Optimal Junk Cereal: Can it be done?
October 2, 2008 10:10 AM   Subscribe

In a box of cereal containing two objects of differing density, how does one ensure a roughly even ratio throughout the box's use? That is to say, how do you keep the bottom of the box from being all grain and no marshmallow?

Given a box of, say, Lucky Charms comprised of marshmallow bits of density d and cereal bits of (for argument's sake) density 1.25d and thus having a tendency to separate into layers what's the best practice for keeping the low density bits from floating on top of the high density bits? Assume non-optimal distribution at the time of purchase -- contents may settle during shipment. Furthermore assume equipment likely to be in the average household.

Lightly agitating the box while pouring appears to exacerbate the problem. During the box's first few uses, the marshmallow ratio remains high, but at the cost of a high proportion of "grain only" spoonfuls toward the end of the box. I want to avoid those.

Pouring out the entire box and stirring it makes it even worse. Stirring a massive salad bowl full of cereal seems to quickly float the low density bits to the top.

I would be perfectly willing to have a lower marshmallow ratio at the top of the box if it were possible to create an approximately even distribution somehow. But how? How does one create a very rough macro-scale suspension of lightweight cereal bits in a medium of grain bits, and furthermore how do you keep it that way?

You would think this problem has been addressed somewhere in various industrial processes: creation, handling and distribution of rock aggregates, soil mixes, compost, and various other mixed materials that may be prone to settling before and during use.
posted by majick to Food & Drink (17 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Perhaps pour the first bowl into a ziplock bag, seal it up, and then add it back to the box when there is only one bowl of just grains left?
posted by Grither at 10:15 AM on October 2, 2008

Open the box from the bottom and let nature take its course?
posted by phunniemee at 10:17 AM on October 2, 2008

I'm not finding a link but there was a TV show which figured this out. It was due to the surface area of the larger objects being better "climbers" than the smaller objects because it'd just push them aside, so consequently the larger nuts in a can of them always climb to the top.

To combat the problem they added a powder lubricant (corn starch?), or just don't shake the container. I think they found that rotating it reset the container but I could be wrong about that.
posted by jwells at 10:18 AM on October 2, 2008

Best answer: There it is. The Brazil Nut Effect.
posted by jwells at 10:20 AM on October 2, 2008 [5 favorites]

I seem to recall reading an article a while back on methods that companies use to insure homogenous distribution of disparate food items in a mixed package (crackerjacks vs peanuts, etc). It was pretty surprising to see the lengths that companies go to in order to assure the best distributions.

I'm pretty sure that companies strive continually to adjust food weights, sizes and packing techniques to maximize an even distribution from packaging through shipping through stocking through consumer use.

I'm going to bet that you will only be satisfied by dumping the cereal out onto a large table and manually organizing portions into ratios of items that suit you.

The only question is: are you OCD enough to do it?
posted by Aquaman at 10:22 AM on October 2, 2008 [2 favorites]

Shake it before you pour out a serving.
posted by Carol Anne at 10:22 AM on October 2, 2008

Pour cereal into a shoebox, and use a credit card to separate the marshmallows from the actual cereal. Take an empty box and cut out the front panel, and insert in the box so it rests halfway between each side. Pour cereal on one side of cardboard devider, and marshmallows on the other.
posted by Bernt Pancreas at 10:22 AM on October 2, 2008

This also happens when you have a mixture of large and small chunks of the same material (I see it when rubbing flour into butter by hand); in this case the big chunks rise to the top.

It is a major problem in a few industries which deal with granular stuff - plastics manufacturing, sand and gravel mixing, etc. The only real solutions are:

Periodically skim off the bottom layer and add it back at the top (or vice versa);

Periodically turn the container upside down and shake it to start the migration going in the other direction.

So I think that every time you pour a bowl of cereal, you should then turn the box upside down and gently shake it. This should have the reverse effect of shaking while pouring, making the lucky charms migrate back downwards relative to the box.

Alternative solution: Buy a bag of tiny marshmallows from a catering store, and add to your cereal whenever you deem the crunch:charm ratio inadequate.
posted by metaBugs at 10:33 AM on October 2, 2008

Open the box at both ends and use a bag clip on the bottom. Take your cereal from opposite ends each time, and flip it over.
posted by StickyCarpet at 10:39 AM on October 2, 2008 [3 favorites]

My slightly-OCD wife puts our cereal in tupperware containers that are roughly the size of a Family Size cereal box. I often mix a box of Honey Nut Cheerios with regular cheerios (full-strength Honey Nut is too sugary for me). At any rate, if I leave a little room at the top, I can roll that container every which way and get a pretty good mix pretty quickly.

I also do this when making my own trail mix. WIth trail mix, you have to roll the bag every five times you dig into it, or it starts to separate.
posted by notsnot at 10:56 AM on October 2, 2008

Store the box on its side?
posted by Doofus Magoo at 10:57 AM on October 2, 2008

Store the box upside down one day and right side up the next.
posted by unSane at 11:04 AM on October 2, 2008

This is a classic example of segregation, I first read about it in a book about powder sampling. Make sure the box is about 1/3 empty, rotate it a few times before using and you should be OK.
posted by ghost of a past number at 11:14 AM on October 2, 2008

Best answer: Put the box on it's front or back and then give it a good shake. This should ensure that the top of the box has a representative cross section of the contents of the box. Right and pour gently.
posted by jefftang at 11:28 AM on October 2, 2008

Okay, as we all know, most marshmallow cereals are just a plain cereal with marshmallows added. Lucky Charms, for example, are basically Cheerios with marshmallows. Thus, the solution is to buy a box of plain cereal and some cereal marshmallows, then mix them as needed at about a 3:1 ratio.

If you want to go straight to the source (and are ordering on an industrial scale), you can get the dehydrated marshmallow bits directly from Kraft, which is apparently where cerealmarshmallows.com gets theirs.
posted by jedicus at 12:14 PM on October 2, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks, folks. It turns out -- for unrelated reasons -- cereal boxes around the house are already stored on their fronts, so it's chiefly a matter of setting an even-ish vertical distribution and leaving it that way.

Mr. Stephenson, by policy, does not respond to unsolicited inquiries. I did actually think of checking with him, though.
posted by majick at 12:18 PM on October 2, 2008

Late to the party (server connection problems here) but it seems like pouring cereal alternately from the top and the bottom of the box should do the trick (you'll have to get fancy with clips to reseal the inner bag, most likely).

The Wikipedia article on the Brazil Nut Effect says that conical containers produce an anti-Brazil Nut Effect. It doesn't say whether the narrow end should go at the top or bottom, but I assume the bigger pieces won't get squeezed to the top if the bottom is wider.

Maybe you could look into that? Just think of the potential market for Majick's Magical Cereal Storage Pyramid. (It'll keep your razor blades sharp, too.)
posted by Quietgal at 1:57 PM on October 2, 2008

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