Breakfast blues: the trouble with toast

By Paul Mason

Paul Mason is a doctoral candidate in anthropology at Macquarie University, currently in the last months of his write-up, and frequent contributor to Neuroanthropology.  He is eating a lot of off-brand cornflakes in the hopes of gaining an ‘unfair advantage’ over his toast-eating rivals.

Last Monday, the television show Today Tonight here in Australia ran a segment called ‘Inside Cereal Central’. Following a three-minute fifty-second segment looking at the preparation of cornflakes in a local Kellogg’s factory, the narrator said:

Only 30% of Australians kickstart their day with some form of cereal. Now a breakthrough study sponsored by Kellogg’s from Sydney University is showing how significant it is for the academic growth for children.

The longitudinal research study involved the NAPLAN test and included approximately 800 children over a five-year period. The NAPLAN test is a literacy and numeracy test administered to schoolchildren in Australia (some parents and teachers in Australian schools have called into question this testing regime, but that’s another subject).

The researchers claim that children who had cereal, milk and a form of vitamin C in the morning performed better than those who ate something else or nothing at all. Boys in years three, four, and five, and girls in year six who ate a cereal breakfast were found to do better on their reading, grammar and overall literacy test scores [ed: Australians call them ‘years’; Americans, ‘grades’].

In a strategic use of language, the narrator suggested that a cereal breakfast is an “unfair advantage”, inferring that children who ate toast were being cheated, however inadvertently, by their parents.

The screenshot cut to an interview with Australian nutritionist Jennifer O’Dea who headed the research. She asserted that:

What this research has found is that some things are better than others… I think the surprising results were not that breakfast was important because we’ve always known that, but that the specific nutrients, the type of breakfast was very important –positively related to the literacy and numeracy scores.

The narrator then identified the carbohydrates and proteins labeled on the side of a Kellogg’s Cornflakes packet pictured onscreen as “keys to kicking thirsty young minds into gear.” The narrator continued by saying, “…regardless of the brand that’s driving them.” The screenshot then showed an old Kellogg’s commercial with a happy smiling face. The audio was generic, but the visual was brand specific.

What this TV segment omitted to mention is that it costs around seven Aussie dollars for a 375g packet of Kellogg’s Cornflakes. Not all Australian families can afford that weekly expenditure, as 375g of breakfast cereal would only last a few days in most families. Compared to generic loaves of bread that can be purchased for little more than a dollar, cereal might seem like a luxurious alternative for families on a tight budget.

Kids who eat cereal, milk and a form of vitamin C every morning almost certainly come from families who can afford those resources. If families are able to afford Kellogg’s cornflakes for breakfast, then chances are they are able to afford a greater number of books on their bookshelves, have more intellectually stimulating board games in their cupboards, and have access to a raft of other educational resources. Factoring in monetary issues, cereal, milk and Vitamin C might not be the direct cause of higher NAPLAN scores. Rather cereal, milk and Vitamin C may represent the availability of an array of commodities to a privileged group of research participants.

Socioeconomic factors need to be accounted for, but they may only account for part of the research sample, because generic brands of cereal are also available at more affordable prices. The health segment did not mention socioeconomic factors, nor did it highlight the importance of daily habits and practices.

Children who eat cereal in the morning come from families who have been able to set up a certain degree of routine and discipline. For any individual, waking up early enough to prepare and eat breakfast takes motivation and habit-forming behaviour. These attributes are easily correlated with the initiative and forward-planning required for good study practices. Furthermore, morning people are probably going to do better on exams that begin in the morning than night people whose minds are more active at night.

Toast is often the preferred food of people on the run. Eating cereal with milk is slower. Unless you want to make a mess, cereal and milk is not a not a good option for the person on the go. Think of cereal, and you conjure images of eating at a table with other members of the family. Enjoying breakfast as a family requires respect and love among family members. If breakfast is enjoyed as a family, then breakfast could also be considered representative of a family with cohesive relationships between parents and children. Parent-child relationships are extremely important in cognitive and emotional development. Were these variables factored into the research?

