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How cereal has gone from breakfast essential to daytime treat as sales fall

Snap, crackle … and a final pop? Cereal, once a breakfast darling of the Western world, is dying a slow death. Cereal sales have fallen by an average of 1.5 per cent a year in America, its birthplace, in the past five years, according to consumer research firm Nielsen, and by a almost a third since the year 2000.

Some blame lazy millennials who can’t be bothered to wash their bowls and spoons. Others hold “healthier”, labour-intensive options such as oatmeal and eggs responsible. Artisanal granolas or, for the time-strapped consumer, the convenience of chomping on a breakfast bar is also being blamed.

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In Asia there is a growing trend of “snackification”, with more than half of those who eat breakfast doing so on the go, , says Nielsen. Though cereal sales may be growing in emerging parts of Asia, bolstered by the growth of convenience stores in China, everywhere else in the world Tony the Tiger, the advertising cartoon mascot for Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes (also known as Frosties), is on the verge of extinction.

But in a quiet corner of New York’s Times Square, a cereal resurrection may be starting. Kellogg’s NYC is a trendy new cereal cafe offering gourmet cereal combinations, such as Pistachio and Lemon – a mixture of Special K, Frosted Flakes, pistachios, lemon zest and thyme – and Berry Me in Green Tea, featuring Rice Krispies, fresh strawberries and green tea powder. Doors open at 8am and close at 11pm, making it possible to eat cereal for breakfast, lunch or even dinner.

Admittedly, Kellogg’s is not the first in this game – London has had a “Cereal Killer” cafe for the past two years. So does this trend mark a comeback for the humble breakfast bowl?

Conceptually cereal has so much potential,” says New York-based dietitian Tamara Duker Freuman. “I am all in favour of, firstly, eating breakfast, secondly, eating carbs for breakfast, and thirdly eating whole grains for breakfast – they’re highly nutritious and a great source of fibre. [Cereal] is also convenient, which is great for fussy eaters,” she points out.

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“Considering all these factors, cereal should be a great option for breakfast. But I think this gets lost in translation with 97 per cent of the commercially available cereals today.”

Her two major concerns about cereals as a meal – at any time of the day – is that they contain too much sugar and not enough fibre.

“Most breakfast cereals on the market are appallingly high in sugar,” she says.

For example, Special K Red Berries has nine grams of added sugar in a 31-gram serving, while a 29-gram serving of Frosted Flakes has 10 grams. US Department of Agriculture dietary guidelines for added sugar for both women and children is six teaspoons (24 grams), and nine teaspoons (36 grams) for men. (Hong Kong doesn’t have official guidelines on added sugars, we should point out, though government nutritional advice suggests you should “eat less” fat, oils and sweets). “Eat a bowl of sugary cereal and you blow through your entire added sugar budget before 8am,” she says.

Besides, who eats only a serving of cereal? “Most men are eating around three cups of cereal in a sitting,” she says.

Even regular Special K has four grams of added sugar in a serving, which adds up quickly.

Because they have been stripped of fibre, the grains in many store-bought cereals, even those that are low in added sugar, produce a similar effect to sugar in our bodies. “[Cereal manufacturers] refine these grains so much they’re basically just starch. Even if they don’t have much added sugar in them per se, these cereals are very high-glycaemic and spike your blood sugar right away.”

Duker Freuman says our bodies don’t have the enzymes required to break down whole grains – those which contain fibre. The result is that grains deliver slow-release energy, which blunts the sugar levels in the body. High-starch foods such as white flour or potatoes, on the other hand, trigger a spike in sugar levels followed by a crash. “Great if you’re about to go for a run and need readily available energy, but not so great if you’re a kid that has to concentrate at school all morning,” she says.

If you think gluten-free options are healthier, you’re wrong. “Gluten is a protein in wheat – it has nothing to do with the health properties of a cereal. Frankly, most gluten free products are made from potato starch, rice starch, corn starch – some of the highest-glycaemic grains out there.”

If you can’t start your day without a bowl of cereal, Duker Freuman recommends wholegrain cooked cereals, such as steel-cut or rolled oats, as an alternative to processed cereal, and – if you must – sweetening it yourself. Beware, though, of adding generous amounts of “healthier” sweeteners such as honey, coconut sugar or maple syrup, she warns. “It’s still sugar, even if it’s more natural. If you can measure one teaspoon – which is still four grams of sugar – at least you know it’s only four grams.”

“Warm-flavoured spices, such as cinnamon, vanilla or nutmeg, aren’t sweeteners but are sweeter on the palate. And if you add some fresh banana, even though it has naturally occurring sugar, it’s a whole food and this isn’t part of your daily added sugar. “

If you must indulge, she recommends sticking to a cereal with less than five grams of added sugar per serving, which would include Special K. “Adding foods that have fibre, fat or protein in them to a low-fibre cold cereal will also slow the digestive process – think flax seeds, chia seeds, nuts, wheatgerm, hemp hearts, pumpkin seeds,“ she says.

“Cheerios have a lot of potential, for example. They’re made of whole grains with no added sugar, and have three grams of fibre per serving. It’s a little low for me, but if you sprinkle some berries plus any of the additives I just mentioned, you’re in business with the fibre.”

Perhaps, Duker Freuman suggests, cereal really is a dessert after all. Elsewhere in New York, KITH Treats has been serving breakfast cereals as a treat for the past two years. “We are the first store to start mixing the cereals to make it into a milkshake,” says store manager Francinia Casimiro. “I feel that people come in here and they can get really creative. Cereal is no longer just about breakfast here, it’s a delicious dessert that you can create yourself.”

“I feel like cereal is having a big comeback; it’s cool,” she adds, noting customers of all ages, from schoolchildren to grandparents, are regulars. “There’s a lot of nostalgia; everyone can relate to their childhood memories.”

It starts to get busy from about noon, so, she says, “it’s not really for breakfast”.

In Hong Kong, dessert bars such as the Yo Mama frozen yogurt shops offer Kellogg All-Bran Flakes, Coco Pops and Frosted Flakes as toppings. Emack Bolios in the city’s Central business district offers ice cream cones encrusted with marshmallow and Coco Pops, Froot Loops or Rice Krispies – certainly a twist on the breakfast cereal.

“I appreciate what the likes of KITH and other dessert bars are doing,” says Duker Freuman. “They are not trying to pretend that cereal is healthy. And this is where most of these cereals belong: in the same category as sweet treats such as Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. It communicates to consumers this is treat food, a special occasion food, as a sugary sweet garnish to a dessert.”

So don’t give up on the breakfast bowl just yet. But, perhaps, just don’t eat it for breakfast.