A grocery store cereal aisle is no place for the anxiety-prone.
A few nights ago, at a Safeway in Washington, DC, I counted no less than 81 varieties of cereal — ranging from Honey Bunches of Oats to Peanut Butter Panda Puffs — before developing a sinking feeling that the rows of multicolored, gaudily marketed boxes were closing in on me. Choice overload set in, and I went to go buy some Greek yogurt instead.
It wasn’t always this way.
Invented in 1863, the first cereal, Granula, consisted of "tough and tasteless" graham flour nuggets that were so hard they had to be soaked overnight to eat. Over the next 50 years, only a few dozen other brands — including Grape Nuts (1897) and Kellogg’s Corn Flakes (1907) — entered the market. By the end of World War II, there were still fewer than 50 cereals in circulation.
Then this happened:
From 1950 to 1990, major cereal brands amped up their varieties slowly but surely. We saw the release of diabetes-inducing classics like Frosted Flakes (1952), Captain Crunch (1963), Frosted Mini-Wheats, and Cinnamon Toast Crunch (1984) — all marketed to children.
But in the mid-2000s, something astonishing began to happen: Brands started pushing out 30, 40, even upward of 50 cereal varieties each year.
Between 2000 and 2009, 324 new cereals hit the market. To put that into perspective, that’s about the same number of cereals that were released in the 127 years between 1863 and 1990.
The era of overwhelming cereal choice had arrived.
Why the 2000s were a booming time for cereal innovation
According to an analysis by Erik Rood, over at Data-Driven Thoughts, more than 95 percent of today’s cereals are manufactured by five brands (General Mills, Kellogg’s, Post, Quaker, and Ralston).
These big brands, while churning out more cereal varieties than ever before, are also discontinuing more cereals than ever before.
A big contributor to the post-2000 boost in cereals was a dramatic uptick in promotional offerings, like Spider-Man cereal (2002), Cat in the Hat cereal (2003), Pirates of the Caribbean cereal (2006), and SpongeBob SquarePants cereal (2004). These special releases tend to only stay on the market for one to two years.
Prior to 2005, the average life span of a new cereal was 9.7 years. Since 2005, that average has dropped to 4.5 years.
Today, nearly half of all cereals are discontinued within five years of being released. (Note: This is based on sample of 200 cereals; you can find Rood’s original data set here).
A ton of new cereals, but not a whole lot of new business
These short-lived products are one of the big manufacturers’ efforts to reel in young consumers — and those efforts are failing.
As the New York Times reported earlier this year, breakfast cereal sales have dipped considerably in the past 15 years, from $13.9 billion (2000) to less than $10 billion (2015). An August 2015 poll from the global research company Mintel showed that while cereal is still popular among baby boomers, it has lost favor among millennials.
"Almost 40 percent of the millennials surveyed by Mintel ... said cereal was an inconvenient breakfast choice because they had to clean up after eating it," wrote Kim Severson, at the Times.
Other cultural changes — such as a heightened sensitivity to high-carb, sugar-packed cereals and a general shift toward protein-heavy breakfast foods like yogurt — have impacted cereal as well.
My suspicion is that what we’re seeing now is a three-pronged effort on the part of major cereal brands to win over consumers.
Companies like General Mills and Kellogg’s are: 1) capitalizing on the "trend" of health consciousness by releasing more protein-enriched, natural, and whole-grain cereals; 2) churning out promotional cereals that sell well in the short term; and 3) trying to win back millennials by revamping nostalgic, discontinued brands. (French Toast Crunch — a classic in its day — was rereleased in 2014, after a 14-year hiatus. Passionate cries have been made online to do the same for Oreo O’s, Waffle Crisp, and Count Chocula.)
Today’s cereal aisle — a smorgasbord of SpongeBob, gluten-free labels, and '90s classics — is a result of this. And, at least for this millennial, it’s incredibly overwhelming.