Cheerios turn 70; Iconic cereal endures, sells

BUFFALO, N.Y. What is the most popular cereal brand in American grocery stores?

Hint: It's been General Mills' top name since 1951.

Another hint: If you're a parent, you've vacuumed it from the minivan and under the high-chair cushion by the cupful.

The answer, of course, is Cheerios.

The iconic cereal, known by its distinctive yellow box, is 70 years old this year and still a force on the breakfast cereal market. One out of every eight boxes of cereal to leave the shelf in America carries the Cheerios name.

"They've been around since the beginning of man, right?" said Kathy Scott in Cape Coral, Fla. For her, the cereal's linked to memories of childhood Saturday morning cartoons.

"My mother was very old-fashioned, a stay-at-home mom," Scott, 50, said, "She made breakfast every morning, but on Saturday morning we were allowed to have cereal. Throw some fruit in there, sit on the floor and watch cartoons."

The tradition repeated itself with her own two children.

"Saturday morning cartoons and Cheerios," she said.

To make Cheerios, balls of dough are heated and shot out of a "puffing gun" at hundreds of miles an hour, according to General Mills. The company's waterfront plant in Buffalo has been firing them off since 1941, often cloaking the city with a distinctive toasty-with-a-sweet-finish aroma and inspiring T-shirts announcing "My city smells like Cheerios." More than 10 shapes and sizes were considered before the makers settled on little Os.

Since then, the company's introduced several new flavors, starting with Honey Nut in 1979 and last year, chocolate.

In 2009, sales of Honey Nut Cheerios surpassed the original flavor for the first time and remain in the top spot today.

But Kathleen Dohl, 30, sticks to the originals, the ones she refers to as the "old-school, yellow box, plain Jane" variety. She buys it in bulk at Sam's Club to keep her 6- and 3-year-olds happy.

"That's one of the first `real people' foods that they ate," the Chester, Va., mother said.

"They know when we're having a morning where we're running late, they're like, `can I get a snack bag of Cheerios?"' she said, "because it's something I can't say no to. I can say no to chips. I can say no to candy. I can say no to a dozen other things, but a snack bag of Cheerios? How can you say no to that?"

So yes, she's cleaned them out of the car seats.

"At least they're not sticky," she said, "so that's a plus. And they're not so colorful. Once you grind them in they just look like the rest of the dirt, they don't look neon-colored."

Minneapolis-based General Mills began advertising Cheerios (first called Cheerioats) as a first food for toddlers in 1974. Since 1999, the company has focused on promoting the cereal as healthy; it's made from whole-grain oats, with 3 grams of fiber and 1 gram of sugar per serving. But in 2009, federal regulators took issue with the cereal box's claim that it was "clinically proven to help lower cholesterol." In a warning letter, the Food and Drug Administration said only FDA-approved drugs can make such a claim.

General Mills, in its response, stood by the claims and said the FDA's complaints dealt with how the language appears on the box, not the cereal itself. The case is still open, an FDA spokeswoman said.

"I went through a phase in high school where I drank Coca-Cola and carried around a box of Cheerios in my back pack," said Dohl, whose course schedule and yearbook duties often kept her at the computer and in her car through meals.

"That's literally what I ate for breakfast, lunch and dinner," she said. "...At least I felt like it was healthy."

Since cereal is the major source of fiber for Americans, something most people shortchange themselves on, Cornell University nutrition expert David Levitsky said it's actually not a bad idea to eat cereal as a relatively low-calorie lunch or dinner once in a while, even the sugar-sweetened variety.

"They're seducing kids to eat it," he acknowledged. "It's a technique that breakfast food companies have learned and it works... but it's got a good aspect because that's where they're getting their fiber in the morning," he said. "And all these cereals are enriched."

Americans spent $6.4 billion on ready-to-eat cereal in the 52 weeks ending May 15, according to SymphonyIRI Group, a Chicago-based market research firm that tracked sales at supermarkets, drug stores and mass merchandise outlets, excluding Walmart.

In honor of Cheerios' 70th Buffalo's Citybration Festival highlighting its assets will include a June 26 Cheerios breakfast in sight (and smell) of the General Mills facility.

"Cheerios are actually a more iconic food to Buffalo than even the ubiquitous chicken wing," said festival organizer Marti Gorman. (The spicy Buffalo wing came along in 1964.)

"There just must be something so gently appealing about the product," said Dave Hassett, a school counselor whose Born in Buffalo site sells the Cheerios T-shirts online and at local festivals. Along with his 4-year-old daughter, he said he eats a bowl daily. "I hope they stick around for 70 more years and beyond."

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