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FOOD

These are the best — and worst — sugar cereals

Golden Grahams are great, Cocoa Puffs are creepy, and other controversial truths

During COVID, cereal sales went up across the board. And who’s to blame us if, during a time of great uncertainty, we turn to our childhood comforts? We ranked 16 of the most popular sugar cereals from best to worst.Lane Turner

Sugar cereal isn’t good for us. No doctor ever told anyone to eat more Fruity Pebbles or Reese’s Puffs. (Yes, these exist.) There’s no logical argument that can be made for its consumption. But during COVID, cereal sales went up across the board, jumping nearly 9 percent in 2020 after years of decline, according to Nielsen data. And who’s to blame us if, during a time of great uncertainty, we turn to our childhood comforts? Tony the Tiger! Toucan Sam! They’re here for us.

So pull up a chair, grab a spoon, and pour yourself a big bowl. The only question is which kind to choose. Here is a definitive ranking of sugar cereals, from best to worst.

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Lucky Charms.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

1. Lucky Charms

Inarguably the best sugar cereal, from concept to execution. With toasty oat bits and sweet marshmallows, it offers the perfect balance of flavors; Cheerios-esque crispness meets airy, freeze-dried, space-food crunch in pure textural harmony. When the marshmallows start to get just a little melty in the milk? Chef’s kiss! (You can purchase bags of these so-called marbits on their own; they’re so good they require their own industry term.) It’s magically delicious, indeed. But Lucky Charms’ charm is about so much more. It’s made with thought and care. Those clover marbits could have been merely green; instead, they are dark green at the center with a light-green outline. The distinctive arced rainbows feature three colors in one. Beautiful! The cereal comes with its own mythology, a bit of Tolkien-esque world-building over breakfast. These aren’t merely pink hearts, yellow moons, orange stars. Each marbit officially represents one of mascot Lucky the Leprechaun’s powers: Hearts give life to objects, moons bring invisibility, stars confer flight, and so on. And then there are the oat bits, runelike and enigmatic, shaped like symbols from a secret order. What do they mean, bobbing there in the milk? Only Lucky knows, and he isn’t telling.

Sog resistance: Still edible at 10 minutes, though starting to disintegrate.

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Milk effect: Tinted an eerie blue, with discernible aroma and flavor. A pleasant tipple, like flavored coffee creamer. Would make a nice punch with pineapple and rum.

Frosted Flakes.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

2. Frosted Flakes

What’s not to love? Simple, classic, and excellent, in the way of vanilla ice cream or a doughnut covered in powdered sugar. Frosted Flakes isn’t exciting so much as essential to its genre: Sugar cereal wouldn’t be sugar cereal without it. Unquestionably, perfectly sweet, like a Jordan almond without the almond; excellent with black coffee. I don’t want to eat a whole bowl of many sugar cereals, but I do want to eat a whole bowl of these. Maybe two.

Sog resistance: Better staying power than expected from a thin flake. They verge on mushy around 5 minutes, but even the lightly soggy flakes have their appeal.

Milk effect: Remains pure white, like the freshest snow. Neutral but sweet, with a light malty roundness. Highly drinkable, down to the last drop.

Froot Loops. Lane Turner/Globe Staff

3. Froot Loops

Iconic. A modern pop artifact. One bite will transport you to a Barbie Dreamhouse of the mind. That unmistakable faux fruitiness wafts from the box with the sillage of a luxury perfume: “Follow your nose, it always knows!,” as sage Toucan Sam would counsel. Froot Loops likes to mess with your head. They’re every color of the rainbow, yet these loops all taste the same. And they taste marvelous, which is to say like sugar and faux fruit. Froot. They don’t pretend to be anything they’re not, and I respect it.

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Sog resistance: Could perform better. A bit squishy after 5 minutes.

Milk effect: Takes on a distinct pastel aura but tastes only lightly sweet. This speaks to the integrity of the cereal, which holds on to its essence, giving little up.

