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Let's Reminisce: From simplicity to overchoice
By Jerry Lincecum
Jan 7, 2019
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Old-timers like me are prone to lament the fact that life used to be simpler.  Let me give you an example.  Think about what you ate for breakfast when you were a child but old enough to exercise some choice.  Instead of being limited to oatmeal or scrambled eggs with bacon plus biscuits and gravy, you probably were allowed to have breakfast cereal.  How many kinds of cereal can you remember?

I can recall maybe as many as a dozen.  There was Wheaties, the Breakfast of Champions (like Mickey Mantle).  Post Toasties was one of my favorites, right up there with Sugar Crisp (no need to add sugar).  Wheat Chex and Rice Crispies were good.  Then there were the cereals that offered prizes when you mailed in proof-of-purchase labels cut from a number of boxes.  For a dime and two boxtops you could get a Jungleland comic book.  There were model submarines powered by baking powder.

Even better were prizes actually in the box of cereal.  In 1945, Kellogg inserted a prize in the form of pin-back buttons into each box of Pep cereal. Pep pins included U.S. Army squadrons as well as characters from newspaper comics. In the 1970s Baseball and Football Cards were a big hit in packages of some brands of cereal.

But there weren’t that many different kinds of cereal when I was growing up.  So what are the choices today?  While waiting for one of my prescriptions to be filled in a local superstore, I wandered down the aisle where breakfast cereals are displayed.  Even though this store was not primarily a grocery store, their cereal aisle was at least 40 feet long, with nothing but cereals displayed on both sides.  I couldn’t begin to tell you how many different kinds were on offer.  In short, I was overwhelmed by the number and diversity of choices anyone faced if he were interesting in trying a new kind of cereal for breakfast.

So I made a few notes and decided to research the topic further when I got home.  Here’s which I found. According to Wikipedia, the number of different types of breakfast cereals in this country has grown from 160 (1970) to 340 (1998) to 4,945 (2012). In this highly competitive market, breakfast cereal companies have developed an ever-increasing number of flavors. Although some plain wheat and oat-based cereals exist, the ones kids favor are sweetened. Some of the most popular brands include freeze-dried fruit and others are flavored like dessert or candy.  It’s like having cake and ice cream for breakfast.

In the store I was in, the cereals were sorted into six major categories: Kid’s Favorites, Family Favorites, Adult Favorites, Natural & Organic, and Granola.  I remembered breakfast cereal as always coming in boxes, but there were also plastic bags and single-serve containers that you could use as bowls (just add milk).  There were boxes of plain Corn Flakes like the ones I remembered from my childhood, but much more interesting were fancy cereals called Tootsie Favorites, Mini Spooners, Cinnamon Toasters and Honey Nut Cheerios.

I remember when Kellogg’s Special-K was introduced as a new and very healthy cereal because it was low in fat and had added vitamins and minerals.  Marketed as a weight-loss product, it started as a single flavor, whereas now it comes in 14 different varieties, some of which sound like candy flavors.

My wife and I eat cereal for breakfast fairly often.  You might expect us to keep it simple or at least stick to one flavor.  But I have to admit that we concoct our own private mixture of cereal, using Special K (original flavor) as a base and adding several others from the “Natural and Organic” shelf.  So I’m as guilty as anyone else when it comes to complicating my cereal choices.

Jerry Lincecum is a retired English professor who now teaches classes for older adults who want to write their life stories.  A new class begins at Grayson College on Feb. 6 as part of the TEAMS program: jlincecum@me.com