How Cereal Companies and Consumers Can Make Breakfast Better
By Karen Perry Stillerman
What's for breakfast? Maybe it's a bagel and cream cheese, or toast and coffee, or eggs (or not). For millions of Americans, though, cereal is a breakfast mainstay. There's a mind-boggling array of ready-to-eat cereal brands on offer, and everyone has their favorites.
But what really goes into your cereal of choice? What impact does that have on the planet? What can cereal-makers — and those of us who buy their products — do to lessen that impact? These are questions UCS asked in a new report, Champions of Breakfast: How Cereal-Makers Can Help Save Our Soil, Support Farmers, and Take a Bite out of Climate Change.
Breakfast cereal is mostly grain … and in many cases, a whole lot of sugar, but that's another topic. For this report, we looked at some of the top-selling cereal brands, the particular grains that go into them, the way most of those grains are grown now and the alternative ways these could be grown if farmers had different incentives. Lead author Marcia DeLonge summarizes our number-crunching (see what I did there?) and the top takeaways here.
But what does it all mean for conscientious consumers who also happen to love cereal?
- Your favorite flakes aren't always so g-r-r-r-reat for farmers and the environment. Many popular breakfast cereals have corn as their main ingredient. Not just the eponymous cornflakes (both plain and top-selling Frosted Flakes), Corn Chex and Corn Pops, but also such brands as Froot Loops, Kix and Trix. While most of it doesn't end up in your cereal, U.S. farmers grow a lot of corn: in 2017, more than 89 million acres worth, an area larger than the state of New Mexico. Most of that corn is grown in environmentally damaging ways. Much of the nitrate in Iowa's drinking water is due to corn. Toxic algae in Lake Erie is largely due to corn. Coastal "dead zones" — especially the one in the Gulf of Mexico that is forecast to be the size of Massachusetts this summer — are largely due to corn. While it wasn't part of our analysis, a recent study revealed that corn is also a major source of air pollution. Today's dominant corn production system damages our soil, pollutes our water, releases heat-trapping gases and misses the opportunity to store carbon in the soil. And lately it isn't working out so well for farmers, either. In other words, there's a lot of room for improvement.
- Those little O's could have big impact. But maybe you're like this guy, and Cheerios are your thing. Those O's, whether plain or honey-nutted, are mostly whole oats; other oat-based cereals include Honey Bunches of Oats and Lucky Charms. U.S. farmers used to grow a lot of oats, but they've been replaced by other crops (see "corn," above). Now, oats are seen as a key to diversifying Corn Belt landscapes. A long-running Iowa State University study has shown that rotating oats and other crops with corn and soybeans can dramatically reduce soil erosion and pollutant runoff while maintaining farmer profits.
- What about wheat? Our analysis didn't include a scenario for wheat cereals like Wheaties, Raisin Bran, Cinnamon Toast Crunch or my personal favorite, the oddly-named Grape-Nuts (which contain neither grapes nor nuts, but rather wheat and barley). Like corn, wheat is grown across large swaths of the country, with similar effects on the soil. But there are soil-health building practices available to these farmers, too. For example, Montana farmers have found that crop rotations that include lentils — a legume requiring little moisture — have helped build soil health and increase farm resilience in that arid region, with added economic benefits.
Consumers have power in the cereal aisle … but big companies have more.
As UCS showed with this interactive feature earlier this year, we have choices when we go to the supermarket (though public policies and corporate actions largely create and prop up those choices). To improve the impact of your cereal habit, the best option right now is probably to choose an organic brand. Grains grown organically avoid a lot of environmental damage, and while farmers can pursue sustainable practices without being certified organic, the USDA organic label is currently the best signal to consumers that packaged food ingredients are grown in better ways.
Then there's oatmeal. I wrote about its power a couple of years ago, and our new report bears out that sustainably grown whole oats have even more soil-saving, pollution-preventing potential than formulated oat-based cereals, simply because there are more oats per serving. (Although personally, I won't return to my favorite organic oatmeal until this heat breaks in the fall.)
Beyond that, clearly sustainable cereal choices are pretty limited. The biggest cereal companies could take steps to change this, however. There are four of them, and you know their names: General Mills, Kellogg Company, Post Consumer Brands and Quaker Oats (a division of PepsiCo). Together, these companies account for 86 percent of the $8.5 billion U.S. breakfast cereal market; many of their brands are household names, and they make more than just cereal. These companies have begun to take steps to improve the sourcing of their ingredients (check out some of their initiatives here and here), but there's plenty of opportunity to do more. By investing in more supply chain improvements, defining and improving sustainability standards and raising consumer awareness, these companies can play a major role in expanding opportunities for sustainable U.S. grain farmers, setting the wheels in motion for larger-scale market shifts.
In the heart of corn country, the Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI) are ready to work with these companies. They've been coaching farmers to grow cover crops and incorporate oats and other crops into rotations. But PepsiCo's Quaker Oats, which has a large plant in Iowa, reportedly doesn't buy oats from there. And while General Mills also uses a lot of oats, is based in the Midwest and has committed to shifting a million acres of farmland to more regenerative practices by 2030, the company hasn't — so far —committed to buying oats from diversified farms close to home. And it's precisely this lack of market certainty that is holding Iowa farmers back, according to PFI.
It's clear the big cereal companies can do more. And with our new report in hand, my colleagues and I will be thinking about how organizations like UCS — and all of us as eaters — can help make that happen.
Karen Perry Stillerman is a senior communication strategist and senior analyst in the Food & Environment Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists.