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July 27, 2005
When I was a kid, cereal boxes came in handy for blockading myself at the breakfast table, like my father did with the Boston Globe, and if challenged I could say I wasn't being antisocial, I was reading. (Clever children learn to split hairs at an early age.) What was I reading? If memory serves, it was mostly fun facts, offers of the "send in 5 boxtops and $2" variety, and the occasional recipe.
These days my breakfast of choice, even in hot weather, is steel-cut oats, so-called Irish oatmeal, slow-cooked with raisins in a double boiler and served up with whole milk and a generous sprinkle of dark brown sugar. Cold cereals remain a staple, however, for those occasions when I have to be somewhere at an early hour (with steel-cut oats you don't just add boiling water and stir), and also, not infrequently, for supper when I'm feeling rushed or lazy or overdue at the grocery store. So I'm still reading cereal boxes.
Right now I'm gazing at the back of a box of Grape-Nuts Flakes. (Grape-Nuts was my favorite when I was a kid, either straight up or mixed with Puffed Rice. Its milk-absorption properties amazed me. These days my usual flake of choice is Wheaties, but I try to buy out of my rut every once in a while.) "Start today," it begins. "Lose 10 lbs. The Heart Healthy Way!" To the right a little Valentine heart dances with arms upraised and a tape measure around its middle, and to its right is a spoonful of Grape-Nuts Flakes with a strawberry on top. (If the flakes are actual size, the spoon seems to have the capacity of the average cereal bowl.) The copy goes on to tell me "That's Right! Research by a leading cardiologist shows that people who ate 2 bowls of Post Healthy Classics cereals each day, as part of a reduced calorie diet, LOST 10 LBS and reduced their risk factors for heart disease by . . ."
Weight-loss propaganda for breakfast, gag. For years I avoided on principle any food whose packaging proclaimed it fat free, low fat, or no fat; high fiber or low sodium or heart healthy or anything else that attempted to capitalize on USians' fear of food. I stopped eating Kashi, one of my favorites (sort of a Puffed Rice and Puffed Wheat for adults), when the boxes started featuring "I lost 120 lbs." testimonials. I even sent e-mails to the Kashi company, and received the expected mealy-mouthed replies about healthy eating. After a year or so the pictures of skinny people in fat people's pants disappeared. Maybe other people complained? Whatever, I forgave Kashi and started eating it again.
These days even my beloved Doritos and Nutrageous bars come with nutritional information on the side, and once I got my knee-jerk response under control, I figured out that "low sodium" on a can of soup, broth, or tomato purée usually meant that it didn't taste so godawful salty. For cold-cereal eaters, the only way to avoid pitches aimed at the food-fearful is to buy the sugar-drenched products that take up nearly two-thirds of the space on the cereal shelves. Even in my knee-jerkiest days, I was never that rigid.
Hmm. Now I'm curious. What are the eaters of those hyper-sweetened, garishly colored cereals reading for breakfast these days? Maybe that's where all the fun facts and decoder ring offers have gone. For sure the boxes couldn't be touting the health benefits of white sugar and artificial coloring -- could they? Might have to do some stealth reading on my next trip to the supermarket.