In 1963, General Mills Vice President John Holahan was tasked with turning one of the company’s current cereals into something kids would find a bit more “magically delicious.” If a baseline of either Cheerios or Wheaties wasn’t restrictive enough, this new product had to be developed in six months, a fair amount shorter than the two to three years of development allotted to most of the company’s products. Fortunately for Holahan, inspiration apparently struck at the grocery store, when he encountered his favorite candy and decided to add it cereal, leading to the creation of the marshmallow-laden Lucky Charms. It’s a remarkable achievement, as Lucky Charms have now been produced for over 50 years, completely eclipsing the Circus Peanut candies that inspired them.
It seems fair to say that most people wouldn’t have been inspired by Circus Peanuts like Holahan was. The peanut-shaped marshmallow-based candy did used to be more popular, but the semi-spongy texture never made it a best seller. Instead of tasting anything like a peanut, the most common flavor is banana, and even that is rumored to have been the result of a “banana oil accident.” On top of all that, they’re also tricky to make, as the wrong amount of moisture will cause them to deform or get crusty. None of this sounds especially appealing when added to a bowl of Cheerios and milk, which is probably why the marshmallows in Lucky Charms were considerably altered before going to market.
Over five decades of marketing marbits
The marshmallows in Lucky Charms have actually been engineered enough to have their own name— “marbits.” To help get kids to try their new food, General Mills launched Lucky Charms with one of the biggest advertising campaigns for a breakfast cereal, pushing ads in comic books, newspapers and on television. Lucky the Leprechaun was invented providing a theme that would then influence the shapes and bright colors of the marbits, apparently making them more appealing in the process. This marketing push worked fairly well, although it should be noted that the allure of marbit clovers, hearts, stars and moons weren’t enough to really spike sales. To really solidify the cereal’s place in the market, the recipe needed extra sugar on the cereal pieces too.
With Lucky and the appeal of marbits being established in kids’ minds and palettes, General Mills only needed to play with the aesthetics of Lucky Charms to keep interest up. Lucky the Leprechaun and the marbits have been given regular updates, giving the cereal a dizzying array of shapes and colors in its history. In roughly chronological order, marbits have been offered as clovers, hearts, stars, moons, diamonds, horseshoes, whales, balloons, Christmas ornaments, candy canes, bells, trees, rainbows, pots of gold, different moons, hats with clovers, shooting starts, hourglasses, Olympic medals, Olympic torches, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, ice skates, snowmen, stockings, mittens, Man in the Moon (blue moons with a yellow-toothed smile), wreaths, presents, crystal balls, locks, bats, ghosts, cauldrons and books. If that somehow weren’t enough novelty for breakfast, other twists have been added to some of these designs, from swirled colors to colors that change when milk is added. If that weren’t enough to hold your interest, chocolate and berry variations of the cereal have been sold, although they don’t seem to have the staying power of the standard, Cheerios-based recipe.
The crunch of sugar crystals
Aside from the supposed “lore” behind each marbit (blue moons, for example, let Lucky turn invisible), the secret to Lucky Charms is probably the particular crunchiness of its marshmallows. It’s obviously an upgrade over the spongy Circus Peanuts, but isn’t exactly what you’d get from your usual puffed marshmallow either. While the latter option would offer plenty of sugar and opportunities for coloring, they would also be more likely to make the cereal go stale in the bag thanks to their internal moisture.
However, this doesn’t mean that Lucky Charms’ marbits are simply dehydrated marshmallows. That’s probably a close approximation, but doesn’t seem to capture the crisp texture of a true cereal marshmallow. General Mills isn’t in a hurry to release the official recipe, but marbits seem to be the result of unstable corn syrup. Unlike the shelf-stable corn syrup you buy at the grocery store, a homemade corn syrup is more likely to crystallize over time. The marshmallows are still dried out, but the crystallized sugar makes sure they develop a satisfying crunch instead of just getting powerdery when eaten.
Of course, if you’re not looking to cook your own batch of homemade marbits, you can always buy a bag of cereal marshmallows instead. It may be lacking in fabulous new unicorns, but if you wanted cereal, you’d be buying Cheerios, right?
Source: Let’s Raise a Bowl to the Little Fella, Recognizing Innovation