A reductionist account of the research data may identify the ingredients of the breakfast as the key factor, just as the Today Tonight show depicted. A more holistic approach is to look at how such ingredients correspond to the family budget, fit into the daily practices of the research participants, and relate to family relationships. This research study looked for a causal link between nutrition and brain development. The study could clearly benefit from an ethnographic perspective that situates food practices within social settings, cultural values and individual experience.

Breakfast is much more than a transformation of nutrients into bodily energy. Breakfast is a practice that people can choose to actively engage in, and in doing so perhaps invigorate and empower their day with the result of improving their performance.

Kellogg’s is strategically maneuvering its product into a valued position within our lives. The company is paying homage to our desire for success among our children, and tapping into the daily ritual of breakfast. Where it isn’t a ritual yet, they want it to become one. Thirty percent of Australians does not appear to be a sufficient number of buyers to satisfy the company. Kellogg’s has made significant strides on this trajectory towards moulding the public image of breakfast.

Many corporations have successfully marketed their products into significant moments within our lives. The De Beers Diamond Company managed to associate the romantic act of engagement with the gift of a diamond. Tobacco companies once actively promoted the gift of cigars at the birth of a baby. Florists capitalize on Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day. Cadbury advertise their ‘Roses chocolates’ in Australia as the way to say ‘thank you.’ Hallmark gets into the act at every conceivable occasion. The list is long and growing.

In a post-Cartesian world where connecting the mind and the body has become a commodity that can be sold, body practices concerned with brain development are an open target for commodification. With increasing attention paid to intelligence, health, and personal achievement, what you eat for any meal is on the sights of suppliers. By encouraging the public to conceptualise breakfast in a certain fashion, Kellogg’s simultaneously market themselves as one of the good guys and improve sales.

In a research market where statistics is power, 800 participants studied over a five-year period is a number that impresses us. But perhaps we need to reflect on our paradigms. We have to remind ourselves of the conceptual frame through which we view our data. From a neuroanthropological perspective, we can recognise the potential role low GI foods play in body nourishment and sustained attention, and we can situate this nutrition with respect to individual habits, social ties, and cultural values.

Let’s have balanced presentations.

Credits:

Essay by Paul Mason.

Graphic by B. D. Waugh, available on his Flickr stream (creative commons license).
B. D. also produces the weblog, Two Dots, a repository of his comics and doodles.

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Breakfast blues: the trouble with toast by Neuroanthropology, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.

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2 Responses to Breakfast blues: the trouble with toast

  1. Jennifer O'Dea says:

    Yes, Greg, I did measure and control for the impact of social class in the analyses of the participants’ literacy and numeracy scores.

    In fact, I used several measures of SES including the school socioeconomic score as well as the mother’s level of education and the father’s level of education.

    You are quite correct in saying that the children’s social background was the greatest predictor of their literacy and numeracy test scores, but what was interesting and new (and not quite communicated in the TV report!) was that the nutritional quality of breakfast added some extra impact in addition to the affect of the social factors (ie additional explanation of the variance).

    That was what I was trying to say – the TV report cut out most of what I said – that the children who ate highly nutritious breakfasts such as cereal, milk and juice or eggs on toast or peanut butter, toast and fruit, for example, scored higher than children who ate nothing at all or who had less nutrients in the breakfast (softdrink, plain toast, water, candy) and this effect occurred independent of the child’s social background.

    The suggestion for further research is that certain nutrients (like iron, fatty acids, protein) are required for brain function and that glycaemic index influences cognitive function.

    Very interesting stuff I think!

    All the best,

    Jennifer.

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    • Paul Mason says:

      Thanks Jennifer. I’m pleased that my critical engagement of the TV report was heading in the right direction. I guess the message for parents is to feed their kids a breakfast that contains more than just sugars and carbohydrates. Out of interest, independent of social background how much higher were the scores of children who ate a nutrient rich breakfast?

      To your suggestions for further research, I would like to add the study of breakfast as a discipline and body practice. Constructive habits and daily rituals, including those that involve food, no doubt contribute to cognitive performance, overall wellbeing and health in general.

      When your research paper becomes available please keep us in the loop. Being a research paper, it will of course be more comprehensive than the TV report and a more faithful representation of your extensive study.

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