Cereal Brands Are All Grown Up

Breakfast is now served with artsy packaging, healthier ingredients, and meaningful messages.

cereal box on desk
Photo courtest of Off Limits

Cereal has never looked better. Modern cereal brands are taking the best qualities of America’s favorite breakfast—the nostalgic flavors, the flashy packaging, the simple portability—and giving them a grown-up spin. The next time you reach for a bowl of cereal, it might come out of a box that promotes social justice; it will likely contain high protein, low sugar ingredients; and there’s now an option to pair it with milk that’s better for the planet.

Cereal’s advancement into adult territory is manifesting itself through social media trends. The snack has had a long-term relationship with streetwear, with pop-ups like KITH Treats and collaborations between Supreme and Wheaties. Enter the world of TikTok, and you’ve got a selection of cereal milk latte recipes, as well as recreations of the viral $50 tiny croissant cereal.

“Millennials grew up on cereal,” says Rachel Krupa, owner of The Goods Mart. “And that age group is now made up of parents who still love cereal, but are also concerned about what's inside of their products.”

Some of the most popular cereal brands on the market today swap out the sugar for added protein. Magic Spoon, a leader in the cereal-for-adults sector, offers frosted snacks that mimic the nutritional composition of a protein bar or keto smoothie. Monk fruit, stevia, and a rare, non-glycemic sugar called allulose replace artificial sweetener. Similarly, Three Wishes cereal is made up primarily of chickpeas and pea protein.

Another component that binds these products together is a strong sense of nostalgia. Aptly named Schoolyard Snacks specializes in “old school,” keto-friendly cereals, encasing them in vintage packaging. The brand was founded by Helen Guo and Dylan Kaplan, self-described as “two big kids who never grew up.”

Of course, food trends are cyclical, and cereal isn’t the only item to come back from the ’90s. (see the comeback of the espresso martini). But Theo Martins, founder of Cereal & Such, believes there’s a little more to the story, perhaps linked to the static nature of pandemic time.

“There is such a search for purity,” Martins explains. “In those moments where you weren't inundated with jobs, deadlines, minutia, or a lot of pointless socializing, there was just the enjoyment of one’s company, friends, or a TV show. It’s like everyone is sort of searching for this thing that really gave them—for lack of a better word—meaning. People just enjoyed what they wanted to enjoy.”

And for Martins, cereal is a snack that really cultivates such joy and innocence. “My family are first-generation immigrants from Nigeria,” Martins explains. “So when my parents were busy at work, cereal would sometimes be a snack for my siblings and me. We would go to a neighbor's house and paint and watch cartoons. It was an entire world that I felt was anchored by cereal—by the enjoyment of opening the package, perhaps getting a toy, being so consumed by the flavor, or simply reading the box.”

Magic Spoon Cereal
Magic Spoon Cereal

Modern cereal brands are defined by boxes that feature innovative design. The goal is less about capturing the minimal, sans-serif aesthetic of Millennial marketing, and more about reinventing the loud, zany energy of our favorite cereal mascots.

OffLimits, a cereal brand created by Emily Elyse Miller, spotlights relatable characters that convey a range of emotion—a far cry from the unshakable Tony the Tiger. There’s Dash, the anxious, over-achieving bunny who represents the coffee and cocoa blend, and Zombie, the midnight gamer who needs a cereal as chill as them. So adaptogens and soothing flavors like vanilla and pandan come into play.

Through her mascots, Miller not only destigmatizes mental health issues, but also feminizes cereal culture with female characters. Nic King is doing similar work with Proud Puffs cereal, a brand he launched in 2020, in light of the George Floyd protests.

His chocolate-flavored, vegan cereal formed in the shape of a Black fist serves to uplift the Black community. The box features an image of a Black family on the front, a list of influential Black figures on the sides (Bessie Coleman and Muhammad Ali, to name a few), and a word search filled with positive affirmations on the back.

There was nothing quite like the analog experience of reading the back of the box while munching on your cereal. And now brands are taking that moment of contemplation to the next level, giving kids and adults alike something more meaningful to think about.

“As an adult who still consumes cereal and enjoys it with friends, I don’t want to be spoken down to,” says Martins. “And it’s just very obvious that most boxes are marketed to children.”

Gone are the days when Toucan Sam and Captain Crunch were shoved in a cupboard, hidden from view. Modern cereal boxes are designed to be on full display. “I’m essentially treating it like soft sculpture—a beautiful thing that’s meant to be discarded and recycled,” Martins says. “Really just normalizing beautiful products around the home.”

"As an adult who still consumes cereal and enjoys it with friends, I don’t want to be spoken down to. And it’s just very obvious that most boxes are marketed to children.”

“The packaging allows it to be on the shelf or beyond your countertop, so it’s easily accessible to grab and pour into a bowl,” Krupa adds. “And now it’s a statement. When you have a guest over, they’re going to be like, ‘What is that? Can I try it?’ It’s a conversation piece that connects us.”

It’s also worth noting that cereal’s counterpart, milk, is also having a moment of reinvention. The non-dairy milk market continues to boom, with new, alternative milks popping up everyday. Some of Krupa’s favorite brands include Táche, a vegan milk made with real pistachios, as well as Willa’s, which Krupa says has less sugar than most oat milks on the market. She’s also excited about THISPKN, a pecan milk that works to support regenerative farming practices.

These plant-based varieties are adding new flavors (and colors) to our favorite cereals, creating a positive environmental impact in the process. And they’re becoming available in different forms, too. JOI has created plant milk concentrates like powdered oats and almond paste, meant for blending with water. It’s a very sustainable option, with less packaging and a longer shelf life—and not to mention, a fun design that goes hand-in-hand with modern cereal boxes.

Some people are ditching the milk altogether, opting for the hand-in-box experience. “These days, people are thinking about cereal as a version of a snack that’s crunchy, versus something you pair with milk,” Krupa says. “It’s what we’ve seen with OffLimits, which does mini boxes. People are ripping them open and eating them as if it’s a bag of chips.”

Perhaps the best part about us growing up right alongside cereal is that rules from our childhood no longer apply.

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Jessica Sulima is a staff writer on the Food & Drink team at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram