by Marion Nestle
Jul 30 2013

Breakfast cereals: hefty money-makers (especially those with sugar)

Food Navigator just did a report on cereal “blockbusters,” the top best-selling brands.

Numbers like these are so hard to come by that they inspired me to make a table.

I looked up some figures on advertising expenditures for specific cereals from Advertising Age, 100 leading advertisers (June 24, 2013).

Top selling cereal brands, July 2012-June 2013

1 Honey Nut Cheerios General Mills 556 **
2 Frosted Flakes Kellogg 446  50
3 Honey Bunches of Oats Post 380  —
4 Cheerios General Mills 364 **
5 Cinnamon Toast Crunch General Mills 292 36
6 Special K Kellogg 284 141
7 Frosted Mini Wheat Kellogg 281 67
8 Lucky Charms Kellogg 259 15
9 Froot Loops Kellogg 176 13
10 Raisin Bran Kellogg 170 13

*All numbers rounded off.  **All forms of Cheerios: $167 million

My conclusions:

  • At least 8 of the top 10 are sugary cereals.
  • At least 5 are targeted to children.
  • Six of the top 10 are made by Kellogg.
  • Advertising expenditures are roughly proportional to sales (Special K is an exception: not sure why).

Think about what that money could do if used to promote public health.

  • Library Spinster

    That doesn’t take into account free product placement on cooking shows (Next Food Network Star just had a Special K challenge).

    Looking for nutritional information on these brands, I stumbled across a calorie counter website that gave most of the brands an A or A-. Had to be for calorie counter, certainly not for nutrition. Nearly all had sugar per serving in double digit amounts. Scary.

  • The meager farmers share

    According to National Farmers Union, an 18-oz box of cereal that retails for $5.49, the farmer gets an estimated 12 cents, or 2.19%. via

    amazingly, farmers get almost 4 times that share on a 2 liter of soda. Retail: $1.49 Farmer: 12 cents Percentage: 8.05%

    Points to the fact that while the subsidy checks may go to the farmer, it’s the middlemen who really benefit from the subsidies. meanwhile, family farmers seem to be the ones demonized in the media.

  • JR

    All of these cereals are chock full of refined carbs, no matter how much sugar has been added. Which means all of these cereals are making the people who eat them sick. In ten years we’ll look back on this list and realize that these cereal brands are the 2013 version of cigarette brands. These breakfast cereals are packaged disease…

  • Sara

    Special K is targeted to younger women demo, heavy in print magazines, additional promotional / celebrity tie-ins, and national network and cable TV. They refresh their campaign several times per year. So the overall all advert spend would be higher. Just a guess!

  • Leonore Tiefer

    Write a book on cereal politics, please!

  • There is nothing wrong with sugar.

  • Library Spinster

    Floccina, as a type 2 diabetic, I’d have to disagree.

    In any case, our bodies make glucose out of the carbs we eat. It doesn’t have to be sugar, specifically. And certainly not as much as the average person in this country gets.

  • Isaac

    Breakfast cereals are heavily loaded with salt. What can a better
    Replacement for them?

  • Happyme

    Let’s give General Mills credit for Lucky Charms. And please note that Frosted Mini-Wheats, while frosted, are cooked whole wheat berries that have been rolled and toasted. All whole grains need to be ‘processed’. All of the fiber and nutrients are intact. Great way to get fiber and whole grains into kids, along with milk. The nutrition is worth a bit of sugar. We are getting carried away folks!

  • Library Spinster

    There are other cereals that offer more fiber and protein, with less sugar. Uncle Sam Original Cereal has 11 grams of fiber, 8 grams of protein, 1 gram of sugars. It does have a touch more sodium (5% vs. 3% for Frosted Mini Wheats).

  • Abby

    The Special K ad budget may also be more if they aren’t limiting that to just the cereal– there are all sorts of cereal bars, chips, cookies, etc. that are marketed under the Special K brand name. Also, the line is marketed to adults, not children, which as Sara commented, means a more intense and multifaceted campaign. Just some thoughts…

    I’d love a fifth column with grams of sugar per 1/2 cup serving to compare.

  • George H

    What a timely post about cereal.

    The truth is the American people love and want sugar. Yes indeed Americans want both healthy food and sugary foods. Is anyone surprised? We love instant gratification. We want instant satisfaction for our taste (suagr, oil and salt. sugar-coated, deep-fried/heavy-buttered/creamed, salty like bacon or chips). Then h=the next moment we also want instant weight loss, instant health. And we are ready to pay for any snake-oil products that promise to do just that.

    I know cereal is processed and not very good. But hard to beat its convenience. So I tried for the best and settled on Kashi (a supposedly health conscious brand) GoLean Original (not any other flavor of GoLean).

    I was shocked to discover yesterday that its calorie count has been changed from 130 (a long time ago) to 140 recently (God knows when) and 160 yesterday. Sugar? From3 grams, to 6, now 9.

    The most hilarious is the response from Kashi:

    Extensive consumer taste-panel testing has shown that many products would be unacceptable without sugar. We have increased the amount needed to develop the desired flavor, texture, and appearance.

    Additionally, the USDA 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans state “In some cases, small amounts of sugars added to nutrient-dense foods, such as breakfast cereals and reduced-fat milk products, may increase a person’s intake of such foods by enhancing the palatability of these products, thus improving nutrient intake without contributing excessive calories.”

    Yes the American people want and demand sugar.

    If you know Kashi is owned by Kellogg, you will understand. It just wants to make a few bucks.

  • So, if I have added correctly, these 10 individual foods represent over $650 million in advertising spending.

    Per this report by the FNS, in 2008 (before SNAP-ED was cut) we were spending about $800 million IN TOTAL of federal dollars for nutrition education – and almost all of that is exclusively targeted towards low-income families. (While I agree low-income families should be targeted, there are few programs to promote nutrition education for the general public.)

    A sobering comparison.

  • Jeff Harpell

    Not only is the American market lucrative for Kellogg’s breakfast cereals, but also gives a free pass on GMOs in the food with no labeling required. Several US companies have dropped GMO foods in Europe with Kellogg among the multi-nationals. “Kellogg is conscious of consumer preferences and does not use GM maize or soya ingredients or derivatives in its breakfast cereals sold in Europe…At present, our other grain-based morning foods such as Kellogg’s Pop-tarts, Rice Krispies Squares and Nutri-Grain bars contain maize or soya derivatives produced from raw materials purchased on the world market…Kellogg is currently seeking non-GM sources for these ingredients and we hope to have completed this process by the end of the year.”

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  • Arquisis

    You need to edit your chart and conclusions. Lucky Charms is produced by General Mills, not Kellogg.