Ban Bland Bran Brands

Most of us aren’t interesting enough to produce on-demand interesting thoughts all day long, and so invariably a few hours into a car ride through rural Wisconsin you’ll realize you and your companion’s conversation has pared down to merely reading the road signs and billboards that roll past. Fortunately, though, when you’re sufficiently tired, the variations and oddities such signs provide are all the stimulus needed to gratify your boredom and even induce more than a few chuckles… LAKE ELMO … CLAPP WATERFOWL PRODUCTION AREA … HO CHUNK CASINO … MARKQUAT’S LUBE-N-WASH … HO-CHUNK CASINO (this time with a hyphen!) …

Our word-reading predilection lingered as Michael and I ducked into an Aldi in Tomah, Wisconsin in search of a pre-race meal. Aldi, if you’ve never been to one before, sits in the uncanny valley between grocery store and Costco: alarmingly cheap prices yet normally sized quantities. Apparently, it keeps costs down by spending absolutely no effort whatsoever on naming its products. Strolling down isles, we gawked and guffawed at knock-offs like CHEEKY MONKEY (a copy of Ben & Jerry’s Chunky Monkey), SAINT ETTINE (fake Stella Artois), ACTIVE (Activa yogurt), TOASTER TARTS (Pop Tarts, obvi), and more.

The cereal section in particular was a true monument to the art of circumlocution, sporting such selections as FRUIT ROUNDS, CORN SQUARES, CINNAMON CRUNCH SQUARES, KID’S KRUNCH, HONEY CRUNCH’N OATS, HONEY NUT CRISPY OATS, and — because these titles aren’t protected by copyright — FROSTED FLAKES and RAISIN BRAN. All the store varieties in the Aldi were marketed under the even-more-fake-sounding MILLVILLE.

There’s actually something a bit exciting about checking out how store brand cereal is marketed. You can see Tony the Tiger or the Trix Rabit anywhere you go — but it’s not every day you get to meet the KIDS KRUNCH sea creature or the FRUITY RICE … fruit rices? I’m actually not sure they even got around to assigning their characters names.

After consuming some unbranded Aldis bananas that Michael and I both agreed constituted “arguably food,” we speculated that it was probably the case that whoever named these MILLVILLE products was kindly going out of their way to make it clear to the customer that there wouldn’t be anything particularly promising inside. A few customer reviews online seemed to confirm that our suspicions were warranted:

But surprisingly, there are also a fair number of online reviewers smitten with Aldi’s stuff. According to the mysterious Mister B, Aldi’s cereal actually beats half of the name brands it is supposed to be knocking off (and you’ll save plenty of dough in the process). And for the sake of fairness, let’s note you can also find unwanted ingredients on occasion in name brand cereal (see: the Rice Krisp-pee Incident). But it was also surprisingly hard to track down what exactly Millville is. Off-brand cereals like to be coy about their whereabouts, and they usually don’t have websites. I did locate a Millville, Minnesota (which sits on the Zumbro River, the state’s only river starting with the letter Z!). But — unless the factory is secretly buried underground — I saw nothing in the 182-person town on Google Maps that might suggest a subpar cereal factory (it does have an ATM, a post office, and a gun & rod shop, for what it’s worth).

The Internet seems to think that Millville is secretly manufactured by General Mills (hence the “Mill” riff) and simply sold at Aldi at cheaper prices. So, being the good journalist that I am, I called up a friend (we’ll call him Shaun) who works at General Mills to respond to the allegations. Shaun told me that copacking — manufacturing similar products to be sold under a different name for a client — was a contentious issue within the company in the past, but that General Mills elected not to do it. The company reasoned it wasn’t worth the risk of “diluting their brand” even if they’d make more in total sales.

I had been hoping Shaun would be able to put me in touch with someone in charge of an off-brand cereal-generating division, but alas, I was left only to speculate/fantasize about what their job must be like. The Minneapolis Institute of Art featured a while back an exhibit called “Notes on Creativity” by Spanish chef Ferran Adrià. One of the pieces in the show was his “Creative Pyramid” for cooking. The lowest level is simply following a recipe that already exists. Slightly better is enhancing an existing recipe. Even more creative is making a whole new recipe. And the most is developing whole new categories of food. But I believe the chef left off an important level of culinary creativity, perhaps one that only an American would know. I have in mind the type of creativity embodied by the creator of off-brand cereal: replicating an existing recipe, only making it deliberately worse. Being “actively bad,” as people say these days.

