The Unified Theory of Cereal

April 30, 2020

I like cereal.

It’s quick, it’s easy, it tastes good. Who doesn’t like cereal?

Recently though, I’ve been at home more than usual. What was once a weekend treat is now always available, often appealing. Cereal is there, whether I’m trying to kick off the day quickly, tiding myself over until bedtime, or diligently attempting to bury this month’s distinctive blend of angst.

Which is great, don’t get me wrong. Cereal’s great! But I have come to suspect that eating Honey Bunches of Oats 10-15 times a week is going to eventually have some negative consequences. The cereal reckoning was nigh.

I set out with a specific goal: I wanted to find the tastiest cereal that wouldn’t inspire gluttony. The healthiest cereal that was still appealing. The One True Cereal that was exactly the right amount of good.

So, I did what anybody would do in my situation: I collected the full nutrition info and ingredient breakdown of over two dozen cereals, and concocted a system for scoring each variety using a formula that I could then iterate and refine.

I built a Unified Theory of Cereal.

The Challengers

I started my list with the most popular cereals in the US and Canada, forming the bedrock of the system. Then, I added two cereals that could serve as bookends: an extremely healthy one, and an extremely unhealthy one. For the nutritious end I chose All Bran, since it’s so healthy I can’t even bring myself to eat it. For the epitome of trash I chose Fruity Pebbles, which aren’t even available in Canada but to me they’re the quintessential bowl of bad decisions.

To further my goal of actually finding well-balanced cereals that were pretty good, I added in a number of fairly healthy-seeming but potentially palatable cereals like Special K Low Fat Granola, Alpen, and some promising-looking cereals from Kashi and Nature’s Path.

Because I couldn’t help myself, I also revisited the archives of professional new candy evaluator Cabel Sasser, and found one last cereal for the gauntlet.

The Formula

For each cereal, I tabulated the nutrients that, based on my nutrition goals and common sense, were most concerning: calories, fat, sodium, and especially sugar.

I also recorded the nutrients that I believe have the biggest impact on making a cereal satisfying: fibre, protein, and being made from whole grains. While a lot of fibre, protein, and whole grains still aren’t exactly going to make a cereal “good for you”, they should mitigate the fact you’re basically eating a carb bomb, and make you less likely to be inclined to having seconds.

One big hurdle to comparing cereals is portion size. Honey Nut Cheerios and Shreddies both have 9g of sugar each, but wait a minute… the nominal serving size for Shreddies is 55g but for Honey Nut Cheerios it’s only 29g?! Are you really likely to eat half as many Cheerios as you do Shreddies? Luckily, food labels are changing in many countries to have stricter serving size standards – for example in Canada, starting in 2021, a portion will always be 30g for most cereal, and 55g for fruit/nut/granola cereals. In the meantime though, you need to convert the nutrition info into quantity per gram, which is not a convenient operation in the grocery store.

After a normalization pass, I simply gave each nutrient a weight to indicate if it was good or bad. Since this part is heinously arbitrary and the right weights vary depending on you talk to and the health theory du jour, I made the weights easy to edit in the spreadsheet, which I link to below. A heartening observation though: even if you, for example, make fibre half as good or sodium twice as bad, the relative ranks of the cereals don’t change much.

One final caveat: in an ideal world, you would also adjust for what size serving you would in practice serve yourself. I tend to pour myself more Vector than I would pour Cheerios, because Vector is goddamn delicious.

High Level Observations

Behold the full spreadsheet here. You can make your own copy to tweak the weights, try different formulas, and add the cereals you love or hate. I have comments on each cereal in the spreadsheet, but here are some of my favourite observations:

  • The cereals broke down naturally into four tiers: Pretty Good, Reasonable, Treat, and Candy. You can guess which category Cabel’s cereal fell into.
  • The Kashi and Nature’s Path cereals did generally quite well, though there is quite a bit of variance between them. I’ve started trying these and some are quite good.
  • All Bran isn’t all bran? That is literally its name, people, what is going on
  • I did not expect Frosted Mini Wheats to do so well. It’s 20% sugar by weight. It turns out, though, that almost every cereal is at least 16%.
  • If your go-to cereal is Honey Nut Cheerios, I have some bad news for you.
  • There is a bit more variation in the garbage-tier cereals than I expected.
  • The weights I chose gave Corn Flakes a natural score of zero, which is what it deserves. In case you tweak the weights (for example to make fibre and protein less important, or penalize sugar even more) there’s a field where you can enter the Corn Flakes Score to calibrate the scale back to Corn Flakes Zero.

Part of a Complete Breakfast

Cereal is good. I’m gonna eat it, you’re gonna eat it. My proposal is simply that you be thoughtful about what cereal you want to be bringing into your home. There’s never been a better time in our lives to buy 5 different random types of cereal you’ve never tried before because a spreadsheet on the internet said they’re less bad for you than Corn Flakes.

Seize the moment. Level up your cereal.

© Allen Pike. See also Twitter and Steamclock.