanuts and you’ll have some sensation of what the Sugar Bear’s cookin’.

1. Kellogg's Honey Smacks (55.6%) This cereal’s gone through some name changes, from “Sugar Smacks” to “Smacks” to the current “Honey Smacks.” Presumably, “Breakfast Heroin” was considered and discarded for being too subtle. A single serving has just a wee bit more sugar than a glazed Dunkin Donut. Technically, Honey Smacks are puffed wheat—smacked with enough sugar in each bowl to fuel a class of third-graders on a paddle up to the headwaters of the Missouri before lunch time—where they would then fall asleep. We thought it tasted suspiciously like the #2 Golden Crisp. But by this time, both our palate and our ability to distinguish subtleties—like basic shapes—were getting fuzzy as we drifted off into an insulin coma. Or wait, maybe that’s a vision we’re having. Count Chocula, is that you?

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