Original publish date: February 13, 2017
February 1972 was a busy and historic month. The Winter Olympics opened in Sapporo, Japan. The FCC created cable television as we first knew it. David Bowie introduced his “Ziggy Stardust” alter-ego during his world concert tour. Richard M. Nixon became the first U.S, President to visit the People’s Republic of China. Pink Floyd performed The Dark Side of the Moon one year before the album was released. The EPA first required that unleaded gasoline be made available at all gas stations. And little kids all over America were pooping pink.
Hospitals all over the country were being inundated by hundreds of panicked mothers rushing their children to emergency rooms and doctor’s offices for fear of internal bleeding. What did all of these kids have in common? They all loved Franken Berry cereal. But wait, General Mills debuted their classic line of monster cereals on Halloween of 1971. So why was this perceived medical malady cropping up now? Seems that four months after that first box rolled off the assembly line, General Mills changed the recipe.
The first two cereals in the line were Count Chocula (the chocolate-flavored cereal was originally called “Dr. Count Chocula”) and the strawberry-flavored Franken Berry. With porthole-rimmed eyes, antenna ears and a pressure gauge sticking out of a big marshmallow head, the most shocking thing about Franken Berry was its hot pink complexion. General Mills created their monster cereals to piggyback on the success of Lucky Charms. These new character cereals contained marshmallow-studded grain puffs pitched by slightly spooky mascots involved in a wacky rivalry.
“Don’t be scared,” Count Chocula would say in his best Bela Lugosi accent while popping out of his cardboard box coffin. “I’m the super-sweet monster with the super-sweet new cereal!” Enter Franken Berry: “Piffle!” he yells, in a thinly masked accent of Boris Karloff. “Here’s the super-sweet new cereal.” It made for a tough choice to be sure and those catchy Saturday morning TV commercials sealed the deal. Monster Cereal commercials, alongside Burger Chef and Jeff and fellow cereal mascots Quisp and Quake, became much anticipated and nearly as popular as the cartoons themselves. Scores of sugar-fueled kids fondly remember those animated TV commercials nearly 50 years after they first aired.
But what about that February 1972 recipe change? Evidently someone in the General Mills merchandising department thought that the cereal didn’t match it’s mascot: it wasn’t pink enough. So Amaranth, a crimson food dye named after a South American grain (comparable to rice or corn) whose origins go back 8,000 years. It was a staple food of the Aztecs used as an integral part of religious ceremonies until being banned by the conquistadors upon their conquest of the Aztec nation. After that, Amaranth grew wild and soon became viewed as little more than a weed.
That is until 1878 when Amaranth was first synthesized by liquefaction and found to be a powerful bright red coloring agent that held it’s hue and was fade resistant. In 1906, Congress passed the Pure Food and Drug Act, the first legislation for food colors. They deemed seven colors suitable for use in food: orange, erythrosine, ponceu 3R, amaranth, indigotin, naphthol yellow, and light green. Amaranth became the 20th century’s most widely used food coloring. A cheap, tasteless substance, only a very small amount of the dye was necessary to lend flaming color to foods and makeup. By the 1970s, Amaranth dye could be found in $10 billion worth of comestibles and cosmetics including soft drinks, candy, make-up, hot dogs, ice cream, and processed fruits.
If you are a late-stage Baby Boomer or a Millennial who can remember eating Franken Berry as a kid, you may be wondering why all the fuss about Amaranth? Well, most Americans know Amaranth by another name: Red Dye Number 2. In 1938, Congress passed the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act which gave these colors numbers instead of chemical names and Red Dye No. 2 was born. During the monster cereal “Red Scare”, medical personnel came up with a term for this marshmallow malady: they began calling it “Franken Berry Stool.” Turns out, Red Dye No. 2 is an indigestible pigment that can’t be broken down or absorbed by the body. So, just like a penny or a cherry pit, it comes out looking the same way it went in.
A 1971 report surfaced claiming that Russian scientists discovered that Red Dye No. 2 caused cancer in female lab rats. Panic ensued and, despite assurances from the medical community that the pink poo was totally harmless, the US Government reluctantly stepped into the fray. As reports of Frankenberry Stool Syndrome continued, the media went on a frenzy, denouncing the dye as a carcinogenic, tumor-inducing agent. Americans, already on edge from a Swine Flu scare a few months earlier, were on red alert. February 1972 was the height of the Cold War. Nixon’s trip to Communist Red China notwithstanding, the US was hyper-sensitive to anything coming out of the Soviet Union and when the source of the study was considered, the red potty hysteria slowly tapered off.
