Cheerios inventor, Lester Borchardt.
Guess which food product gets to blow out the birthday candles this week – 75 of ‘em? It’s the most popular cereal brand in the U.S. – Cheerios. One in every eight boxes of cereal sold in the U.S. is the bright yellow-boxed Cheerios. Invented at the dawn of World War II in 1941, and the year both of my cooky parents were born, they were originally called Cheeri-Oats.
The original 1941 packaging of Cheerios, then called Cheeri-Oats.
The product would allow overworked, under-rested, mothers an easy and semi-nutritious way to feed their children. It would be the end of making hot breakfasts. Pour a handful of cheerios with cold milk into their Raggedy Ann & Andy bowl, and you’re set. Both of my parents, however, were still raised on oatmeal and cream of wheat rather than this iconic cold cereal. That’s partly because General Mills didn’t start marketing it as a first food for toddlers until 1974. Since then it’s become the most common zip-locked snack in diaper bags and stay-at-home-daddies’ manbags.
Cheerios were never a staple in our household. We all thought they were pretty bland tasting and had sort of that weird factory smell to them. And, in the 1970s, there were much more interesting sugar-laden, but vitamin-fortified cereals to appeal to our tastes. Fruity Pebbles, Choco-Pebbles, Captain Crunch and Lucky Charms, were much more interesting. Warmed Grape Nuts and granola replaced these crazy sugared cereals as we grew older.
Although the Cheerios brand claimed to be the first breakfast-food-you-could-eat-without-cooking, Kellogg’s Corn Flakes had been out since 1896, and Post Grape-Nuts since 1897. Both were products of the Seventh Day Adventist belief in clean eating and suppressing our base animal desires. Eat Corn Flakes, went the sentiment, and you won’t be tempted to play grab-ass or hoochie-coo. John Harvey Kellogg promoted this low-fat, low-protein diet that was high in grains, fiber, and nuts. In 1903, Kellogg founded the Battle Creek Sanitorium in Michigan, which promoted these eating principles of the Seventh Day Adventists. It was quite a popular resort with the rich. Imagine resort days of bland foods, enemas, electrotherapy, hydrotherapy, mechanotherapy, and all sorts of Victorian torture like treatments. Sounds like a joyous celebration of life.
John Harvey’s corn flakes were pretty tasteless and boring, at least for the non-Adventist public. There were missing a key ingredient that was later introduced by his brother, William Keith Kellogg – sugar. Introducing sweetened grains was quite an evil milestone for the processed food industry. Combining cheap grains with cheap sugar was like printing money. They’ve been doing it ever since. And we’ve been getting fatter and fatter.
Cheerios became General Mills’ top seller since 1951. And generations of parents have vacuumed them out of back seats of mini vans and kitchen floors.
These “O’s” are made by shooting heated balls of dough out of a “puffing gun” at hundreds of miles an hour. It took a physicist, Lester Borchardt (1907-2007), an employee at the Golden Valley, Minnesota General Mills plant, to invent this high-speed process. He was hired to learn how to utilize grain and grain products and experimented with an extrusion gun that could puff liquid dough into small, fun shapes. Imagine a group of science geeks ala TV show Big Bang Theory shooting puffed oats at each other in a mid-century cereal lab. Today they’re puffed out at the waterside Buffalo, New York, General Mills plant.
At their release, an aggressive marketing campaign was devised. The campaign utilized Cheeri O’Leary, a cartoon character in movie and in print ads catering to children. A legal battle with Quaker Oats necessitated the name change to Cheerios in 1945. In 1949, General Mills sponsored the Lone Ranger radio show with Cheerios, allowing the show to go into syndication. Then, in 1951, with television becoming the dominant media form, a new set of cartoon characters, Cheerios Kid and Sue, were developed as a take on the damsel-in-distress theme.
A snippet of the Cheerios Kid & Sue, from one of their 1950’s commercials.
Over the years to retain market General Mills released a variety of flavors of Cheerios. The first was Cinnamon Nut Cheerios in 1976, followed by Honey Nut Cheerios in 1979. In 2009 Honey Nut Cheerios surpassed the original flavor as the top seller, and remain so today. A steady stream of new products mirroring the nation’s taste buds were released over the following years:
- Apple Cinnamon Cheerios (1988)
- MultiGrain Cheerios (Original in the UK) (released 1992, relaunched 2009)
- Frosted Cheerios (1995)
- Yogurt Burst Cheerios (2005)
- Fruity Cheerios (2006) (Cheerios sweetened with fruit juice)
- Oat Cluster Crunch Cheerios (2007) (sweetened Cheerios with oat clusters)
- Banana Nut Cheerios (2009) (sweetened Cheerios made with banana puree)
- Chocolate Cheerios (2010) (Cheerios made with cocoa)
- Cinnamon Burst Cheerios (2011) (Cheerios made with cinnamon)
- MultiGrain Peanut Butter Cheerios (2012) (Multigrain Cheerios with sorghum, not wheat, and peanut butter)
- Multi Grain Cheerios Dark Chocolate Crunch (2013)
- Cheerios Protein (2014)
- Ancient Grain Cheerios (2015) (sweetened Cheerios made KAMUT wheat, spelt, and quinoa)
Since 1999, the company has focused on marketing the cereal’s health benefits, and landed an endorsement from the Heart Foundation. Not only was it an easy food for toddlers and kids, but it was marketed to older people who wanted a low fat diet. They even made the claim that Cheerios lowered cholesterol. The FDA quickly denounced that claim, saying only FDA approved drugs could use that line.
What’s next after Ancient Grain Cheerios is anyone’s guess. Maybe Sour Patch Cheerios for the kids or IPA Cheerios for the adults – high in fiber AND alpha acids.