The Untold Truth Of Apple Jacks

In the summer of 1965, Kellogg's failed experiment to create a Combos-like cheese-filled snack led to the development of Apple Jacks. As Dr. William Thilly, then a lowly intern from MIT and now a Professor of Genetics, Toxicology and Biological Engineering at MIT, explained to Extra Crispythe team forgot to connect the cable to early stage cheese liquid machine. The result? "High pressure cheese covered the entire research and development area, all this equipment that was impeccably maintained. There was cheese everywhere."

Being both clever and an intern, Thilly set about steaming the cheese off the equipment and saved the research department from a fate worse than feta. His reward: a pay raise and the chance to design his own whatever. As he had grown up on a farm — the very farm from which he escaped a summer of chores by interning at Kellogg's — Tilly immediately fell back upon apples. The person assigned to work with him brought some Os left over from an older Kellogg's brand. The building blocks were in place.

"First, we tried dried applesauce, but the cereal stuck together and sank to the bottom of the bowl," Thilly remembered. The result was an unpalatable blob. They discovered a dried apple substance sold in California, however, and after receiving a train car's worth, applied it, along with some cinnamon, to the Os — and thus was born the prototype for Apple Jacks

'Here I come, I am CinnaMon'

Thilly left the project behind as he resumed his studies at MIT. Whatever his initial work tasted like, today's Apple Jacks has discarded any attempt to apply apples. This fact fueled the cereal's advertising campaign in the 2000s.

According to a 2005 piece in the Los Angeles Times, the TV ads (you can see a compilation on YouTube) consisted of a race between an apple character called Bad Apple and a Jamaican cinnamon stick called CinnaMon (yes, we know). Bad Apple cheats, a la Looney Tunes, but CinnaMon wins. The tag line? "Apple Jacks don't taste like apples because the taste of sweet cinnamon is the winner, mon."

That's right. Apple Jacks don't taste like apples. It's their thing. It's been their thing as far back as a 1994 commercial featuring a young Julia Stiles (on YouTube) and even further back, in a 1990 commercial featuring Leonardo DiCaprio (also preserved on YouTube). (Apparently he's the one in purple shorts.)

The understandable complaint against this message was that a company was thriving off children consuming their unhealthy products by framing apples as the bad guys. Furthermore, as Keith Ayoob, a dietician at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, told ABC, "Cinnamon isn't sweet. The sugar is what gives it a sweet taste." They added, though, that they weren't as worried about the possible messaging effects as others. 

If not apples, what?

CinnaMon aside, it isn't clear how a cereal called Apple Jacks came to sell itself as a cereal that doesn't taste like apples. Snack History simply states that by the '90s, advertisements included children who told confused adults that they ate Apple Jacks for just that reason.

Describing the taste of Apple Jacks has proved difficult. In another Extra Crispy piece, Stephanie Burt tackled the mystery. She asked Cynthia Wong, multiple nominee for the James Beard Award for pastry chef, who responded, "Besides sugar? Maybe some cinnamon, some malt syrup. Definitely sugar." Besides the concrete knowledge of sugar, however, Apple Jacks tastes like Apple Jacks.

That nostalgic Apple Jacks taste comes at a cost, though. In 2014, Apple Jacks appeared in a report on sugar in children's cereals conducted by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), an environmental health research and advocacy organization. Specifically, Apple Jacks appears as one of the most sugary brands of cereal in the nation, with 12 grams of sugar per serving, the same amount it contained when the EWG flagged them in 2011. While not the worst offender on the list (that would be Kellogg's Honey Smacks), the sheer amount of sugar may go some way to explain why the flavor is hard to describe.

Apple Jacks in 2020

After the '90s ads of children liking the lack of apples, and the questionable apple vs. cinnamon races of the 2000s, Apple Jacks went pretty quiet. 

That is, until March 17, 2020. That's right the week when the United States realized that COVID-19 had really struck. Apple Jacks announced a new flavor of Apple Jacks: Apple Jacks Caramel. With orange and red loops, the new flavor offered a caramel apple flavor instead of apple cinnamon, as further evidenced by the package art which features a very happy (perhaps even reformed) Bad Apple, but no CinnaMon. As Best Products explained, what made this announcement exciting was the relative lack of Apple Jacks launches: "Sure, Kellogg's constantly releases new cereal flavors, like the new SpongeBob Squarepants Cereal. However, getting one from Apple Jacks is definitely a treat!"

Apple Jacks Caramel came out in June to less than universal acclaim. While Walmart reviews give the new product a 3.6 out of 5, Jamelle Bouie, a columnist for The New York Times, recorded his reaction and thoughts for his cereal reviews at Serious Eats, giving the product a score of zero spoons. "This is, quite possibly, the worst thing I've ever eaten," he said. While he remains ambivalent about the artificial flavors in regular Apple Jacks, the added artificiality of fake caramel made the cereal inedible. 

With that, Apple Jacks once again becomes a fan favorite that does little to rock the boat.