It's the best cereal with the worst name
I have long felt that Cracklin’ Oat Bran, one of Kellogg’s lesser-known cereals whose name belies its immensely satisfying flavor and crunch, is the best cereal out there. But few people seem to know that because, as far as I can tell, it is also the most badly branded cereal on the market. I’ve tried to introduce these dense, granola-like, O-shaped clusters of oats, coconut and bran (the ground husk of cereal grain), richly flavored with cinnamon and nutmeg and molasses and probably too much sugar, to countless friends and roommates. And yet my exhortations are always met with eyebrow raises and amused chuckles, as though my recommendation were some sort of joke.
Their skepticism is not unwarranted. Cracklin’ Oat Bran does not crackle, not in the way we associate, say, Rice Krispies with such an adjective. Cracklin’ Oat Bran makes no sound in the bowl as it interacts with milk, sopping up that sweet liquid for a delicious bite. Despite the apostrophe in “Cracklin,’” a seemingly sad attempt to lend the cereal a cool and casual air, its bland box doesn’t bring that forced impression home. Graphically, Cracklin’ Oat Bran can be lumped in with other cereals attempting to give the idea of healthfulness, like Grape-Nuts and Mini Wheats and Cheerios.
The cereal, though—which contains palm oil, the bête noire of vegetable oils—doesn’t belong in that category at all, which, I think, you’ll realize once you’ve tried it. (If not, the next box is on me!) “The branding of this cereal is off,” Ryan Sauers, a marketing and sales growth expert, told me in an email. “In this case, the ‘perception’ is Cracklin' Oat Bran is a completely health focused cereal, thus alienating certain consumers.”
It’s as if Cookie Crisp or an analogous cereal had decided to name itself Crispy Flour Discs, or something along those lines, and had been hiding out behind a boring name and unsexy packaging for decades. But don’t take my word for it.
“I love Cracklin' Oat Bran! Seriously,” Kim Severson, a food reporter for the Times who has written extensively about cereal, told me in an email. “But it looks like dog kibble and who wants to eat oat bran?”
“The packaging probably worked at one point,” Pete Wells, the Times restaurant critic, told me. “I remember when oat bran was the miracle ingredient of the moment. It was in everything. For about two weeks I ate oat bran muffins every morning until I realized they weighed about a pound and were so full of fat they made my face shiny.”
Cracklin’ Oat Bran was, according to The Great American Cereal Book (the encyclopedia of cereals), unleashed on the market in 1976, and touted for the fiber it provided. A series of odd commercials in the late 1980s, along with a concomitant craze for oat bran, probably gave it some sort of momentary attention. (Kellogg’s did not respond to repeated email inquiries about Cracklin’ Oat Bran’s branding or its popularity among the company’s constellation of cereal brands, which includes such sugar-heavy options as Corn Pops, Frosted Flakes and Honey Smacks.)
I don’t remember the first time I tried Cracklin’ Oat Bran, though it was certainly as a kid. My dad used to bring it home from the grocery store as a special treat, which it is, and since then I’ve felt especially fond of it—a feeling that may be tied to nostalgia, as most cereals are, but that I’m sure is also connected to culinary appreciation. Growing up, we never regarded Cracklin’ Oat Bran as a healthy option, despite the box. It was always a kind of luxury item, eaten more for its excellent taste than “Excellent Source of Fiber,” as the modern box proclaims.
And at $5.79 a pop in my Brooklyn grocery store–the most expensive cereal on offer, as far as I could tell—it still is a luxury item. “Cracklin' Oat Bran,” said Ryan Sutton, a food critic for Eater, “is better described as a box of cookies. Because that's what it is, a box of cookies.”
There are, of course, dissenting views. “A thousand years ago,” said Jonathan Gold, the restaurant critic for The Los Angeles Times, “I did an article in the old teen magazine Mouth2Mouth that involved tasting and rating a hundred cereals. Cracklin’ Oat Bran, I am sorry to say, was not among the top rank. Then again, the winner was Cinnamon Toast Crunch, so you may interpret the result as you will.”
“I think of it as being pretty gnarly—desolate and punitive brown rings of fiber that had to be thoroughly milk-soaked before they could be considered edible,” said Jeff Gordinier, the food columnist for Esquire who prefers eating fried rice for breakfast.
That's always been a highlight, in my book. Unlike other wimpier cereals, Cracklin' Oat takes a while to get soggy in the bowl, which means you aren't rushing to savor it before it loses its distinct texture. My sense is, these Cracklin’ Oat Bran detractors haven’t give the cereal a fair shake. But neither has Kellogg’s, in my estimation, because the company doesn’t seem to have ever known who the cereal is for. I believe it could appeal to kids and adults alike, but until the name and packaging changes, that isn’t likely to happen wide-scale, especially since cereal sales on the whole are in serious decline.
Cracklin’ Oat Bran is the ugly duckling of delicious cereals. The only problem is, it’s never been allowed to spread its wings.