Michael suggests to me that the craftsmen of behind Millville may simply be bad at their jobs. But I prefer at least to entertain the more interesting explanation, which is that the incentive structure of today’s cereal market actually encourages certain producers to withhold their skill in order to maintain their status as a bottom-tier brand (thereby allowing higher-tier brands to justify their slightly inflated prices).

Of course, not all ways of cutting corners need to damage the actual taste of the product. One way to do so — I found out in a high school stats project — is by playing around with the proportions of colors. Normal Fruit Loops, for example, maintain a completely equal ratio of each color, whereas off-brand Fruit [insert synonym] can have differences in color distribution sometimes in excess of 10 percent! (As in, there may be far more blue rings in your bowl than yellow). Obviously, though, the biggest cost that off-brand cereals cut is in marketing. You’re not going to be seeing ads anytime soon for Cinnamon Crunch Squares because Cinnamon Toast Crunch does it for them. If there is a kind of marketing off-brand might do, it’d be running attack ads on literacy and optometry so there’d be a likelier chance that kids will mistake knock-off brands for the real ones.

Interestingly, while a store brand takes it bearings from the same set of name brands, they each have an internal cohesiveness to them. For example, ESSENTIAL EVERYDAY, the label that prints store brand for my current go-to shop Cub foods, employs variations of the word CRUNCH in SEVEN different of its cereals. And apparently, according to the internet, Malt-O-Meal, maker of FROSTED MINI SPOONERS, TOOTIE FRUITIES, MARSHMALLOW MATEYS, and HONEY NUT SCOOTERS and the charming local cereal-maker when I went to college in Northfield, Minnesota, specializes in cereal names that “sound like weird euphemisms for gay people.” Kroger, on the other hand, opts for incredibly literal names — FROSTED APPLE & CINNAMON RINGS, FROSTED TOASTED OATS WITH MARSHMALLOWS, COCOA-PUFFED CEREAL — almost to the point where you’re not sure whether their not meant so much as cereal but as satire of other off-brands’ attempts at appropriating brand-constructed sugared breakfast appeal.

Some of the more clever (which is not to say edible) off-brand cereals I’ve come across include APPLE DAPPLES, SCRUNCHY FRUITY FLOATS (ever had a food w/ “scrunchy” in its name before?), and, yeah, those are about the only good ones…. The misses are plentiful: APPLE ORBITS, FRUTTI RNGS, FRUITY WHEELS, CONFRUITY CRISP, PRANKS (an imitation of Trix, get it), DONUTZ, CIRCUS BALLS CEREAL, KIDDO BALLS, BUNCH O’ CINNAMON SQUARES, CRISPY HEXAGONS, CRISP 6, SQUARE SHAPED CORN and, simply, CEREAL.

I spent a doleful afternoon generating my own line of passable off-brand products — LOOPTY-FRUITS, MAJ’R MUNCH, COCO FLUFFS, GAGS, JANISE’S PUFFS, HONEY BALLS OF NUTS, FROSTED HO CHUNKS — before succumbing to the hunch that, well, nevermind I won’t tell you what my hunch was.

Interestingly, there are nearly 5,000 different types of breakfast cereal in the United States, and whereas Wikipedia has 115 entries for cereals beginning with the letter C, it features but a single one beginning with the B (thankfully, Wikipedia doesn’t count Blueberry Muffin Tops as a cereal). Also interesting is that there is not a single major cereal that has a female character as its mascot. Also interesting is that the company Ralston, despite claiming to be the nation’s “leading manufacturer of private brand Ready-to-Eat Cereals” seems capable only of producing discontinued atrocities based on poor-tasting pop culture reference posts: ADAMS FAMILY CEREAL, DONKEY KONG JR. CEREAL, E.T. CEREAL, GHOSTBUSTERS II CEREAL, GREMLINS CEREAL, HOT WHEELS CEREAL, NINTENDO CEREAL, and — everyone’s (not) favorite — URKEL-OS (Ralston is also behind DINKY DONUTS CEREAL and DUNKIN’ DONUTS CEREAL, plus NERDS CEREAL and WAFFLEOS).

