Why have Americans abandoned their traditional breakfast — and what are they eating instead?

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Tony the Tiger may not have much reason to wake up with a smile.

American families no longer appear to be gathering around the breakfast table, munching on Frosted Flakes and drinking orange juice. Only 35% of Americans eat that sort of traditional breakfast seven days a week, according to a recent study by CivicScience, a consumer analytics platform. Some 21% said they eat breakfast four to six times a week, and 20% said they eat breakfast one to three mornings days a week.

What’s more, Kellogg Co.
which invented Corn Flakes, and makes a range of other cereals including Frosted Flakes and Special K, plans to separate into two publicly traded companies in the fourth quarter of this year. Although Kellogg’s started primarily as a cereal company, some 60% of its 2022 sales came from snacks, such as Pringles, Cheez-It crackers, Pop-Tarts and Rice Krispies Treats. 

The company said last month that its North American cereals business will be folded into the new W.K. Kellogg Co., which will trade under the ticker symbol “KLG.” The rest of the business will be folded into a company to be called Kellanova that will continue to trade under the current ticker symbol “K.” Analysts see this as a major sign of changing consumer tastes.

Time-poor consumers are more likely to grab an energy bar or buy a breakfast sandwich on the way to the office.

What’s going on? Higher food prices may also be taking a toll on Americans’ love of traditional breakfasts; General Mills
which makes Cheerios, lowered full-year profit guidance in June, citing inflationary pressures adversely affecting demand.

General Mills did not respond to a request for comment.

Many cereals, in particular, appear gradually to be losing appeal. Unit sales of ready-to-eat breakfast cereals fell 3.9% last year and 8.7% in 2021 after rising 5.2% in 2020, according to data compiled by Circana and cited by the Wall Street Journal

Time-poor consumers — whether on a hybrid or full-time back-to-the-office work schedule — are more likely to grab an energy bar or buy a breakfast sandwich on the way to the office. “The leading trend is always the same — convenience,” said Michael Swanson, Wells Fargo Agri-Food Institute’s chief agricultural economist. “People want minimal preparation and zero cleanup.”

We also live in a more health-conscious world than did previous generations. Many traditional breakfast cereals contain refined sugar, and, unlike the sugar found in fruits and milk, may lack protein, fiber, fat and other nutrients. A 1½-cup serving of Corn Flakes has 4 grams of added sugar, plus 300 milligrams of sodium.

Kellogg’s did not respond to a request for comment.

Pandemic stress led high schoolers to skip breakfast

It’s not just cereal consumption that’s seen a decline; some people are skipping breakfast altogether. More high schoolers of late have skipped breakfast and eaten fewer fruits and vegetables, according to a study according to a report published last April by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Three in four American high schoolers said they had not eaten breakfast consistently over the past week in 2021, the report found. Female students were more likely to report having skipped breakfast than their male counterparts, with a little over 80% of female respondents versus 69.9% of male respondents reporting breakfast skipping. Native American, Black and Latino students were more likely to skip breakfast than their white and Asian counterparts, the CDC found. 

The findings were concerning to CDC researchers, who noted that missing breakfast is among the “poor dietary behaviors” that are linked to chronic health conditions and poor mental health.

“It’s not a meal you want to miss,” said Jerlyn Jones, registered dietitian nutritionist and the owner of Atlanta-based private practice the Lifestyle Dietitian LLC. Eating breakfast at a good time — within about two hours after waking up — is crucial for providing the essential nutrients the body needs after seven to 10 hours of sleeping, she told MarketWatch.

‘It’s not a meal you want to miss.’

— Jerlyn Jones, registered dietitian nutritionist 

Skipping breakfast impacts the body in multiple ways. Studies show that leaving the house without a good meal can lead to missing out on important nutrients, and it has a worse impact on diet quality than skipping dinner, according to research by the Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service, or ERS. 

Diet fads like intermittent fasting to lose weight could help people focus and lose weight, scientists suggest, and that could be why some people report feeling more energized and productive before they’ve had breakfast. 

However, while the body naturally adjusts to new eating habits when breakfast is skipped, that does not mean it’s a smart decision for everyone, Jones said. People should consult a doctor or a registered dietitian before committing to intermittent fasting, especially those who are on medication or have ongoing health issues, Jones added. 

Someone who skips breakfast may get accustomed to hunger early in the day and not eat — which means they won’t get the nutrition their body needs in the morning, or they starve before lunchtime and then turn to anything that can satisfy their hunger. Ultimately, they compromise their nutritional needs.  

“When it comes to that, your body’s just looking for any type of food,” Jones told MarketWatch. “And it may not be the most nutritious food that you can eat. It’s just really looking for carbs in the simplest form, like sugar.” That may, for example, explain that craving for a pastry, chocolate bar or a packet of salted chips as the day goes on. 

Feeling busy and feeling tired even when one has time to prepare breakfast are common reasons people might choose to skip breakfast, as well as seeing the skipped meal as a way to lose weight, Jones said. 

Similarly, pandemic-era stress could also be a contributing factor, CDC researchers said in the April report. During the pandemic, the decline in eating breakfast among young adults was accompanied by a rise in snacking later in the afternoon and evening on high-calorie processed foods, a research paper released last year found. Certain students might have shifted away from healthy foods and turned to unhealthy alternatives as a way to alleviate stress after losing daily structure, the CDC researchers said.  

The rise of breakfast bars and other on-the-go items

For those who are still eating their morning meal, breakfast bars or energy bars are the new hot item for busy individuals who are looking for an affordable and quick option for morning energy. 

Energy-bar sales in the U.S. are expected to grow to $8.5 billion this year, up from roughly $7 billion in 2020, according to market-research company Mintel. 

Conditions such as “inflation, hybrid work schedules and consumers’ general burnout” are what continue attracting consumers to energy bars, Sydney Olson, a senior food and drink analyst at Mintel, said in a recent report on snacking and nutrition. Consumers are not only facing financial constraints but also general fatigue. Energy bars became popular because they are relatively cheap and convenient, and consumers see them as “a wholesome snack,” the report said. 

‘The sales of energybars in the U.S. grew from around $7 billion in 2020 to a forecasted $8.5 billion for 2023.’

— Mintel 

“Consumers are still eating breakfast, but they love the on-the-go convenience of the bars,” said Wells Fargo agricultural economist Swanson. 

The decline in cereal has also affected the sales of milk, Swanson added. The dairy industry has seen major declines in fluid milk consumption as ready-to-eat cereal products have lost market share to on-the-go bars, he added.

In addition to breakfast bars, people are turning to convenience-store breakfast sandwiches, Swanson added. He’s noticed companies spending more money to produce egg patties for breakfast sandwiches.

Though the character of the meal may have changed, most people still do eat something in the morning hours — even if it’s not the traditional American breakfast of yore. Some 84% of Americans over 2 years old surveyed between 2017 and 2020 said they had at least one item for breakfast, according to the most recent USDA data. They’re just not doing as good a job as nutritionists would like.

People need to aim for a balanced breakfast, with protein, carbs and a bit of fat. If one does not have time in the morning, preparing a morning meal the night before might help, or breakfast could be as simple as a slice of whole-wheat bread spread with peanut butter, Jones said. 

Not everything we might be willing consider to be breakfast provides sufficient nutrients for the brain and body to function as they should, she said.

“Unfortunately, in our society, we are missing out on nutrients,” Jones said. People are not getting enough vital nutrients such as vitamin D and calcium, because they either skip meals or eat food that lacks proper nutrients, she added.

“So, no, coffee [alone] isn’t going to work,” Jones said. “We definitely need more than coffee to get you going.”


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