On National Cereal Day, remembering that sales are down

Monday is National Cereal Day. As the official nationalcerealday.com website suggests, too much protein was a big reason for the move toward cereal.

Americans at the time of the Civil War were increasingly plagued with gastrointestinal issues due to their unhealthy, meat-based diet. Reformers of the 1860s viewed too much meat consumption as unwholesome, both physically and spiritually. It was believed by some that a high-protein diet contributed to lust and sloth and that constipation and other maladies of the gastrointestinal tract were God's punishment for too much pork and beef.

In the 21st century, however, it appears protein is coming back strong, taking back market share from typical cereals.

Cereal sales have slumped while more protein-heavy foods have taken over. According to Nielsen sales data, ready-to-eat cereal sales have declined an average of 3 percent per year for the last three years. But what's up? Basically everything else in the breakfast world:

12.6 percent eggs
10.5 percent frozen breakfast sandwich
9.6 percent refrigerated breakfast entree
7.6 percent instant breakfast
5.0 percent breakfast meat
4.4 percent frozen breakfast entree
1.8 pert hot cereal

In 2012, Americans bought $9.6 billion worth of ready to eat cereal, according to Nielsen. That was huge compared with just $5.1 billion of eggs. But just three years later, that gap has closed considerably. Cereal sales were only $8.75 billion, versus $7.3 billion for eggs.

Eggs are high protein and gluten free, and in 2015, who doesn't like that? And that doesn't include the huge growth in Greek yogurt sales. And here's what else is growing: breakfast sausages, doughnuts, sweet goods, muffins, bagels and deli breakfast foods. It's basically every breakfast category that Nielsen tracks — except traditional cereal.

One way of combating the fall in cereal is for major companies to push the protein concept directly on the boxes, like this:

General Mills Total Protein cereal sits on display in a supermarket.
Daniel Acker | Bloomberg | Getty Images
General Mills Total Protein cereal sits on display in a supermarket.

Companies like Kellogg's and General Mills have had to reinvent themselves away from traditional cereal.

"The declining sales of cereal is driven by a number of factors, including the shifting perception of what 'healthy' means," said Sarah Schmansky, director at Nielsen Perishables Group. She points to "an increased consumer demand for healthier ingredients in our foods" and that "consumers want to eat more substantial items that will keep them fuller for longer. ... However, cereal players have been quick to respond as well, with product launches highlighting key health and wellness attributes."

Back in the day, according to the cereal day site, it was a different story:

Bran nuggets' inventor Dr. James Caleb Jackson operated a sanitarium, a health resort of sorts, in which patrons would come to convalesce, improve their health or enjoy the restorative spa treatments available. One of the patrons would go on to form the Seventh Day Adventist religion. One of the members of her new church was John Kellogg, a skilled surgeon whose dedication to healthy food for his patients led to the creation of granola.

With the help of his brother, Will Kellogg, the pair would continue to invent healthy, meatless breakfast foods until inadvertently concocting a process that allowed wheat to flake. Two years later corn flakes were formulated and they became an immediate success.

Fast forward to today: Consumer demand "has pointed breakfast eaters toward the typical protein drivers such as eggs, breakfast sandwiches, whole grains and Greek yogurt," Schmansky said.

There is also the big push by fast-food chains like McDonald's and Taco Bell to double down on breakfast. All that being said, 1800s-style cereal is fighting a losing war, for now.

But one officer is dutifully trying to hang on and fight back.

Again, from the official National Cereal Day website:

Cap'n Crunch's full name is Horatio Magellan Crunch. He was born on Crunch Island in the Sea of Milk. In 2013, a food blogger noticed the Cap'n's uniform only sported three stripes instead of four. This would make him a Navy Commander, a step down from a true Captain. When word got out, Cap'n Crunch declared on Twitter, "Of course I'm a Cap'n! It's the Crunch — not the clothes — that make a man.