Golden Grahams. Lane Turner/Globe Staff

4. Golden Grahams

Do you enjoy the works of Jane Austen and Henry James? Help yourself to a bowl of Golden Grahams, the cereal equivalent of a classically written novel — something that would never come to market today but remains utterly compelling, perfect in form and structure. The squares are very crunchy, slightly curved, ribbed for your pleasure. The honey graham cracker flavor actually tastes golden. Marketing understandably plays to nostalgia, with retro type and “Remember the ‘80s?” quizzes on the back of the box. After all, who’s going to buy this who didn’t ride a Huffy bike with a banana seat and handlebar streamers? It’s a shame, because Golden Grahams is a simple delight. Much better than that usurper Cinnamon Toast Crunch.

Sog resistance: Begins to soften after 6 minutes, and actually tastes better that way until it goes truly floppy at the 9-minute mark.

Milk effect: Golden-brown, as if sepia-tinted with memories. The taste is lovely, sweet and graham-y.

Cap’n Crunch.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

5. Cap’n Crunch

Taste-wise, Cap’n Crunch works as well now as the day the coating was developed by local hero Pamela Low, a flavorist from New Hampshire. (She based it on a treat her grandmother made by pouring a sauce of butter and brown sugar over rice.) Salty-sweet with a hint of umami, in the manner of fleur de sel caramels or miso-spiked butterscotch, it is deliciously on trend. The texture is not Low’s fault. Who thought eating a bowl of tiny fiberglass mouth loofahs was a good idea?

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Sog resistance: No matter how long it sits in milk, the appropriately named Cap’n Crunch retains the power to slice tongues. Still crunching away at 15 minutes.

Milk effect: Takes on a tannish hue. Salted caramel flavor. Would make excellent soft-serve.

Cinnamon Toast Crunch. Lane Turner/Globe Staff

6. Cinnamon Toast Crunch

The best cereal of all time, many say. Pshaw. Sure, the cinnamon sugar is delicious. It’s so wholesome, like something home-baked. But CTC gets soggy almost instantly. Eat it fast or suffer the consequences. It also has a hint of bitterness, tannic and walnut-esque. Looks like Golden Grahams but lacks the crunchy longevity. And then there’s little sister French Toast Crunch, which stays crisp in milk and looks adorable, like teeny pieces of actual French toast. Cinnamon Toast Crunch: good but overrated.

Sog resistance: Unpleasant after 3 minutes.

Milk effect: Piebald, speckled with cinnamon. Tastes autumnal, like a cider doughnut. Add to eggnog or serve warm alongside apple pie.

Cocoa Pebbles.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

7. Cocoa Pebbles

Chocolate doesn’t belong in cereal, a medium that does the noble flavor great disservice. But in the landscape of chocolate cereals, Cocoa Pebbles stands above the others. You can tell from its color, a rich, dark brown. You can tell from its taste, with just the right amount of cocoa (medium) and sweetness (lots). In terms of texture, it’s similar to Cocoa Krispies, minus their snap crackle pop. But those are pallid, inferior, lacking in flavor. If you must have chocolate cereal, it’s Cocoa Pebbles for you.

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Sog resistance: Minimal. Crispness obliterated around 4 minutes.

Milk effect: Up to the billing on the box: “Turns milk chocolatey!” Indeed. The brownest milk of all the chocolate cereals; it legit tastes like chocolate milk.

Frosted Mini Wheats. Lane Turner/Globe Staff

8. Frosted Mini Wheats

Like groat-flavored Brillo pads with sugary hoarfrost on one side. Eat it or scrub pots with it. Ideal for those who like their fiber delivery system sweetened. That wholesome graininess lurks quietly in the background, an appealing counterbalance. Very nice with berries in the bowl.

Sog resistance: Sodden after 4 minutes, but in a pleasant way. Milk gets trapped in the fibers, and the husk collapses enjoyably between the teeth.

Milk effect: Vaguely vermicular, studded with wiggly filaments. Sweet with a little texture; reminiscent of Grape-Nut pudding.

Honey Nut Cheerios.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

9. Honey Nut Cheerios

Honey Nut Cheerios seems to work across the aisle, shelved directly in the center, bridging vice and virtue. It feels like a valid if slightly indulgent breakfast choice, the grownup’s sugar cereal. It tastes just like you want it to, Cheerios but sweet and lightly nutty. But don’t be fooled by its moderate appearance. Read your labels, parents. That wholesome oat flavor disguises just how much sugar Honey Nut Cheerios contains.

