Almost every parent of toddlers has been there: After what feels like days, weeks—maybe even their entire lives—we’re begging our kids to please just eat something. Parents have a few old standbys that almost all toddlers will consume: noodles, Cheerios, blueberries, maybe a cheese stick or some yogurt. But since it’s just not physically possible or desirable to survive on five foods, at some point you’ve got to diversify your kids’ diet.
Parents these days are a great deal more obsessed with what their kids are eating than their own parents ever were. My mother let me live on cut-up hot dogs in bright orange Kraft mac & cheese for a full year, if you believe our family’s apocryphal tale. Nowadays, I can’t imagine many of my friends having an eater as picky as I was without the mother having a nervous breakdown—or at least drafting many lengthy Facebook posts about the challenges of feeding her difficult child.
In 2016 in the United States, most parents have no reason to worry that their children will be malnourished; in fact, obesity is more of a problem than undernourishment. Our grandparents grew up in a time of war, and with that mindset, they raised their own kids with a healthy sense of perspective. But the current generation of parents, raised without knowing real deprivation, lacks that perspective. In this climate, having a child who is a picky eater has gone from mild annoyance to potential health crisis in need of a solution. Kids aren’t sent to bed hungry anymore, nor can they be allowed to eat their chosen limited diet; instead something has to be done. And since we live in a society that would never miss a marketing opportunity, a company that occupies an entire toddler food group—Cheerios—has discovered a way to play to those fears with a new product: “Cheerios Protein.”
Cheerios Protein is marketed as “fuel” in a new ad campaign. This isn’t the standard parenting trick of tossing some vegetables into baked ziti or pureeing butternut squash and slipping it into the mac & cheese. Cheerios Protein has put more protein into its cereal in the production stage, evidently to combat the supposed problem that some kids eat Cheerios as their major food source. The problem is that the company also ended up adding far more sugar than protein into the final product (seventeen times as much as the original version) with very little added actual protein to show for it.
This is a familiar story for anyone familiar with how food companies have engineered our food from its more natural state into one that is supposedly more “healthy” according to the sensibilities of current food fads. The unintended consequence of altering food in order to make it fit with our current ideas of health is that food engineers often end up accomplishing the opposite of what they intended. The war on fat led companies to take real fat and butter out of our food, replacing them with carbohydrates, sugar and trans fats. We all know how that has turned out.
Perhaps it’s because I’ve lived in the developing world and have seen genuinely malnourished children, but I’m not one of those mothers who loses sleep over the fact that my daughter is going through a phase where she only wants to eat pancakes, steamed vegetables, and cereal with milk.
Every toddler goes through stages of food pickiness, and our job as parents is simply to keep offering healthy and varied meals. Tricks like Cheerios Protein end up doing more harm than good. The lesson Cheerios Protein reminds us, as parents, is this: There are no shortcuts or special new products that will ensure our children become healthy eaters.