Life

A Very Serious Ranking Of Sugary Breakfast Cereals, With And Without Milk

Picking breakfast cereal at any given American grocery store is a dizzying task. There are so damn many brightly colored boxes full of neon-colored, sugar-infused wheat, oat, rice, corn, and bran shapes to chose from. Then there are the healthy choices. The cereals you should eat. The stuff that tastes like wheat, oats, rice, corn, and bran without all the sugar and marshmallows to mask it.

For an adult, the internal struggle of the cereal aisle is cosmic. It’s good vs. evil. The righteous path vs. the valley of the shadow of death. According to data, habit usually wins out. The box you grab is influenced by your history and feelings of nostalgia. Sense memory dominates. My personal picks when I need my cereal to comfort me on a core level are Frosted Mini-Wheats and Raisin Bran. I’d get Cocoa Puffs and Lucky Charms when I stayed with my cousins.

As I became an adult, those habits didn’t shift much. But every once in a while — with the spending power and autonomy of being a non-kid at my disposal — I like to venture out a little. I’ll walk the cereal aisle and give myself free rein to pick one of the brands I’d always longed for as a child. If you, like me, are the type to splurge on a sweet cereal now and again, there’s one rule that’s crucial: Don’t screw this purchase up. No one wants to break their diet for a sugary cereal that’s also a disappointment, gets soggy too quick, or can be recognized by the adult palate as being 90% artificial flavorings and binders.

So what’s the best sugary breakfast cereal to buy, nostalgia be damned? That’s what we’re going to find out below. To do so, I’m tasting 12 classic bowls of breakfast cereal — dry and with milk! — and ranking them according to taste.

Our lineup:

  • Fruit Loops
  • Honey Smacks
  • Frosted Flakes
  • Frosted Mini-Wheats
  • Cap’n Crunch’s Crunch Berries
  • Apple Jacks
  • Lucky Charms
  • Trix
  • Cinnamon Toast Crunch
  • Honey Nut Cheerios
  • Golden Grahams
  • Cocoa Puffs

Why dry and with milk? Let’s face it, we’ve all hurriedly grabbed a handful of cereal as a snack and eaten it dry. We’ve also all poured ourselves a bowl after a long night out to nourish and comfort the soul before passing out. Those are the cereal experiences I’m trying to recreate here. Sound fun?

Let’s rank some breakfast cereal!

Part 1: The Taste

Zach Johnston

Taste 1:

Zach Johnston

The Handful from the Box Taste:

This is pretty bland at first. The fruitiness doesn’t really show up until after you’ve chewed a few and swallowed, which is kind of weird. They’re dry, plain, and need more fruitiness.

The Bowl at Midnight Taste:

That fruit arrives from the first bite when you add in milk. It’s more rounded and a better overall experience. It feels semi-sweet and mildly fruity in the sense that Twizzler is “fruity.”

Taste 2:

Zach Johnston

The Handful from the Box Taste:

I’m getting nothing. There’s a distant sense of dry puffed wheat that’s almost entirely flavorless. The sugar is barely sweet and arrives very late. It’s not burnt or caramelized or “honey” flavored. Certainly not really honey in any significant percentage. It’s just plain white sugar and mild, at that.

The Bowl at Midnight Taste:

This is pretty much the same with milk as it was dry. It’s listless, flavorless, and barely sweet.

Taste 3:

Zach Johnston

The Handful from the Box Taste:

There’s a nice crunch that immediately imparts corn and just the right amount of sugar. It’s sweet, for sure, but countered by an almost roasted, grainy corn vibe.

The Bowl at Midnight Taste:

This holds up with a great crunch in the milk. The roasted corn and sweetness holds its own against the moisture, creating a good spoon of cereal.

Taste 4:

Zach Johnston

The Handful from the Box Taste:

This is surprisingly light for such a big morsel of cereal. The sugar is dialed in and helps the strands of wheat feel like they have more flavor than just plain wheat. There’s a depth at play — in the wheatiness and sweetness — that’s definitely enticing.

The Bowl at Midnight Taste:

Of course, this holds up amazingly well in milk. The sugar frosting stays with the bales of wheat straw. The little pillows soften just enough to not shred the roof of your mouth while still leaving you with a textural and flavorful spoonful.

Taste 5:

Zach Johnston

The Handful from the Box Taste:

This was a delight. The flavors actually feel like real fruit instead of something that was once “fruit essence” before it traveled through a sterile lab. The non-berry morsels also actually taste like something with a nice grain edge and sweetness.

The Bowl at Midnight Taste:

This really holds up in milk. The integrity of the cereal keeps its crunch while the fruit amplifies its fruitiness without relying on just being sweet. It’s balanced and really delivers on what it promises.

