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Cheerios: 70 years of haute cuisine for toddlers

BUFFALO, N.Y. — Here's a little quiz for the breakfast table: What is the most popular cereal brand in American grocery stores?

Hint: It has been General Mills' top name since 1951.

Another hint: If you're a parent, you've vacuumed it from the minivan and under the high-chair cushion by the cupful.

The answer, of course, is Cheerios.

The iconic cereal, known by its distinctive yellow box, is 70 years old this year and remains a force on the breakfast-cereal market. One of every eight boxes of cereal to leave the shelf in America carries the Cheerios name.

To make Cheerios, balls of dough are heated and shot out of a "puffing gun" at hundreds of miles an hour, according to General Mills. The company's waterfront plant in Buffalo, N.Y., has been firing them off since 1941, often cloaking the city with a distinctive toasty-with-a-sweet-finish aroma and inspiring T-shirts announcing, "My city smells like Cheerios." More than 10 shapes and sizes were considered before the makers settled on little Os.

Since then, the company has introduced several flavors, starting with Honey Nut in 1979. Last year, it added chocolate. In 2009, sales of Honey Nut Cheerios surpassed the original flavor for the first time and remain in the top spot today.

Minneapolis-based General Mills began advertising Cheerios (first called Cheerioats) as a first food for toddlers in 1974. Since 1999, the company has focused on promoting the cereal as healthful; it's made from whole-grain oats, with 3 grams of fiber and 1 gram of sugar per serving. But in 2009, federal regulators took issue with the cereal box's claim that it was "clinically proven to help lower cholesterol." In a warning letter, the Food and Drug Administration said only FDA-approved drugs can make such a claim.

General Mills, in its response, stood by the claims and said the FDA's complaints dealt with how the language appears on the box, not the cereal itself. The case remains open.

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