This month's acquisition by a Chinese company of a majority stake in Weetabix, the UK's top-selling cereal (we eat around 336 each a year, apparently) shows there's still an appetite for processed grains for breakfast. But foreign markets unfamiliar with this relatively recent way of starting the day may now be the industry's biggest players' only hope for the future – after more than a century of growth, Britain's best-known cereals are flagging.
"I do think," says Nick Barnard of fast-growing natural foods company Rude Health, "in 20 years' time, we might look back at the past 100-odd years and say: 'We took good, natural, healthy, original grains, and turned them into sweet, scientific, industrial concoctions. Why?'"
According to the Grocer, UK sales of eight of the 10 most popular brands, including Corn Flakes, Crunchy Nut, Coco Pops, Cheerios and Special K, fell sharply in 2010-11. Rice Krispies, the worst performer, was down 12%; Weetabix bucked the trend, rising 4%, for reasons that may become clear later. People may be turning to cheaper own-brands, but processed cereals' share of the overall breakfast offer also slipped. And last month, UK market leader Kellogg's said global turnover had fallen 10% in the first quarter of 2012, partly because it "did not grow" its European cereal business.
Until now, breakfast cereals have been an undisputed triumph of modern capitalism: take a cheap agricultural commodity; process it to death; relentlessly market it as healthy (Britain's top 10 cereal brands benefited from £74m of advertising last year) and mark up the cost. Few people have fallen harder for this than the Brits, who, after the Irish, are – as campaigning Guardian writer Felicity Lawrence notes in her book Eat Your Heart Out – the world's greatest consumers of steamed, crushed, flaked, baked, puffed, extruded, shaped, salted, sugared and artificially flavoured breakfast cereal, downing 6.7kg each a year.
James Caleb Jackson started it. A follower of the Rev Sylvester Graham, who in 1830s America thought meat-eating a sin and wholemeal flour a blessing, Jackson in 1863 invented a baked, slow-cooked wheat cereal he called Granula. Seventh Day Adventists at Battle Creek in Michigan, notably the brothers Kellogg, ran with it, developing a process by which cooked wheat could be rolled then baked: wheatflakes, then Cornflakes, were born. Add Charles Post's Grape Nuts and Alexander Anderson's Quaker Puffed Rice, and by the early 1900s a whole booming new industry, complete with impressive – and fictitious – health claims and mammoth advertising budgets, had arrived. By 1903, Battle Creek boasted 100 cereal factories. Britain got Cornflakes in 1904.
There are several problems, though, with processing grains. It hikes the GI (glycemic index), meaning the food breaks down quickly during digestion, leaving you hungry sooner. It removes most of the nutritional benefits. And it leaves the end product tasting of nothing. Early on, cereal makers added sugar, in large quantities, to stop their products tasting, in Willam Kellogg's words, "like horse food". They still do: this year Which? found 12 of 14 breakfast cereals contained excessive sugar; Frosties topped the list at 37g per 100g. (Original Weetabix has only 4.4g/100g although its "Mini" variants can have up to 23g).
More recently, manufacturers countered the nutritional issue with the miracle of "fortification": Investigative food journalist Joanna Blythman refers to this as "bestowing the illusory gift of health" on a product, by adding synthetic vitamins and minerals so the manufacturer can claim it contains (as Coco Pops boasts) "thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, vitamin B6, folic acid, vitamin B12, iron and calcium", while neglecting to mention that it's also 35% sugar. "The vitamins are there," says Blythman, but they "serve as a smokescreen". Barnard is harsher: "Empty calories," he says. "Over-processed, shit ingredients; obscene amounts of sugar, salt, fat and colourings … snack foods posing as a meal." Lawrence points out that "you'd be as well off with a multivitamin pill and a glass of milk."
Might the tide be turning? Barnard detects a shift "against food that leaves you feeling hungry an hour after you've eaten it, certainly isn't cheap, and isn't even really convenient for a modern lifestyle". Sugar-free mueslis and granolas, such as those from Rude Health, Moma and Alara, are making a comeback. Sales of minimally processed porridge oats – including convenient, "one-pot" porridge – are booming: Quaker's Oat So Simple sales soared 21% last year; Moma has, in six years, grown from a stall at Waterloo East station to a £2m-a-year business. Tom Mercer, founder and CEO of the company, says that consumers want a healthy, filling breakfast, "but until recently the choice hasn't really been there."
With vast new markets to explore, Big Cereal isn't dead yet. But, as Lawrence says, here at least people "are beginning to rumble the fact that by and large, most processed breakfast cereals are not healthy at all … Shoppers are realising you can eat much better – and much more cheaply – with unprocessed grains."
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2012