Conventional wisdom holds that breakfast is the “most important meal of the day” since it jump-starts the metabolic processes that powers you for the rest of the morning, through school or work or whatever else it is you think you are doing with your life. Parents go to great lengths to impart this notion to impressionable young children almost from toddlerhood, hoping it will one day finally stick, helping to rouse them in the morning and then get them down to the school bus stop in time. But until then, the rush of the morning family routine often demotes breakfast from a protein-heavy power-up into a daily slog through bowls full of junk food made from corn syrup and a nominal variety of other reconstituted corn byproducts.
When frazzled parents finally concede defeat on the daily battlefield that is breakfast, their kids are often delighted, since they are unable to steel themselves against expert marketing campaigns for which they are the coveted target demographic. Television aimed at children is funded primarily with ads in which brightly colored cardboard boxes are hawked by brightly colored cartoon characters during commercial breaks between shows featuring slightly different brightly colored cartoon characters. But there may still be a partial compromise on the horizon: by assessing the nutritional profiles of the mascots being used to sell the cereals, perhaps we can begin to understand underlying patterns by which we can help keep children healthy while also indulging their mascot preferences.
The numbers used in these analyses were collected using a smartphone app which serves as a reference tool for the official nutrition labels which the Food and Drug Administration requires manufacturers to affix to the products before they can be sold in stores. Forty different cereals are represented, and the data points for each focus on nefarious nutrients like fat, salt, and sugar, conveyed as percentages of recommended daily allowance as proportionally scaled for a diet of 2,000 calories daily.
If you use the menu to sort by mascot type, you’ll find that the Monsters bracket is, appropriately enough, by far the most terrifying. It’s worth noting, however, that the monster cereals are all closely-connected sibling offerings from the same line of cross-promoted products manufactured by the General Mills corporation, so these alarming averages might have been mitigated by an entrant from a competing company. But there’s an easy way around the problems posed by this particular group of products—if your kids prefer these most unhealthy cereals, just scare the bejesus out of them with grisly tales of these same creatures, perhaps as nightmare-inducing bedtime stories. With luck, you may soon be pleasantly surprised to find your children sobbing into their cereal instead of eating it.
Continuing on to survey the other mascot brackets leads to the completely unsurprising revelation that humans are unhealthy. Almost as a rule, human mascots signify trouble, handily outpacing their competitors from both the birds and mammals brackets in fat, salt, and carbohydrate content. (Here again we see that poultry is always a wise choice for the health conscious.) These numbers appear even more dire when you also consider that the specific beasties from the monsters group are actually all some adapted form of human—vampire (Count Chocula), re-assembled body parts (Frankenberry), and deceased (Boo Berry). Until cereal based on a bona fide monster actually makes it to market—please keep your fingers crossed on behalf of the chupacabra—it may be fair to count these against the human scorecard.
At first glance, the birds may seem to have higher average fat content than regular humans, like the Academy Award winning actor Paul Newman, who sells several varieties of cereal under the pet project brand name “Newman’s Own,” and also the more loosely-interpreted humanoids like Lucky the Leprechaun and the Kellogg’s Rice Krispies elves. But that’s only due to outlier effects from Cocoa Puffs, which is a heavyweight in both its original and newer promotional varieties. Remove these two items from the calculations, and the category average plummets. Sonny, the avian ambassador for Cocoa Puffs, often seems in advertisements to actually celebrate unreasonable behavior; it seems that his nutritional practices are no different.
But Sonny is just the tip of the iceberg. As it turns out, nearly every cereal made by General Mills is less healthy than the equivalent offering from Post or Kellogg’s with the most directly comparable advertising mascot. The most egregious offender is “Cinnamon Toast Crunch,” which is absolutely delicious, but clocks in at an atrocious 188 calories per serving that is way too small for any real-world cereal bowl and makes a strong showing on all three axes. It is almost as though we have weaponized breakfast, but perhaps we should have expected no less from a trio of portly cartoon chefs who can’t stop yammering on about cinnamon sugar.
However, one notable break from this trend can be found in Post’s “Pebbles” line, which comes in several varieties (Fruity, Cocoa, and Marshmallow) and is advertised using the Flintstones, the prehistoric caveman family from the iconic Hanna-Barbera animated television sitcom. As a rule, Flintstones-championed cereals are considerably healthier than those advertised by modern humans and humanoids. This may lend yet more credence to the so-called “Paleo Diet,” the increasingly popular nutritional regimen which emphasizes simple, primitive foods.
Still, the conclusion here is clear. First, even exhausted parents capitulating to their kids morning tantrums regarding these cartoons would still do well to steer their children away from General Mills characters, and instead to an analogous mascot trademarked by Post or Kellogg’s. Furthermore, we should reinforce the idea that animals are good, and humans are always bad. Children of a certain age will respond well to the whimsical entertainment value of this principle, and more importantly, it is a maxim that will serve them well for many years, since it holds true far beyond the breakfast table.