Taste 6:

Zach Johnston

The Handful from the Box Taste:

Hum. This is pretty one-note. There’s the thought of apple and maybe what was once cinnamon. There’s not a whole lot going on besides a crunch and stale apple juice and spent cinnamon sticks.

The Bowl at Midnight Taste:

Adding milk doesn’t really change anything. The crunch stays but I’d argue the apple fades even more and the cinnamon disappears completely.

Taste 7:

Zach Johnston

The Handful from the Box Taste:

If it weren’t for the marshmallows, this might be the blandest cereal on the market. The grain nibs are there and feel like they were once wheat but otherwise nothing more than crunch. The marshmallow adds a nice sweetness to give the cereal something for the palate to notice. But this isn’t nearly as fun as the ads make it out to be.

The Bowl at Midnight Taste:

This certainly works better with milk. But you still can’t get past the pointlessness of the cereal without the marshmallows.

Taste 8:

Zach Johnston

The Handful from the Box Taste:

Woah! This is a blast of artificial fruit flavors to the face. It’s kind of like when you fill your cup with a little bit of all the sodas from the soda fountain but really amp up the Hawaiian Punch at the end. There’s a good crunch factor but it’s still really sweet.

The Bowl at Midnight Taste:

Milk calms this one down a bit. But overall, this is a blast of fake, sweet fruit that feels like a bit much.

Taste 9:

Zach Johnston

The Handful from the Box Taste:

This is what Apple Jacks thinks it is. There’s a great crunch that delivers cinnamon-sugar toast vibes with a hint of browned butter in there. It’s … complex.

The Bowl at Midnight Taste:

Is this better in milk? That’s a hard one. It’s definitely good with the cinnamon and sugar really holding on as the crunch fades a bit. Not too shabby.

Taste 10:

Zach Johnston

The Handful from the Box Taste:

This is surprisingly well balanced. The graininess of the Cheerio is the highlight. But the sweetness does feel like honey more than just sugar with a slight nuttiness that plays back into the grain.

The Bowl at Midnight Taste:

Milk doesn’t mute any of the flavors and, arguably, amps up the honey nature of the bite.

Taste 11:

Zach Johnston

The Handful from the Box Taste:

This really nails the Graham Cracker taste and vibe. The addition of a sweet edge with a hint of vanilla is a good play and makes this very snackable.

The Bowl at Midnight Taste:

This loses a little luster with milk. Still, that dark cracker nature with a hint of sweet remains, leaving you with a solid morning sugar bump.

Taste 12:

Zach Johnston

The Handful from the Box Taste:

Meh. This tastes like dry cocoa powder that was made by someone who had chocolate explained to them and that explanation was spoken in a language the listener didn’t really understand. Plus, the puffs are overly airy and damn near pointless.

The Bowl at Midnight Taste:

Milk doesn’t really do anything to help the shitty powdered chocolate vibes. Yes, the milk turns into chocolate milk, sort of. But it’s bland choco milk. That doesn’t ease the disappointment.

Part 2: The Ranking

Zach Johnston

12. Honey Smacks — Taste 2

Kelloggs

Average Price: $3.64

The Cereal:

This is a puffed wheat cereal with a honey-flavored sugar coating. Ironically (for this tasting), Honey Smacks is the cereal with the highest sugar content of any cereal on this list.

Bottom Line:

This tasted like nothing. Don’t bother.

Dry or w/milk:

Neither.

11. Cocoa Puffs — Taste 12

General Mills

Average Price: $3.64

The Cereal:

Cocoa Puffs are from the Kix and Trix family of grain cereals. The puffs are made with a mix of corn and rice before “puffing.” These are the same as Kix, just with cocoa powder added.

Bottom Line:

That fake cocoa powder was impossible to get past and the listlessness of the puff was the nail in the coffin.

Dry or w/milk:

Neither.

10. Apple Jacks — Taste 6

Kelloggs

Average Price: $2.98

The Cereal:

Apple Jacks are little o-shaped puffs made with a mix of grains. Those grains are dyed green and orange and flavored with apple and cinnamon with plenty of sugar.

Bottom Line:

This tasted exactly as bad as I remembered it. There were at least the remnants of the flavors promised… but they were severely lacking.

Dry or w/milk:

Neither.

9. Lucky Charms — Taste 7

General Mills

Average Price: $3.64

The Cereal:

Lucky Charms is a mix of sugar-coated oat pieces with hardened and multi-hued marshmallows. The toasted oat pieces create a counterpoint to the very sweet marshmallow, which is essentially the only reason anyone eats Lucky Charms.

Bottom Line:

In the immortal words of Lisa Simpson, “Eewww, Bart! Don’t put the non-marshmallow pieces back in the box. They go in the trash.”

Dry or w/milk:

With milk.

8. Fruit Loops — Taste 1

Kelloggs

Average Price: $3

The Cereal:

Fruit Loops are dyed multi-grain loop puffs. The loops are all flavored with the same “fruit” flavor but there’s no fruit anywhere near the making of this cereal. And yes, all the different colors are the exact same flavor.

