This is part one of a two-part series on branded boxed cereals.
Here at Casual Kitchen, we have completely banned sweetened and processed cereals from our pantry. These sugar- and salt-laden quasi-foods are one of the most pernicious rip-offs in the entire food industry.
They are wastefully and often deceivingly packaged. On a per-pound basis they cost more than expensive cuts of meat. And worst of all, they often target the consumers among us who are least able to resist: our children.
Today's article will expose some of the noxious marketing methods practiced in the cereal industry. In a few days, I'll follow up with a post that suggests some ways to fight back.
Let's start by asking a fundamental question: why is cereal so expensive? How do these companies get away with charging so much money for such unhealthy food?
Here's how. First, just a few large cereal manufacturers control the distribution channels to your grocery store, limiting competition and giving them pricing power similar to those of spice manufacturers. Second, cereal is a particularly egregious example of a second order food, larded up with an enormous stack of processing costs, advertising costs and packaging costs that get passed to you as the consumer.
But perhaps the sneakiest and most anti-consumer trick these companies use is the stealth price hike, where the manufacturer keeps the price of the cereal the same, but reduces the amount of product sold in the box. This technique is used widely throughout the consumer products industry, and it's effective primarily because most consumers simply don't notice.
Classy, right? Well, imagine if you were a cereal manufacturer and you used this sneaky technique repeatedly over a period of years. Your one-pound, $4.99 box of cereal would shrink to 15 ounces, then 14.5 ounces, then 13 ounces, then 12 ounces. It's worth noting that a 12 ounce box of cereal priced at $4.99 really costs $6.65 per pound!
Do these food manufacturers actually consider this a viable long-term pricing strategy? Something tells me that ten years from now, when we're paying $4.99 for a half-ounce box of cereal, consumers might begin to see through this.
Even the way cereal is sold to us is a sham. Walk down your local grocery store's cereal aisle and you'll see row after row of extremely tall, skinny and lightweight boxes. There would be far less packaging waste and it would be far more efficient to transport cereal if it were packed in shorter, cube-shaped boxes, but tall, skinny boxes look like they are bigger.
Thus, thanks to the many thousands of hours the cereal cabal has spent test marketing product shapes and sizes, your cereal comes to you inefficiently packaged--and costs, waste and efficiency be damned.
Of course there's an irony here: when every brand uses identical tricks, nobody stands out. That's why, when you wander unsuspectingly into your grocery store's cereal aisle, you get blinded by this:
Just look at that picture for a few seconds and tell me it doesn't make both your eyes and your teeth hurt.
And by the end of my third bowl [of Chocolate Frosted Sugar Bombs], I usually feel sick.
--Calvin, from Calvin and Hobbes
I suppose the most pernicious aspect of the cereal industry is this: there are well-researched reasons why these products are branded and packaged the way they are, with bright colors and cartoon characters. Everything is designed to grab the eyes of your children.
The implicit presumption is that the child, not the parent, makes the buying decision in the grocery store. Moreover, your kids also serve as an indirect reason why these cereals are saturated in sugar and sodium. Children tend to prefer simple tastes like sweet and salty (admittedly, many adults do too), so they gravitate towards cereals that contain extra high-fructose corn syrup and salt.
As consumers, we need to use our collective economic clout and show the companies who make these quasi-foods that we will no longer tolerate cereals that are unhealthy, overpriced and questionably marketed. We want something better. In a few days I'll go over some ideas on how to fight back.
Readers, tune in tomorrow for the next column in this series: How to Fight Back Against Overpriced Cereal!
Seven Ways to Jazz Up Your Morning Eggs
Ten Tips to Save Money on Spices and Seasonings
A Recession-Proof Guide to Saving Money on Food
How to Make a Simple Frittata
When High-Fat Food Can Actually Be Healthy For You
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