Malitta Jensen was well known in Tampa, Florida for her adroit handling of sweet culinary concoctions. As just one example, an edition of The Tampa Tribune from February 1938 promoted her appearance as the instructor of a special cooking demonstration at the Florida State Fair, during which she would be displaying her prowess with honey.
The very next year, Jensen would immortalize herself through her mastery of another sticky substance: melted marshmallows. With the help of a close friend, Jensen crafted what would ultimately become a dessert staple out of a cereal that was barely a decade old, along with some ordinary marshmallows. According to the commonly told tale, Jensen and her friend — Kellogg’s employee Mildred Day — were sitting around the house in 1938 and brainstorming ideas for a food item they could make for a Camp Fire Girls fundraiser.
“Inspired by the popcorn balls found on boardwalks and at county fairs, the two women varied that formula; they replaced popped corn with puffed rice [in the form of Rice Krispies], then combined that with butter, vanilla and [instead of corn syrup] the signature campfire sweet — marshmallows,” David Hoffman wrote in his book The Breakfast Cereal Gourmet.
Executives at Kellogg’s were so pleased with the results that they started advertising Rice Krispies Marshmallow Squares the very next year, in 1940, as a “wonderful new candy recipe” that could be concocted from their otherwise healthy breakfast cereal. By the end of the decade, the recipe for the sticky dessert was even being included on Rice Krispies packaging. And in the mid-1950s, the official term “Rice Krispies Treats” began to be used to describe the combination.
The Marshmallow Takeover
It wasn’t until the mid-1960s that someone had the innovative idea of selling cereal and marshmallows together in the same boxed mixture. According to the story told in his August 2000 obituary, chemical engineer John Holahan was employed by General Mills, and was challenged in 1963 to develop a cereal variety based on one of its two most prominent cereal brands — Wheaties or Cheerios. Holahan visited his local grocery store, purchased some marshmallow Circus Peanuts, chopped them up and sprinkled the bits on top of his Cheerios. “I knew we had a winner,” Holahan is reported to have said.
What resulted was Lucky Charms, which debuted on grocery store shelves in March 1964. General Mills introduced their newest child-friendly breakfast cereal in the funny pages of U.S. newspapers in a cleverly designed comic strip titled “L.C. Leprechaun.”
1964 Introductory Ad for Lucky Charms
This first round of advertising for the new marshmallow-infused cereal stated that the oat-based blend contained less sugar than other pre-sweetened cereals, and promoted itself as “just sweet enough.” Lucky Charms quickly became one of the foremost favorites of children all over North America, and General Mills did what it could behind the scenes to protect their breakfast innovation. Case in point: In 1971, the company was awarded a patent to protect its innovative practice for the “Preparation of Marshmallow with Milk Solids.”
It was at this point that General Mills flooded grocery-store shelves with a deluge of marshmallow-y cereals, beginning in March 1971 with Count Chocula and Franken Berry. The initial concern over the presence of these cereals had less to do with their sugary content, and more to do with the effects of the food coloring used in the marshmallows. Specifically, the formula for Franken Berry’s marshmallows had to be reconfigured to prevent the fecal matter of its consumers from turning pink. While this issue was quickly corrected, complaints about marshmallow cereals essentially being candy soon followed.
The Consumers Strike Back
Martee Williams, staff writer for the Tallahassee Democrat, decried the use of marshmallows in cereal in the midst of a November 1971 screed against the use of child-friendly mascots on cereal boxes. “Marshmallows turn up with alarming frequency in the breakfast food,” she wrote. “All tastes can be accommodated. Savor any flavor from strawberry to peanut butter — with milk poured over.”
This criticism arrived just a month before General Mills announced the nutrient fortification of its cereals. By the end of December 1971, a full 13 General Mills cereals had been upgraded to include what was reported by the Associated Press as 33 percent of the recommended daily requirement of vitamin A, vitamin B1, vitamin B2, vitamin C, niacin and iron, along with significant sources of vitamin B6, vitamin B12 and vitamin D. To their credit, Lucky Charms, Count Chocula and Franken Berry were included in this list.
By this point, nutritional specialist and White House advisor Robert Choate had already been on the warpath against sugary cereals. In 1970, he testified before a Senate consumer subcommittee on the state of breakfast cereals, alleging that most cereals offered “about as much nutritional value as a shot of whisky,” and “have calories but little else.”
Choate was relatively unphased by General Mills’ attempt to up the micronutrient content of many of its breakfast offerings. While he praised Total and Buc Wheats as being so full of vitamin content that they were now “calorie-connected vitamin pills,” he ridiculed seven other cereals — including both Count Chocula and Franken Berry — for being composed predominantly of sugar.
Meanwhile, in January 1975, the home economists of the Consumers Cooperative of Berkeley, California, released a study criticizing sugary cereals alongside what they regarded as a misguided effort to artificially raise the level of health administered by those cereals. “These cereals are essentially vitamin pills in a sugar-grain flake, puff or blob,” they argued. “A child of five eating two one-ounce bowls of cereal a day would eat four times his recommended daily allowance of vitamin A just from the cereal. When you add vitamin A from milk, other foods and a vitamin pill, the child could be getting a toxic level of vitamin A over a long period.”
The Marshmallow Makeover
For the next decade, news coverage was fraught with stories pushing for more thoroughly detailed disclosures of the sugar content in breakfast cereals. Studies found that a majority of the cereals marketed toward children were at least 40 percent sugar, with Lucky Charms registering a sugar percentage of 42.4 percent, and Count Chocula clocking in at 44.2 percent. In fairness, as ample as these sugar totals were, they were comparatively dwarfed by the sugar content of marshmallow-free cereals like Honey Smacks, Apple Jacks, Froot Loops and Corn Pops, which all possessed sugar contents of at least 49 percent.
None of this, however, dissuaded Kellogg’s from getting in on the marshmallow cereal game, too. In 1982, the company introduced Marshmallow Krispies, directly infusing marshmallows into the cereal that had started it all, and then followed that up with the addition of Fruity Marshmallow Krispies in 1987. Six years later, Rice Krispies would truly come full circle, with Rice Krispie Treats debuting as a standalone cereal. Eventually, Kellogg’s released marshmallow-enhanced variants of just about every sugary cereal in its lineup, including Frosted Flakes, Apple Jacks and Froot Loops.
So now that marshmallow cereals are seemingly ubiquitous, it’s almost enough to make you ask yourself a critical question: If a modern breakfast cereal doesn’t contain marshmallows, is it even a cereal?