Sog resistance: Solid. Yields around the 8-minute mark.

Milk effect: Very sweet! Surprisingly sweet! Sweeter than the cereal. Sweeter than most cereal milk. Honey Nut Cheerios is the cereal version of a fruity vodka cocktail where all you can taste is the juice, until suddenly you’re snockered. The milk is the tell.

Corn Pops. Lane Turner/Globe Staff

10. Corn Pops

Middle of the road. A light, neutral sweetness and good crunch; a bit bland. Pleasingly nubbly-looking, with varied shapes. A cereal to eat when you don’t want to think that hard. Perhaps still in production only to placate the corn lobby.

Sog resistance: Good float and textural intrigue: Milk permeates the interior quickly, but the outside maintains crunch. Starts to give way at 4 minutes; the show is over by 7.

Milk effect: Color neutral. Tastes like corn. Drain fodder.

Cap’n Crunch’s Crunch Berries.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

11. Cap’n Crunch’s Crunch Berries

Not for those with fragrance sensitivities. Smelly berries come in shades of green, purple, Smurf, and pink. They flavor the rest of the cereal, overpowering its umami goodness. If you prefer Mango Tango Tutti Fruity Tea to matcha, may be your bag. The berries’ texture is like concrete, on brand for the staunchly anti-mouth Cap’n. Pro tip: Use as pumice stone to smooth rough skin in a pinch.

Sog resistance: Uneven rate of release. At 9 minutes the Cap’n is still crunching but his berries are mush.

Milk effect: Attractive color flecks. Mild berry flavor. Perhaps an improvement over the cereal itself.

Trix.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

12. Trix

Prettiest cereal around. String yourself a bracelet of the red and purple flowers, orange and yellow moons, blue flowers, and … olives with pimento? I don’t know what those are supposed to be. Smells like Nerds when you open the box. Tastes like Nerds, too. Not bad, just not breakfast cereal. Trix is more like candy.

Sog resistance: Good staying power. Holds out for 7 minutes; diminishing returns after 10.

Milk effect: Colors blend to an unpleasant hue; floating flecks on surface. Tastes like a very mild Strawberry Quik.

Reese’s Puffs.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

13. Reese’s Puffs

Actual candy: perfect inspiration for the most important meal of the day. Smells like real Reese’s. Spheres of barely differentiated brown and tan have barely differentiated chocolate and peanut butter flavor. Each is coated in some powdery, sugary substance. Cloying. How does this seem sweeter than actual Reese’s? Requires extra milk, and maybe a pinch of salt.

Sog resistance: Starts to sog at 5 minutes, but some crispness remains even at 13.

Milk effect: Not much coloration. Sweet from the jump; starts to take on chocolate-peanut butter flavor after it steeps.

Fruity Pebbles.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

14. Fruity Pebbles

Looks like confetti and smells unholy, like chewable vitamins. Extremely sweet; extremely bright; extremely fruity. Tastes like a scary clown might pop out of the box at any moment. Tastes like attending a children’s party on psychedelics. Mommy, I want to go home!

Sog resistance: Weak. Mush mouth before the 4-minute mark.

Milk effect: The color of certain kinds of mold, a pale pinky orange. It has flavor. The flavor of Fruity Pebbles.

Cocoa Puffs.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

15. Cocoa Puffs

Way too much. Too cocoa-y. Too crunchy. Too sweet. Most artificial-tasting; bad aftertaste lingers and lingers. The most chocolatey of the chocolate cereals. Just buy a box of brownie mix. The bird mascot is weird.

Sog resistance: Impressive. Spheres’ center still bone-dry at 9 minutes.

Milk effect: Boldly brown in color, with a mild cocoa flavor.

Apple Jacks. Lane Turner/Globe Staff

16. Apple Jacks

Tastes like the inside of a Yankee Candle store. Looks like Froot Loops that faded in the sun. Made with dried apple and concentrated apple juice, but has no apple flavor. What are the red flecks supposed to be? There is no point to Apple Jacks. None at all.

Sog resistance: No backbone. Soggy by 4 minutes.

Milk effect: A pretty melon color; generically sweet. Still doesn’t taste like apple or cinnamon, but might be the best part of eating Apple Jacks all the same.


Devra First can be reached at devra.first@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.