Russian emigrés, newly arrived in the United States from the U.S.S.R. back in the 1980s, used to suffer a sort of Brain-Lock when confronted with the myriad of choices on any American grocery store shelf.
It was a real problem for people accustomed to finding only one brand of, say, toilet paper back home. One brand? Sometimes they were lucky to get toilet paper at all … but as Yakov Smirnoff used to say, “Is no problem to have no toilet paper in Soviet Union. No food, no need to have toilet paper.” Suddenly, these people had to choose between the countless brands and varieties we see here, an impossible task. Multiply it by the vast number of products in the supermarket, and you have the recipe for a nervous breakdown.
I thought of this while She Who Must Be Obeyed and I were rummaging through the aisles at our local Publix today. I had wandered into the cereal aisle, and I saw something that both fascinated and disturbed me.
Good Gawd. Chocolate Cheerios?
Look, I was around when the first chocolate-flavored cereals appeared back in the late 1950s: Kellogg’s Cocoa Krispies in 1958, followed by General Mills’ Cocoa Puffs that same year. Both took an existing cereal template – Rice Krispies and Kix, respectively – and added chocolate flavoring. Both, to my six-year-old taste, were a disappointment. There’s no reason to expect anything different from Cheerios.
Cheerios started out almost 70 years ago, a cereal based on whole-grain oats with minimal sweetening. Simple and uncomplicated, it was a reasonably nutritious choice if you wanted a ready-to-eat cold cereal. Kids liked it, yet its simple, unadorned oat flavor was appealing to adults as well. And it’s still popular.
But the name of the game in the Food Bidnis is shelf space, and the way you get more shelf space is to offer more and more variations on an established brand’s theme. General Foods started to expand the Cheerios franchise back in the late 1970s, introducing Honey Nut Cheerios in 1979. Like all varieties introduced subsequently, Honey Nut Cheerios was (and is) considerably sweeter than original Cheerios.
Today, I counted no fewer than eleven different kinds of Cheerios on the cereal aisle shelf:
- Cheerios (the boring, plain original kind)
- Honey Nut Cheerios
- MultiGrain Cheerios
- Banana Nut Cheerios
- Berry Burst Cheerios
- Yogurt Burst Cheerios
- Fruity Cheerios
- Frosted Cheerios
- Apple Cinnamon Cheerios
- Oat Cluster Cheerios Crunch
- Chocolate Cheerios
It’s out-of-control proliferation, I tells ya!
What’s next? Peanut Butter Cheerios? Prune Danish Cheerios? Beer ’n’ Skittles Cheerios? Gefilte Fish Cheerios?
Just how much of the cereal shelf needs to be occupied by Cheerios? It’s like football … or war. Cheerios and their allies (General Mills cereals like Kix, Trix, and Wheaties) duke it out with the Enemy (products from Post, Quaker, and Kellogg’s). Your side seeks to control as much territory as possible, and you can’t do it without leaving Occupying Forces in-country.
The marketplace ends up deciding which of these varieties will hang around for the long term, which is fine with me: American capitalism in action. But it’s a little depressing to see that all of these new varieties are jacked up with more flavoring (mostly fake) and more sugar. We like to talk about “eating healthy,” but en masse, we’re all a bunch of hypocrites … and our buying habits prove it.
As for me, if I eat Cheerios at all, I eat the original version. I’m just an old curmudgeon, after all. I don’t need all that sweet crap, and I sure as hell don’t need to buy something just because it’s “new and improved.”
Electronics excepted, of course.