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The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

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Grazie mille!

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

70 Years of Cheerios

I just returned from the grocery store where I picked up a bright yellow box of Cheerios. And now that I think about it, it's something I've been doing all my life. I can't remember not eating Cheerios.

To say that the toasted oat cereal produced at General Mills' Buffalo, New York facility is an icon would be something of an understatement. According to a number of surveys, it is the top-selling brand of breakfast cereal in the United States and it is similarly popular in several other countries around the world. (The original Cheerios reigned supreme for decades, but has recently been overtaken by the “Honey Nut” version of the brand.) At the same time, the little golden “o”s have been around for so long that most folks just take them for granted. So let's take a few minutes to delve into some things you may or may not know about one of the world's most celebrated breakfast foods.

To begin at the beginning, we need to light up seventy birthday candles for Cheerios, born back in 1941. Originally, it was called “Cheerioats,” a name which only stuck around for about four years. (Unless you were my grandmother, who persisted in referring to the product as “Cheerioats” for about the next forty years.)

Lester Borchardt invented “Cheerioats,” working for months to perfect the “puffing” technique that ultimately resulted in the now familiar circular shape. (Factoid: Cheerios are made by heating up little balls of dough made from grains, water, and other ingredients, forming the spheres into “o”s and then shooting them out of a puffing gun at 100 mph. They are then toasted and packaged.)

Considering that in those days most folks thought of oats as horse food rather than people food, Cheerioats did remarkably well in it's first year. General Mills shipped out 1.8 million cases – at twelve boxes per case – in 1941 alone.

Shortly after the initial roll out, Cheerioats acquired a mascot. A cereal's got to have a mascot, right? “Trix” has the rabbit, “Lucky Charms” has the leprechaun, “Rice Krispies” has Snap, Crackle, and Pop, and “Cap'n Crunch” has … well, that one's pretty obvious. But few people remember a dark-haired little girl named “Cheeri O'Leary” who used to appear on boxes of “Cheerioats.” Her main job was to provide brief bios of popular movie stars and to pitch the cereal's first slogan; “The Breakfast Food You've Always Wanted.” Catchy, huh?

“Cheer Up With Cheerioats” soon followed and “Cheerioats – For Fighters On the Homefront” was a patriotic slogan introduced during the war years. According to some sources, the Quaker Oats people had a little dust up with General Mills over the “oats” part of the product name, so, in 1945, ad-man Fred T. Leighty, inspired by the “o” shape of the cereal, dropped a couple of letters and rechristened it as “Cheerios – The First Ready To Eat Oat Cereal.” (Ready to eat as opposed to Quaker's oatmeal product, which had to be cooked.)

That's also about the time “Joe Idea,” a red-haired boy in a striped shirt, began to appear on side panels of Cheerioats/Cheerios. But, alas, Joe didn't hang around long either.

The champion Cheerios mascot, the “Cheerios Kid,” was introduced in 1953 and he represented the product for most of the next thirty years. He was kind of a Popeye-like character, somewhat clumsy and inept until he “powered up” with Cheerios. Transforming into a trim and athletic-looking hero in his blue pants and white t-shirt, the “Kid” then saved the day for his gal pal “Sue.” The “Kid” emphasized the “power” of Cheerios in slogans that hyped “GO power” and the “pow-pow powerful feeling” imparted by the product. He hung out with some pretty heavy hitters over the years, including “Bullwinkle” in 1966 and 1967.

Other cartoon characters who briefly pitched for Cheerios include “Hoppity Hooper” – of whose 1960's TV program General Mills was a primary sponsor – and members of the “Peanuts” gang. There was even a '70s-vintage ad campaign that featured a yodeling stick figure. The “Kid” made a brief comeback in the '80s. And then it seems General Mills decided the cereal needed to grow up. The focus became “Nutrition. That’s the Cheerios Tradition” and “Oats, the Grain Highest in Protein” and cartoon character salesmen became obsolete.

So successful was the “healthy” sales angle that General Mills soon found itself in deep water – or perhaps milk – with the federal government.

Emerging nutritional science cited soluble fiber contained in whole grain food products, such as oats, as being a cholesterol buster. Cheerios began touting itself as “heart-healthy” and claiming that consumption of Cheerios could reduce cholesterol levels by four percent in six weeks. Labeling unequivocally stated that Cheerios was “clinically proven to lower cholesterol. A clinical study showed that eating two 1½ cup servings daily of Cheerios cereal reduced bad cholesterol when eaten as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol."

The Food and Drug Administration took offense to what it saw as an attempt by General Mills to market an unapproved new drug and sent the company a letter to that effect in May, 2009. Nobody said Cheerios wasn't a good product. In fact, the head of the FDA's Center for Food Safety opined that Cheerios was “a product that can be part of a healthy diet.” The Fed just didn't like the marketing hyperbole that could be misconstrued as drug advertisement. Although Cheerios did subsequently lower the volume a little bit, they still maintain, “Original Cheerios® cereal and Honey Nut Cheerios cereal have soluble fiber from whole grain oats. This type of soluble fiber acts like a kind of 'sponge,' soaking up some of the cholesterol in the body so that the body can get rid of it naturally. Lowering cholesterol can lower the risk of clogged arteries and heart disease. Additionally, original Cheerios and Honey Nut Cheerios are naturally cholesterol free. It's nice when foods with good ingredients also taste good. This is just part of the wisdom in using whole grain oats.” (www.cheerios.com)

Honey Nut Cheerios, of course, refers to the wildly popular companion to the original cereal that was introduced in 1979. In fact, the Cheerios family has grown quite large since 1941. Besides the “Honey Nut” variety, Apple Cinnamon Cheerios joined the fold in 1988; MultiGrain Cheerios came about in 1992; Frosted Cheerios were added in 1995; Berry Burst Cheerios burst upon the scene in 2001 and Chocolate Cheerios appeared on shelves in 2010. Lest we forget someone, the family also includes Banana Nut Cheerios, Cinnamon Burst Cheerios, Cheerios Crunch, Fruity Cheerios, and Yogurt Burst Cheerios. Additionally, “Cheerios and Xs” made a brief appearance in the early '90s and “Millenios,” featuring little “2”s, saw limited marketing in 1999 – 2000.

Cheerios represents something of an odd duck in the breakfast cereal flock. It's not a sugar-laden kiddie cereal. As referenced above, the primary marketing focus these days is directed toward health-conscious adults. But at the same time, Cheerios is a very “kid-friendly” cereal. Face it, everybody who has ever had kids – myself included – knows what it's like to pick up Cheerios scattered all over the house. The little toasted “o”s are the first finger food many babies and toddlers learn to eat.

The various varieties are just insanely good as ingredients in everything from trail mix to snack bars to muffins and cookies. Yes, you can even make marshmallow treats with Cheerios. Believe it or not, I have a holiday recipe that sculpts Cheerios into little Christmas trees.

And just in case you've ever wondered, it would take 3,155,524,416 Cheerios to encircle the Earth. If you'd like to verify that statistic, go ahead and start lining them up. I'll just dump a few hundred in a bowl and eat 'em, if it's all the same to you.

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