An article in the February 1972 edition of “Pediatrics” magazine (The Official Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics), cited the case of a 12-year-old boy from Maryland whose “chief complaint was passing red stools for 2 days that were somewhat loose and unassociated with abdominal pain or other symptoms.” According to the case report, this particular kid had an adventurous history of eating things he shouldn’t, citing that on two separate occasions, he ate (and then threw up) coffee grounds. So when the child started pooping pink, his mom became convinced he had eaten something that was causing internal bleeding. She took him to the hospital where he stayed for the next four days.
His 1972 case study, titled “Benign Red Pigmentation of Stool Resulting from Food Coloring in a New Breakfast Cereal (The Franken Berry Stool)”, stated that the “stool had no abnormal odor but looked like strawberry ice cream.” When questioned, the mother revealed that the child had eaten bowls of Franken Berry cereal in the days before his hospitalization. After two days in the hospital, his red storm symptoms had subsided and, based on his mother’s information, the doctors did a little experiment. After letting the boy’s digestive system clear itself, they fed him four bowls of Franken Berry cereal over the next two days, he passed bright pink stools. But other than the startling pink hue, there were no other symptoms. Doctors sent the boy home, where the mother found his sister, the lucky beneficiary of that leftover box of Franken Berry cereal, also pooping pink.
The report further stated: “It has long been known that certain drugs and foods can cause alteration in the color of stools. These alterations in color may be of concern to parents and physicians unless recognized. The following case is presented as yet another example of a product which may alter stool color. The breakfast cereal under discussion has only been on the market a few weeks and physicians should be aware of its potential for producing reddish stools.” The report concluded, “Physical examination upon admission revealed in no acute distress and with normal vital signs…Physical examination was otherwise unremarkable.”
The Red Dye No. 2 fervor had a ripple effect. Mars candy removed their red M&M’s from their product bags for nearly a decade after the Franken Berry stool scare, even though Mars didn’t even use Red No. 2; according to mms.com. “However, to avoid consumer confusion, the red candies were pulled from the color mix.” Suddenly, hundreds of brands began recalling their Red No.2-infused products: hot dogs were pulled from grocery aisles, dog food was discarded in droves, ice cream treats were left to melt in landfills — and the red M&M disappeared. As for their part, General Mills switched to the less crimson colored Red Dye No. 40 (aka Allura Red) for use in their monster cereals.
Despite the temporary (and perhaps media driven) hysteria brought on by Franken Berry Stool Syndrome, in December of 1972, General Mills introduced Boo-Berry, the world’s first blueberry flavored cereal. Boo-Berry, used Blue No. 1 (a dye currently banned elsewhere in the world) which turned children’s potty piles green. Apparently, green stool seemed less life-threatening than the reddish hue caused by Franken Berry. Fruit Brute debuted a year later. Fruit Brute was discontinued by 1983 and replaced in 1988 by Fruity Yummy Mummy, which also had a short life as it was also dropped in 1993.
The Franken Berry Stool Scare can be found referenced in Stephen King’s 1981 novel “Cujo” as “Red Razberry Zingers”, but for most, it exists only as a vague memory. Another cereal stool scare occurred when Post’s Smurfberry Crunch Cereal was released in 1982 and was found to turn kid’s poop blue-thereby creating the ultimate Smurfs experience. However, Post changed the formula and re-released the cereal in 1987 as Magic Berries Cereal. Almost fifty years later, the exuberantly silly monster cereal mascots have survived and are on their way to pop culture immortality. Franken Berry, Boo Berry and Count Chocula can be found on bobblehead dolls, toy cars, t-shirts, pillows and even adult-sized Halloween costumes. The cereal itself can still be found as well, but they are most prominent during the Halloween season.
Oh, evidently if you find yourself traveling to the East Coast this Spring, you may well encounter a Frankenberry of a different color. According to the website mynamestats.com, there are an estimated 446 people in the United States named Frankenberry. The state with the most Frankenberry’s is Maryland where 103 people have this name, followed by West Virginia which claims 1.97 persons in every 100,000 residents with the name. In this case, according to the website, the Frankenberry population in the United States is 100.0% white. Well, so much for the Red Scare.