So maybe the incompetent Ralston is the mystery maker of Millville? But how would I find out, given companies are so reluctant to fess up to which off-brand they’ve been churning out? I thought about this for a while until an idea struck. If a company is copackaging Millville, then if something goes wrong for in the factory, it will affect both brands. I googled “cereal recall Millville,” and to my delight — and my horror — I learned the answer had been lurking under my nose the whole time: it was my beloved Malt-O-Meal!

For four years I’d been chowing down their legendary Berry Colossal Crunch and sniffing whiffs of Apple Zingers on my stroll across campus without the slightest idea they were printing off cardboard-like Fruit Rounds on the sly. Even after graduation I’d walk to a more distant grocery store to procure those familiar flakes, “fruits,” and toasters, and now I find the brand I love is responsible for that Styrofoam molasses known as Millville. The smoking gun I found was media coverage of two salmonella outbreaks — one from 1998 and another from 2009 — that forced recalls of both Malt-O-Meal cereal and Millville “cereal” and forced the brass in Minneapolis to fess up to jointly producing the products. In hindsight, I shouldn’t have been so trusting; after all, Malt-O-Meal was the Frankenstein responsible for Blueberry Muffin Tops, and they seem to be undergoing a change in recent years as their ascendency up the cereal rankings — in 2012, they surpassed Post to become the 3rd-largest cereal manufacturer — apparently has gotten to their head. They’ve forgotten where they came from. Four years back, they changed their name to MOM, and then last year they allowed themselves to be bought by once-rival Post. So, sadly, this merry cereal diversion has produced in me genuine disappointment that the brand I love is responsible for. Knowledge gained, innocence lost.

The Millville case was closed, but my detective work wasn’t over. For my conversation with Shaun had clued me in to a larger problem looming over those of us living through Post-MOMern times: cereal consumption in our country is plummeting, down from $10 billion a few years ago to $8 billion today. Now, if we were seeing such drop from the cauliflower or cottage cheese sector, one might have little cause for concern. But cereal has always been more than just a food in America. It touches on our deepest values and desires.

The establishment of cold breakfast cereals dates back to the early 19th century when the Clean Living Movement, which stressed, among other things, that “eating bacon, eggs, pancakes and hot coffee was too indulgent for oneself,” shamed people into switching to cereal. A few decades later Dr. John Harvey Kellogg introduced Corn Flakes with the express purpose of curbing a different kind of indulgence: masturbation. Citing research that “neither the plague, nor war, nor small-pox, nor similar diseases, have produced results so disastrous to humanity as the pernicious habit of onanism,” Dr. Kellogg believed his cereal would be so bland that it would “decrease of prevent excitement and arousal.” (I believe scientific studies confirm that masturbating is more cumbersome when attempted while simultaneously consuming cereal). And at the dawn of the next century, Ralston founder Webster Edgerly, who went by the alias “Dr. Ralston” (supposedly an acronym for Regime, Activity, Light, Strength, Temperation, Oxygen and Nature), pioneered the social movement called Ralstonism which he called “the grandest movement that man is capable of establishing” and joined forces with the Purina Food Company to produce whole-wheat cereal that Ralsonites were meant to consume in order to boost their “personal magnetism.”

So, breakfast has always been the meal most highly correlated with self-improvement and self-actualization. Why? For one, it’s the most private meal, the one you’re most likely to eat alone. Your breakfast choices thus reflect how you live your life when no one’s watching. And it’s the first thing you think about each day, so it represents the meaning to your life that wrenches you out of the nothingness of your sheets.

And so I ask: what does cereal’s decline tell us about our collective psyche? Does it mean we’re turning into a republic of slovenly porn-addicted lunatics? Perhaps our declining cereal consumption has something to do with the U.S.’s declining birthrates? And more importantly, what can we do to make America’s cereal industry robust once more?

