Beyond Breakfast

Organic Cereals Start the Day Off Right

Gradually over the last century, the American idea of a healthy breakfast evolved from eggs and sausage to Cheerios. In fact, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, American consumption of breakfast cereal increased dramatically between 1980 and 1997—by over 40 percent to 17 pounds per person, per year.

Riding on the coattails of this phenomenal growth in convenience breakfast foods are organic cereals, one of the most frequently purchased items by the one third of the U.S. population that currently buys organic food products. Sixty one percent of these shoppers have purchased organic cereals or grains in the last three months.

Also in 1997, food manufacturers poured a phenomenal $792 million into the advertising of breakfast cereals, more than was spent advertising candy, gum, beer, soft drinks or snack foods, and seven times that spent pushing fruits and veggies. But you still won’t recognize most organic brands by dancing cartoons or sugary lyrics during Saturday morning TV. “That’s the complexity of bringing organics to the American consumer, who gets information from 30-second ads in the Super Bowl, the evening news, sporting events and fashion magazines,” says Bob Scowcroft, director of the Organic Farming Research Foundation. He asks, “Will the round peg of organics fit into the square hole of current American sales phenomena?”

The image of organic cereals as a granola meant strictly for backpackers and purists has certainly been difficult to overcome. “Many people think that although organics are good and healthy, they taste like an old sock with a potato in it,” says Luise Light of New Organics. “We know that our cereals taste great, but in order to have other people try them, we need to get the word out.”

Slowly but surely, that’s beginning to happen, facilitated by an organic market that’s nearly doubled every three years. Although Kellogg’s and Post profess no immediate plans for their own organic namesakes, in response to growing consumer demand, industry giant General Mills recently grabbed for a piece of the market with Sunrise. “Natural foods and organics are an explosive area of the food category, so we launched a cereal to meet those consumer needs,” says General Mills Marketing Manager Laura Flanagan.

While this may indeed provide greater competition for small organics companies, which typically trade in the high slotting fees of larger supermarkets for the established consumer base of natural foods stores, many seem to instead view it as an important opportunity for sustainable agriculture to reach a more conventional audience, increasing awareness. Not to mention that “the buying power [of companies like General Mills] goes a long way toward putting more acres into production,” according to Holly Givens of the Organic Trade Association.

Organic agriculture focuses on environmentally sound farming practices like crop rotation, cover cropping (planting to discourage weeds) and low-tillage, over the use of synthetic fertilizers and chemicals such as pesticides and herbicides. Conventional farming, on the other hand, is heavily subsidized, and carries hidden costs from the added burden of pesticide regulation, soil erosion, water contamination and increased health care.

But because organic crops reflect more accurately the true price of production, they also often carry a premium, which can then be passed on to the consumer at a few more cents per box. Most companies try to balance the additional cost at not more than 10 to 20 percent over mainstream prices, and find consumers willing to pay more for products that support a sustainable future. “When consumers buy organic products, they are voting with their dollars for the planet,” says Arran Stephens, president of Nature’s Path, the leading certified organic cereal maker in North America.

So are you getting what you pay for? Unlike the vast array of cereals simply dubbed “natural”—a term Scowcroft says has widely varying meanings—organic cereals follow specific rules, regulated by third party independent certification agencies. Those rules, says Patty Conway of Oregon Tilth, which certifies finished cereals like General Mill’s Sunrise and Country Choice Naturals, apply to everyone from the farmers who grow the grain and the factory where the grain is milled, to the plant where it’s packaged and the company that markets it. “Most consumers don’t realize all the steps a cereal goes through,” Conway says. “All players have to be certified.”

Thus the box you pick up at the store reflects a long chain of annual inspections, examining not only agricultural practices, but cleaning, storing and labeling procedures on down the line. “We must keep exquisitely meticulous records of incoming goods and those shipped out, and we’re checked up on by a certifying agency which really holds our feet to the fire,” says Dennis Gilliam of Bob’s Red Mill. “They’re scrupulous in making sure we follow the rules.”

Finally, the cereal itself can’t be dubbed organic unless 95 percent or more of the ingredients have been organically derived. For many of the cereals on the market, that includes flours, brans and meals made from grains like whole wheat, barley, oats, corn, millet, brown rice, kamut, quinoa and spelt; safflower, canola and corn oils; and additions like raisins, berries, nuts and spices. To even print the word “organic” anywhere on the front panel, 50 percent or more must be certified; otherwise, any organic ingredients are simply listed on the back.

Besides the long-term health and environmental benefits, there’s one more reason to pour yourself a teeming bowl of organic grains, says Jagot Jogi-Khalsa, director of communications for Golden Temple, which manufactures Peace Cereals and other major brands. “Eating’s not just to throw calories in there,” Jagot says. “If it was, we’d all live on pills. Sitting down and having this cereal is like your mom cooking for you. From the farm to the time you open your box, someone who really cared what they were doing touched it.”

A few brands to look for as you’re wheeling your cart down the aisle: New Organics, Barbara’s Bakery, Bob’s Red Mill, Country Choice Naturals, Arrowhead Mills, Kashi Go!, Lundberg Family Farms, Nature’s Path, Erewhon, Golden Temple and The Organic Garden.