Milk over cereal

The scene was surreal … I mean, cereal.

I awoke from deadline-anxiety dreams one Sunday morning, and crept down to the kitchen at the farmhouse where I work. There I found a dozen people chomping breakfast cereal, scribbling down notes, and trading bon mots. Coincidentally, the farmhouse had been packed with guests that weekend, including a crew of cereal-loving Germans. We also had some visitors of the banjo-playin’, fiddlin’ variety — and they, too, took great relish in the cereal-tasting task. To my eternal delight, I heard one of the Germans regaling the fiddlers between bites with tales of his band back home, which he described as “post-emo hardcore.” Yes! “Post-emo hardcore” meets “pre-bluegrass,” in my kitchen.

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It wasn’t just the conversation that delighted me. You see, I’m not a big eater of boxed breakfast cereal, organic or otherwise; I only find it tolerable with lots of fresh fruit. The idea of tasting several cereals in isolation and writing notes made my head spin (how many ways can you say “cardboard,” or “too sweet”?). But thankfully, I was able to harness the madness — pardon me, the genius — of crowds.

Grist’s Pick

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Enviro Kidz Organic Penguin Puffs
$3.99/10 oz.

To determine the champion of breakfasts, I had everyone sample a few bites of each cereal in a bit of 2 percent organic milk or rice milk. (Note to my critics: I personally prefer whole milk, raw if possible.) I asked them to rank their four favorites and tallied that information to determine the winner. I include my own tasting notes below, but my preferences were so out of step that they had no bearing on the final results.

Enviro Kidz Organic Penguin Puffs
$3.99/10 oz.
Main ingredients: crispy rice, evaporated cane juice, kamut, “organic corn balls”
Ranking: 1st

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This one pleased nearly the whole panel and snagged top honors. Reactions ranged from “great crunch” to “too sweet but I would definitely still eat it.” One person composed a love letter to it: “you rock my world … I love you.” Another declared, “would give to my kids in a hurry or as a treat.” I found it sweet and artificial tasting, but pretty innocuous.

Erewhon Organic Raisin Bran
$3.99/10 oz.
Main ingredients: organic wheat kernels, organic raisins, barley malt
Ranking: 7th (tie)

This one generated a respectful but not euphoric reaction from the panel. “Super crispy but very dry,” concluded one. “Definitely for the super health nut” opined another. I found them simple and basic — a nice backdrop for morning peaches or berries.

Nature’s Path Organic Optimum Zen Cranberry Ginger
$2.99/12.5 oz.
Main ingredients: brown rice flour, a bunch of other grain flours, cranberries, ginger, and other spices
Ranking: 4th

This rather busy cereal drew plenty of praise and derision. “Hard crunch … great balance of cranberry and cereal,” enthused a supporter. “Looks like a mix with dog food,” complained a detractor, who added, “I don’t feel the harmony.” One taster split the difference. “Good, but Penguins led me closer to enlightenment.” Me, I found the crunch downright startling (like starting the day with a blast of post-emo hardcore), the cranberries too sparse, and the spices nearly nonexistent.

Enviro Kidz Organic Amazon Frosted Flakes
$3.99/14 oz.
Main ingredients: cornmeal and cane juice
Ranking: 6th

This one’s mediocre showing sort of puzzled me. Yes, it’s oversweet and one-note, but it did take me back to my ’70s childhood — Tony the Tiger and all that. One taster loved them: “yummy — good crunch, subtle sweet.” Some found them just OK: “looks boring … sweet, good for kids”; while others were scathing: “chemical sweet,” “bad aftertaste.”

Enviro Kidz Organic Leapin’ Lemurs Peanut Butter and Chocolate
$3.99/10 oz.
Main ingredients: cornmeal, cane juice, peanut butter, molasses, cocoa
Ranking: 5th (tie)

As an admirer of the peanut-butter-and-chocolate combo, I found this one disappointing. It presents a mild toasted peanut flavor, but almost no chocolate. What’s left is creepy, crunchy, screamingly sweet cornballs. Another taster drew the opposite conclusion about the flavor profile: “don’t like the peanut butter, but the chocolate is good.” Some did like it, while another rendered what might be a devastating judgment: “can’t even tell the difference between this and Kix.” What are Kix?

Peace Cereal Hearty Raisin Bran with Crunchy Oat Clusters
$3.49/13 oz. (bought on sale)
Main ingredients: wheat flour, raisins, vegetable oil, rolled oats, lots of other grains
Ranking: 2nd

While the other raisin bran in the tasting underwhelmed the panel, this one generally wowed it. I guess it was the “crunchy oat clusters.” One enthusiast, who ranked it second overall, declared simply, “yeah!” Another praised its “soft crunch,” “big juicy raisins,” and “great” clusters. For me, the clusters made it too damned sweet.

Nature’s Path Organic Heritage Heirloom Whole Grains
$3.99/13.25 oz.
Main ingredients: kamut, millet, oats, spelt, barley, quinoa
Ranking: tied for last

I understand why this one drew near-universal derision from the panel, whose reaction could be summed up in this remark: “I’d rather eat the box.” True enough, on their own, these flakes taste “like a combination of cardboard and stale wheat.” However, for me, a few of these flakes, plus a little kefir and some fresh strawberries, add up to breakfast cereal at its most tolerable.

Peace Cereal Vanilla Almond Crisp
$3.39/14 oz.
Main ingredients: corn flour, rolled oats, almonds
Ranking: 3rd

Reactions ran the gamut, from “awesome” and “good … really crunchy” to “SSUGGAAR! … unnaturally yellow” and “disgusting fake-vanilla oversweet clusters.” One taster straddled the line: “good crunch, not too sweet, slight texture of Styrofoam.” Not too sweet? I’m developing cavities just thinking about this one.

Cascadian Farms Honey Nut O’s
$4.69/10.4 oz.
Main ingredients: corn flour, rolled oats, almonds
Ranking: 5th (tie)

Since this one fills the hippie-Cheerios niche, I would have expected more of a nostalgic reaction. Instead, it inspired comments like “too sweet … overpowers the grain,” “tastes more like cinnamon, not honey,” and “tastes kind of chemical.” A supporter declared them “good old standard.” Me, I can live without them.

Nature’s Path Organic Flax Plus
$3.99/12.5 oz.
Main ingredients: wheat flour, wheat bran, flax, and oats
Ranking: 7th (tie)

The panel I assembled doesn’t go in for the super-hippie stuff. “No,” thundered one taster. “This is what I imagine health food tasting like,” sniped another. “Is it animal food?” one demanded to know. “Bah!” Me, I’d eat this stuff — with some fruit and kefir.

Nature’s Path Organic Millet Rice Oat Bran
$3.99/13.25 oz.
Main ingredients: oat flour, brown rice flour, white millet
Ranking: tied for last

Another whole-grain warhorse from Nature’s Path. Execration rained down from the panel. “The cardboardy blandmaster,” proclaimed one. “Looks like sandpaper, tastes like eating nothing,” concluded another. Even for me, this one was a bit hard to take.

Bottom Line: The winners of this tasting work best for people who are looking for breakfast in a bowl — and who don’t mind a (minimally refined) sugar jolt first thing in the a.m. For these folks, No.-1-ranked Penguin Puffs are certainly worth a try. For those seeking a crunchy, whole-grain backdrop to some delicious fresh fruit, I can recommend the Heritage Whole Grains and Flax Plus by Nature’s Path. In the end, organic cereals are a bit like music — you know, the way bluegrass appeals to one crowd and post-emo hardcore to another.