Shaun told me what General Mills (which incidentally, I realized for the first time while writing this is a separate company from GM) is doing to fight our malaise: instead of spending a lot of resources up front like they used to to develop new products which, if they failed, would result in a big loss, they instead now go for quantity, pumping out a constant stream of new items on the shelf in order to see in real-time what customers are snapping up. General Mills products that have stuck best in recent times are those that (to use a phrase I can’t believe isn’t copyrighted yet) put the “real” back in “cereal;” that is, products made with natural ingredients. In particular, its quinoa Cheerios, which brands itself as “CHEERIOS + ANCIENT GRAINS,” has taken off. At the same time, its also found success by following the advice of Reddit posters and reviving ’90s brands like French Toast Crunch.

Weaponizing nostalgia (for both childhood and for the civilizations of yesteryear) has allowed cereal recover some loses, and it’s also help it begin to break out of the box, become decoration and garnish for other foods (for instance, I’m seeing a lot more cereal on donuts or in ice cream these days). Too much pushing of the nostalgia button, however, is dangerous. There’s the cautionary tale of Cereality, a cereal bar chain that opened to much buzz in the early 2000s with its promise to cater to “The buttoned-up executive on Wall Street who regularly sneaks Cocoa Puffs behind his desk at three in the afternoon.” Commented the USA Today: “This latest fast-food concept is so absurdly simple, self-indulgent and reflective of one’s inner child that, well, how can it fail?” It did miserably. Nostalgia isn’t sustainable.

Instead, cereal needs to be more assertive. Too long has breakfast let its territory get infringed upon by other meals, be it by means of pizza-bagels or brunch mimosas. It’s time General Mills earn those generals stripes by launch counter-attacks into the others’ domains. There’s no reason people can’t be eating cereal 3 meals a day, and so there’s serious need to develop new concepts — Cinnamon Toast Crunchwraps? Cheeriorzo? Lucky Charbroiled Oysters? — to make that happen. Lunch and dinner won’t know what hit ‘em.

Of course, that’ll only address one front in the battle. The other problem cereal is facing today is that cereal is just too darn difficult. According to a recent study, nearly 40 percent of millennials say that cereal is an inconvenient breakfast option because it requires one to have to “clean up after eating it.” If General Mills can’t find a way to eliminate the complicated process of having to put the lid back on the milk and return it to the fridge; roll up the bag, close the box, and return it to the pantry (remembering to turn the light off afterwards); and giving the bowl and spoon a token rinse in the sink, I’m not such there’s much hope after all for our cereal or our souls.

Now, I have a confession to make: I’m part of the problem, not the solution. Since the start of 2016, I’ve only consumed 2 boxes of cereal. In the my heyday of high school, I could go through 6 bowls of Frosted Flakes in one sitting, and sometimes nearly an entire box in a day. “Family size” meant me. My taste for Frosted Flakes became so discriminating that I could even detect the difference between different regional distributors of FF. I’d usually eat breakfast with my dad, who chowed down on his Raisin Bran, and I never understood why he’d choose to each such a bland cereal. As I said, cereal represents the reason for waking up in the morning — why would you leave the warm comfort of your dreams for soppy bran flakes and knock-off craisins? When you’re young, though, you sort of assume adults know something you don’t — something though that they simply aren’t able to communicate to you. And so I assumed the day I stopped eating sugar cereal would be the day I’d be an adult. In college, I had a few laughably short and ostentatious attempts at putting myself on a bran-flakes-only regime, always followed swiftly by prodigious binges of Berry Colossal Crunch. After graduation, I was still cranking through four bags of Malt-O-Meal a week. But finally, the urge has dried up. It’s plain ol’ eggs and oatmeal from here on out.

Perhaps my fondest memory, though, from my halcyon days of cereal consumption was one sunny Saturday morning in high school when, while Saturday morning cartoons were airing elsewhere, my friends and I sat around a stadium before a track meet. One among us — Wes Sutter — pulled out a box of Life (known as “Live It Up!” in Safeway stores) to munch on. One thing led to another, and somehow we spent the better part of an hour proliferating puns on the cereal name: “My Life is in pieces.” “Stay out of my Life.” “I want to share my Life with you.“ “My Life is crumbling before my eyes.” “Take Life into your own hands.” “Life is like a box of cereal” and so on. Finally, the joke wave subsided. Until, with a giddy grin blooming on his face, Wes took his box back, pranced down the bleachers and over to the inner look of the track. “Look,” he shouted, placing the box on the asphalt. “Life in the fast lane!”