Happy Halloween! As a way of celebrating (lame excuse), I have decided to review one of my favorite breakfast cereals from my childhood – Franken Berry. I say from my childhood because like many middle-aged people, I have long graduated from colorful, sugary kid cereals to sober, unsweetened mixtures of granola, whole grains, and tree bark. I had a brief dalliance with sweet cereals not specifically marketed to kids (Honey Nut Cheerios, Cinnamon Toast Crunch, and Frosted Mini-Wheats come to mind), but I knew I wasn’t fooling anyone and so continued my grim march into hostile fields of fiber until I now find myself at the end of the line, eating a cereal that could only be for medicinal purposes – Grape Nuts. Next stop, Colon Blow.
But, we of Generation X were born into a better time – the golden age of kid cereals. Kid cereals owned the cereal aisle. There were seemingly hundreds of cereals for kids and only Corn Flakes or Cheerios for the grown-ups. That’s it. It was also an honest time when the cereal manufacturers could just describe their product as it really was – brightly colored, 100% pure
crack cocaine sugar. And when Sugar Bear couldn’t push enough of his Sugar Crisp cereal, he changed the name to Super Sugar Crisp. General Mills’ Monster Cereal commercials had Franken Berry (Franken Berry’s monster?) and Count Chocula arguing over who had the “world’s super sugar cereal.” We went wild! And by wild, I mean we got ADHD.
Now Super Sugar Crisp has become Super Golden Crisp, Sugar Corn Pops has become just Corn Pops, the Franken Berry box is covered with nutritional information (more on this later), and kid cereals fight for shelf space against a staggering variety of organic, sugar-free, gluten-free, heart-healthy, go-lean cereals. Of course, the ubiquitous prize in every box has all but disappeared.
Speaking of disappearing, Franken Berry is so rare that it is often thought to be discontinued, but it is still available in a few limited markets, directly from General Mills and of course, from Amazon. Wal-Mart and Target carry Franken Berry during the Halloween season and that was how I stumbled upon a box recently and decided to revisit my old friend.
The box has gone through some changes, since the cereal’s introduction in 1971. The changes have been mostly subtle with the front of the box usually featuring the goofy-looking Franken Berry’s monster eating or preparing to eat some cereal. However, in the mid-90’s, the monster got a terrible makeover. His skin was no longer pink, his metal eye sockets became flesh colored, and the box showed him levitating the cereal’s marshmallows using electricity or magic. The monster lost his goofy charm and instead, looked like he was high on his own supply.
The current box is better and goes back to a more lovable, cartoonish character, although the predominant color of the box is purple and there is no picture of the cereal. If you didn’t know any better, you might think you are going to get blackberry cereal.
The cereal itself has undergone some changes over the years, too. The cereal is a strawberry flavor, frosted grain cereal with strawberry flavor marshmallows. Originally, the cereal had a generic wagon wheel shape (shared with other cereals), the marshmallow bits were really tiny, and everything was strawberry pink. Early on, there was an emergency reformulation using a different red dye, after it was discovered that the original dye did not break-down in the body and resulted in what medical literature refers to as “Franken Berry Stool.” Use your imagination. This was so horrible and startling to parents that it ended-up in one of Stephen King’s books.
In the 80’s, the cereal became ghost shaped and thankfully, the marshmallows got bigger, but they did not get their own scary shape. In the 90’s, the marshmallows finally got scary shapes (ghosts, bats, etc.), but they also got new colors. New colors?
Part of the excellence of this cereal was its pure visual commitment to its strawberry flavor. The cereal was strawberry pink, the marshmallows were strawberry pink, and when you were done, the milk was strawberry pink. Now there are colored marshmallows, which is just lazy and derivative of Lucky Charms, even if the taste has been unaffected.
Wait, why would I even bother to talk about nutrition in this review? For starters, part of this review is comparing and contrasting what I used to eat, with what I currently eat. Secondly, it’s hard to avoid, since the box is covered with nutritional information. So, I did a quick comparison chart and…hello…what’s this?
Okay, I’m not a nutritionist, so I will let those facts stand on their own. However, there is a fact that the numbers don’t show. I can eat a bowl of Grape-Nuts and feel full. But Franken Berry is very light (it’s a puffed grain cereal), so I kept reaching for the box again and again in order to eat enough to feel full. That Franken Berry serving size isn’t likely to be realistic for me. Your mileage may vary.
I have already mentioned some of my initial impressions – I don’t remember the cereal being such a vibrant, deep red color and of course, I was disappointed with the colored marshmallows. I conducted a separate, blind taste test and determined that marshmallows of different colors still tasted the same. The consistency of the marshmallows was firm, rather like that of tiny, foam packing peanuts, instead of the soft, spongy texture of full-sized marshmallows. In my experience, this is the case with all marshmallows found in breakfast cereals and I do not fault this standard.
As I mentioned before, mouth-feel is light, but this is definitely a cereal that will tear-up your palate. Another surprise was that the sweetness of the cereal did not shock me. I wasn’t sure that I would be able to even get through a single bowl. Not only do I not have quite the sweet tooth that many people have, but I actually went on a sugar fast earlier this year. For whatever reason, the sweetness wasn’t a problem and I have…er, gone through three boxes of Franken Berry while doing research for this review. (God, I hope Dee isn’t reading this.)
As for the taste, there is no complexity whatsoever. It is pure, artificial Strawberry flavor all the way through and honestly, I wouldn’t have it any other way. A sick part of me wonders if I could construct a grown-up version of Franken Berry using one of those healthy cereals coupled with fresh strawberries and homemade marshmallows, but what would be the point? I complained earlier that there were no more prizes at the bottom of the box, but if you eat Franken Berry, there is a prize in the bottom of the bowl. Would an organic version of Franken Berry have such a prize? Could you look down after having eaten your fill and see that there was still half a bowl of rich, pink, strawberry milk left to drink? To me, even this prize alone was worth waiting for. See you next year, Franken Berry.
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