What does America have for breakfast?

man consuming a banana

Imagine an American breakfast and what comes to mind? Ham and eggs, with hash browns? Pancakes with maple syrup and bacon? The reality tends to be simpler. Cereal and fruit juice have been breakfast staples for generations - though that now seems to be changing.

The breakfast cereal behemoth, Kellogg, announced in July that quarterly global earnings had fallen by a sizable 16% over the year before. That same month, orange juice sales plummeted to the lowest in a decade, according to the Florida Department of Citrus.

Two pillars of the everyday American breakfast, seen for decades as part of a well-rounded morning meal, seem to be slowly losing their appeal to US consumers. But what foods are Americans turning to instead?

One telling sign was the departure last year of the head of Kellogg's US breakfast-foods division, who took up the helm of yogurt maker Chobani Inc. As Kellogg's sales have dropped, Chobani's have skyrocketed to nearly $1bn a year.

According to Harry Balzer, a food industry analyst for market research firm NPD Group, yogurt like Chobani's is a "perfect replacement" for cereal. It's a nourishing dairy product - and it's also portable.

yoghurt

Balzer has been studying changing food trends for more than 30 years. And one thing remains constant, he says: people are looking for products that save them time.

To break into the breakfast market, "you have to give me something new that makes my life easier", he says.

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We're telling people you have to eat in the morning so you don't weigh as much”

End Quote Andrew Brown University of Alabama at Birmingham

Balzer says the rise of easy, portable items like yogurt, breakfast sandwiches, toastable pastry items, fruit, and breakfast bars have all been responsible for stealing cereal's lunch, so to speak.

"Time-saving for my great grandmother was having eggs delivered to her house for the ham and eggs she was going to make for her family," he explains.

"And by the time it came to my mother, maybe it was about the cereal and whether the kids could make the cereal on their own. And by the time it came to me, maybe it was can we stop and get a breakfast sandwich, an Egg McMuffin," Balzer adds. "And when you get to my daughter… she may be looking at it as, 'Can I just give the kids some yogurt and fruit and a bar for breakfast.'"

Some 80% of Americans still eat breakfast inside the home, according to Balzer. An estimated 10% report they skip the meal entirely - people aged between 18 and 35 are most likely to do this - while another 10% get breakfast elsewhere.

And it's that last 10% that have restaurants in a feeding frenzy. In fact, the only area where the crowded restaurant industry has seen growth in the last decade has been on take-out breakfast, Balzer says.

Takeaway breakfast

McDonald's, which began selling the Egg McMuffin in 1971, is still king with more than 19% of all fast-food breakfast sales in the US - sales that are worth $40bn per year. Burger King gobbles up nearly 3%, according to the Wall Street Journal, but companies like Subway and Taco Bell are entering the fray with items such as the new "waffle taco".

Some consumers are looking for a low-fat, low-calorie breakfast, though, or one that matches their personal definition of what a "healthy" breakfast should be. One of the reasons cereal and orange juice have had the pulp beaten out of them is because of a shift away from sugar and carbohydrates toward yogurt and sandwiches with protein-rich fillings.

Breakfasters in Britain have also jumped on the higher-protein trend with eggs showing a 13.7% rise in consumption in the last year. Eggs' perfect partners, bacon and sausage, have also seen a rise in popularity as cereal sales declined, according to The Grocer.

In both countries, the link between weight loss and breakfast is constantly debated. Every year, conflicting studies are released touting breakfast as a must for fighting obesity, or skipping breakfast as the key to keep weight down.

Andrew Brown, a scientist at the The University of Alabama at Birmingham Nutrition and Obesity Research Center, investigated more than 100 different studies in this area and found there was no clear link.

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Breakfast in the UK
boiled egg
  • Cereal, tea and bread are the three most common breakfast items, though cereal and bread have been in long-term decline
  • Eggs are now being eaten 13.7% more often at breakfast than they were a year ago - they feature in about one in 13 breakfasts - partly because of reports that they help people feel full for longer
  • There has also been a 7.1% increase in bacon consumption at breakfast in the last six months
  • One in three people regularly skip breakfast
  • Consumption of on-the-go breakfast products - taken from home to be eaten elsewhere - was down 9% over the six months from December to May, compared with a year earlier

Source: The Grocer

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"There's a halo around breakfast, that if you want to lose weight, you have to eat breakfast," Brown says. "[But] there wasn't a lot of good strong evidence to support it."

What he and his colleagues did find was that American attitudes about breakfast have changed significantly over the last century.

In historical literature from the early 1900s, "you've got these gigantic breakfasts with steak and eggs and oatmeal - so many calories - and it talks about that you must have this energy or you'll waste away, that you need to be able to be fuelled for your day," he says.

"And now we look at the narrative and we're telling people you have to eat in the morning so you don't weigh as much," he says. The theory just wasn't borne out in his study's data.

One thing experts do appear to agree on is the difficulty in determining just what, exactly, Americans do eat for breakfast on any given day. The reason? Most people, when surveyed, tend to lie about it to avoid negative judgement.

According to Balzer, what people say they eat eat says just as much about them as, say, their choice in fashion. They say "what they want you to hear," he says. "They want you to hear they're eating quinoa."

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