(First appeared in the Orlando Sentinel August 26, 2007)
My husband is nothing if not consistent.
Every morning for the past 28 years, he has eaten a variation on the same breakfast -- a bowl of heart-healthy oat-based cereal topped with fruit. The fruit changes from season to season, usually following whatever is locally available at the time.
During the years, his choice of moistening agents has evolved. A long time ago, he may have used milk, but I barely remember that period. For years, he has poured soy milk over his fruit and grain mixture. Before that, unsweetened fruit juice. Recently, he has been testing out plain no-fat yogurt, an addition I would have no interest in eating with my cereal, but one he seems to find tasty.
The one ingredient in my husband's healthful breakfast that has remained constant for decades is the cereal itself. The name that has earned his unyielding loyalty for all these years is Nature O's, made by Arrowhead Mills.
Nature O's looks a lot like Cheerios but without the added sweetener or salt. Made only from organic oat flour, brown rice flour and wheat germ, Nature O's has provided Ralph with a completely fulfilling meal that is healthy and tastes good.
"I can't understand why anyone would want to put salt on their cereal," is his usual response to most prepackaged breakfast offerings. "Cereal doesn't need salt to taste good."
Unfortunately, most of America disagrees.
Go into any grocery store -- health food or mainstream mercantile -- and the cereal aisle will yield a dazzling array of day-starting meal options. But a close look on each box's ingredient panel shows that almost all contain some salt and sugar. There are a few brands of puffed cereal without sodium and, of course, there is plain uncooked oatmeal, but if you desire an oat-based cereal with a pleasant crunch, Nature-O's is the only brand available.
I should say, was the only brand available, because a few months ago Arrowhead Mills, now a part of The Hain Celestial Group, Inc., discontinued Nature O's. That put my husband into a major funk.
"What am I going to eat?" he asked, distraught.
You would think the world had ended. In a small way, for a person with such set patterns, it had.
I reassured Ralph that we would find something else and set off on an ambitious search for a cereal substitute. In every store I visited -- and I went to every kind of grocery store imaginable -- I sought out the cereal aisle. What I found was an abundance of oat-based circle-shaped cereals, but none without added salt or sweetener.
"Try this one," became my weekly mantra as I brought home yet another less-that-ideal alternative. "It only has 9 percent sodium."
It only took one bowlful before that cereal was deemed to be A) too salty, B) too sweet, or C) the wrong kind of crunch and too salty or sweet. Much to my 15-year-old son's delight, our pantry began looking a lot like the grocery store cereal aisle. In true teenage there's-never-enough-to-eat-around-here fashion, Toby took full advantage of this newfound source of breakfast options.
There are dozens of oat-based cereals out there with all sorts of fancy titles. General Mills, the company that manufactures Cheerios, offers eight versions of its cereal. There are MultiGrain, Berry Burst, Yogurt Burst, Frosted, Fruity, Apple and Honey Nut as well as the traditional Cheerios. With all those options you would think that a company that, according to its Web site, prides itself on providing "wholesome goodness" would offer at least one no-salt, sugar-free oat cereal option.
It doesn't. Neither do Kellogg's, Post, Quaker Oats, Kashi, Cascadian Farms or any of the many other cereal manufacturers.
That's odd, especially these days when the benefits of a reduced-sodium, low-sugar diet are so universally proclaimed by everyone from small-town doctors to vast government agencies. It is common knowledge that excessive salt intake contributes to high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, kidney failure and a slew of other illnesses, while sugar is implicated in obesity, diabetes and heart disease.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture suggests a daily intake of no more than 1 teaspoon -- less than 2,300 milligrams -- of sodium daily. If you already suffer from hypertension, are middle-aged, elderly or of African-American descent, the government suggests limiting your sodium intake to 1,500 milligrams.
What my husband questions is why cereal manufacturers have to add salt at all when consumers could just as easily flavor their cereal themselves.
"If you want cereal to be salty, just use a salt shaker," he said.
I agree. Unfortunately, most people don't.
We are a salt- and sugar-loving nation, and that's the problem. Sodium and sweeteners are added to so many foods that it is nearly impossible to keep within the range of 1,500 to 2,300 milligrams a day if you eat typical American fare.
Lately, Ralph has been starting the day with a bowl of Oatios, an oat-based breakfast cereal manufactured by a company called New Morning. The salt (125 milligrams) and sugar (2 grams) content is still far higher than he would like it to be, but so far, this cereal is the closest he has found to his much-missed Nature O's.
As a loving wife, I wish I could solve my husband's breakfast dilemma. I wish I could conjure up a crunchy oat cereal in the oven the way you can re-create granola, but I can't. What I can do is continue to badger the cereal manufacturers with e-mail missives admonishing them for their lack of sodium-free options. With luck, some corporate honcho may listen and either bring back Nature O's or produce a similar healthful option.
Until then, Ralph will have to live on hope and a salty, sugary "alternative" breakfast. Yum.