From dog food to dessert
EC: We Know Toaster Pastries Are Bad for Us. Why Do We Eat Them Anyway?
Credit: Photo by Kate Welsh

The story of the toaster pastry begins with dog food. In the early 1960s, General Foods was hard at work trying to make a moist dog-food patty that wouldn’t spoil on the shelf. They found success in Gaines Burgers, but realized the technology could be used for more, and shifted their focus to the Post cereal division. In February 1964, Post debuted “Country Squares.”

If you’re wondering why you’ve never heard of “Country Squares,” it’s because they weren’t around for very long. It’s not that people weren’t into the concept, but in 1964, a name like that implied the product was for uncool country bumpkins. While that may not have bothered the parents, who were the ones doing the buying, it certainly bothered the kids, who were increasingly the ones being advertised to. The 1960s were prime time for cereal brands’ cartoon mascots to grace TV screens, hawking sugar-coated flakes and oat bits that were part of anyone’s healthy breakfast. When you have Tony the Tiger, “Country Squares” just aren’t that appealing.

Post’s mistake was Kellogg’s opportunity. Within six months of Country Squares’ failure, they introduced Pop-Tarts. Originally, the squares were non-frosted (they would discover frosting could withstand the toaster heat later) and came in four flavors. According to Whole Pop magazine, “Its name was a double pun on the hippest thing happening at the time: Pop Art, which Andy Warhol had made a household word with his giant soup cans and Brillo boxes."

Pop-Tarts also played into the country’s culinary desires at the time. In the 1960s, the best thing most foods could be was convenient. The Pop-Tart was inextricably tied to the pop-up toaster, a convenient appliance that was still a new addition to many home kitchens. But it could also be eaten cold—an entire meal straight from the pantry that barely required dirtying a plate. It all added up to less work, which was invaluable for women and mothers, who no longer had to spend all day taking care of the home.

The Pop-Tart dominated the toaster-pastry scene for the next 20 years as other companies tried, and sometimes failed, to enter the market. But throughout those 20 years, Americans’ perceptions of food began to change. By the 1980s, convenience was no longer a primary concern when it came to food. The health risks of fast food and preservatives were becoming more widely known, and “shelf-stable sugar rectangle” did not sound like the most holistic breakfast option.

Something about “toaster strudel” sounded a little better. Launched in 1985, Pillsbury’s Toaster Strudel was found in the freezer section, giving a different impression of quality. These were meant to be eaten warm, and decorated with the icing packet included in the package. They were a breakfast you had to take some time with, or at least more time than you would a cold Pop-Tart as you ran out the door. The Toaster Strudel ad campaign featured a German chef character who favorably compared the product to the traditional strudel he made in his bakery, suggesting a certain authenticity. These weren’t toaster pastries, but real pastries that just happened to come from your toaster.

At some point, the veil was lifted, and we all started to recognize toaster pastries for what they were—desserts that could pass as breakfast. Maybe, finally, everyone looked at the ingredient lists—which on Pop-Tarts and Toaster Strudels are nearly identical—or maybe it’s because our current food landscape is influenced by the organic, artisanal, and slow-food movements. That’s largely why cereal sales have been declining—options that are perceived as healthier are becoming more popular.

And yet, despite our shifting preferences toward wanting more of a protein-packed, “whole foods” breakfast, Pop-Tart sales are on the rise. And when I started asking people, I could see why. The convenience factor is still there, but instead of being compelled by ease or nutrition, a lot of people are driven by nostalgia.

It seems unlikely that a product like Pop-Tarts would be invented today, or at least marketed as a reasonable breakfast option. In fact, while Toaster Strudel ad campaigns still focus on children eating their flaky pastries at the breakfast table, Pop-Tarts make no mention of an associated meal. They just posit that the squares are “crazy good.” Because they were your family’s go-to breakfast or because you weren’t allowed to have them and they became a sneaky treat, they’re an anytime reminder of childhood.

It’s hard to be constantly vigilant about our diets, especially as studies of what’s nutritious and what will give you cancer changes all the time. Perhaps Pop-Tarts remind us of a time before we thought to pay attention to our protein and gluten intakes, when all food had to do was taste good. And sometimes, more than nutrients or eco-friendly packaging, that’s exactly what we need.