Bottom Line:

Even though the fruitiness of these arrives kind of late, at least it’s there. You do feel like you’re eating an okay sugary cereal but just barely.

Dry or w/milk:

With milk.

7. Honey Nut Cheerios — Taste 10

General Mills

Average Price: $3.64

The Cereal:

Pulverized oats are used to make Cheerios. In this case, the sugar content is amped up with the addition of sugar, brown sugar, and honey to sweeten the deal.

Bottom Line:

This wasn’t too bad. The sweetness was decent and the grain nature of the Os was legit. That being said, this felt more “healthy” than “give me that sugar rush, baby!”

Dry or w/milk:

Dry.

6. Golden Grahams — Taste 11

General Mills

Average Price: $3.64

The Cereal:

This cereal is a mix of wheat and corn blended and baked into cracker form. It’s then sweetened with sugar and brown sugar to add a little depth beyond a plain old Graham Cracker.

Bottom Line:

The first thing I wrote in my notes was, “Not bad.” That’s why they are right in the middle. They taste like real Graham Crackers with a little sweet edge. They’re … nice.

Dry or w/milk:

Dry.

5. Trix — Taste 8

General Mills

Average Price: $3.64

The Cereal:

Trix is corn puffs that are flavored with different “fruit” flavors depending on the shape of each puff. The recipe has gone back and forth a lot over the years with it most recently reverting back to artificial colors and flavors after a backlash to ditching those in 2017. [The real fruit ones were delicious, IMO –ed]

Bottom Line:

Wow, these were intense. If you’re looking for an eye-opener in the morning with a real sugar high, this is the cereal for you.

Dry or w/milk:

With milk.

4. Cinnamon Toast Crunch — Taste 9

General Mills

Average Price: $3.64

The Cereal:

Cinnamon Toast Crunch starts off with mini-squares of wheat and rice crackers, with the rice adding the “crunch” aspect of the cereal. The squares are then dusted with cinnamon and sugar to recreate a cinnamon toast vibe.

Bottom Line:

This felt classic while also delivering on real cinnamon spice, butteriness, and a nice sugar rush. They lose their luster a little on milk but are still potent enough to be enjoyed.

Dry or w/milk:

Dry.

3. Frosted Flakes — Taste 3

Kelloggs

Average Price: $3

The Cereal:

Frosted Flakes are a mix of milled corn, sugar, and malt flavor. The flakes hold onto a crisp and crunchy vibe that makes this one of the most popular cereals on the shelf.

Bottom Line:

These were pretty damn good, all things considered. They’re sweet, sure. But they also pack in the Big Cornflake Energy that balances out all that sweetness. This is good stuff.

Dry or w/milk:

Both.

2. Frosted Mini-Wheats — Taste 4

Kelloggs

Average Price: $3.64

The Cereal:

Shredded wheat stops being a health food when you frost it with a sugar glaze. Back in 1980, Kellogg’s introduced the mini pillows of shredded wheat and a layer of sugar frosting and the world was forever changed.

Bottom Line:

This is a classic that’s full of flavorful wheat and sweet enough to widen your dewy morning eyes. There’s also a heft here that helps you feel like you’re actually eating something and you feel full when you’re done. My nostalgia might be a factor here, but I think these really hold up.

Dry or w/milk:

With milk.

1. Cap’n Crunch’s Crunch Berries — Taste 5

Quaker

Average Price: $2.72

The Cereal:

Cap’n Crunch is an oat and corn puff that’s just sweet and crisp enough to stand up to milk. The “Crunch Berries” are colored in green, blue, red, and purple and are all flavored with the same “berry” essence, regardless of the color of the berry.

Bottom Line:

This was damn near perfectly balanced. You feel the grainy nature of the light yet full-bodied puffs while the fruit feels real. It’s sweet enough to get a good sugar rush and really holds up well in the milk.

Dry or w/milk:

Both.

Part 3: Final Thoughts

Zach Johnston

I haven’t had Cap’n Crunch’s Crunch Berries in decades. In fact, I rarely had it when I was a kid. Still, it was a clear winner with an all-around classic sugary breakfast cereal feel. It stayed crunchy, the flavors had balance, and it was really enjoyable.

All of that being said, the top four were really all great and pretty much interchangeable depending on my mood. Trix was close but a little too “smack you in the face with sweet, fake fruit!” for me.

The bottom three were far behind the rest. Cocoa Puffs, Apple Jacks, and Honey Smacks were completely lacking in any real flavor, much less depth. With Honey Smacks specifically, it was almost offensive how bland they were.

So which one of these is your go-to morning sugar rush vehicle? And which will your reach for next time you feel inspired to walk the cereal aisle?

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