Cereal: How Kellogg Invented a ‘Better’ Breakfast

You cannot name a breakfast cereal after an Old Testament prophet. At least you couldn’t in 1904, when Charles W. Post first attempted to market Elijah’s Manna, a cornflakes look-alike sold in a box picturing the prophet Elijah and a cereal-toting raven.

Outraged ministers deemed it sacrilegious; and an offended Britain passed a law forbidding its importation. Post protested, countering that “Perhaps no one should eat angel food cake, enjoy Adam’s ale, live in St. Paul, nor work for Bethlehem Steel,” but to no avail. Finally, in 1908, he gave in and changed his cereal’s name to Post Toasties. (See an an article printed on October 12, 1945 in The Pittsburgh Press that discusses the original cereal name, “Elijah’s Manna.”) Eventually he replaced Elijah with Mickey Mouse. His now non-controversial cornflakes were one of what would soon be a flood of products aimed at forever reforming the American breakfast.

 

Watch a classic Post Toasties television commercial from 1964.

 

Breakfast, colonial-style, was generally simple stuff: bread and cheese, porridge, cornmeal mush, tea, and beer. By the 19th century, however, breakfast—at least in middle- and upper-class circles—had become indistinguishable from dinner, a vast spread including everything from ham and eggs to beefsteak, broiled fowl, fried oysters, fish, sausages, and fritters. The fad for massive meals, coupled with the switch from an active rural lifestyle to a sedentary urban lifestyle, inevitably led to health problems. Farm laborers worked off their big breakfasts; office workers who spent the bulk of their time sitting behind a desk, didn’t.

The result was a national epidemic of dyspepsia, an ailment characterized by headache, heartburn, palpitations, belching, nausea, despondency, miscellaneous sharp pains, nightmares, and cold feet. The best guess, in modern terms, was chronic indigestion.

At the time, there were numerous theories for causes and cures. Proposed culprits included pancakes, undercooked bread, coffee, and bacon (“decidedly injurious,” wrote one nutritionist). The suffering public, at a loss, was primed for remedial diets. A proposed solution was a radical change in the nature of breakfast.

Picture of cereal grain

Cereal grains are the edible seeds of the Poaceae grass family, which include wheat, oats, and barley. Photograph by Pieter van Marion, Creative Commons 2.0

Cereal: Cure for all Ails

The progenitor of modern breakfast cereal was Dr. James Caleb Jackson, proprietor of a health spa in Danville, New York. Jackson was a disciple of Sylvester Graham of the eponymous cracker, an early 19th century minister and temperance activist. Graham had popularized a health regime that included abstinence from tobacco, liquor, and spices, a vegetarian diet, cold baths, hard beds, early rising, and vigorous exercise. Jackson’s contribution to the program, invented in 1863, was a mix of twice-baked whole-wheat crackers, ground into chunks the size of peas, and marketed as Granula. This could only be eaten if it were soaked in milk overnight—critics lambasted it as “wheat rocks”—but even so it was an early-morning success.

Next on the cereal bandwagon was another Grahamite, John Harvey Kellogg, director of the Western Health Reform Institute in Battle Creek, Michigan. Kellogg—whose own favored breakfast consisted of seven graham crackers and an apple—was famed for his punitive diet-and-fitness programs, subscribed to by such celebrities as President Taft, Amelia Earhart, Henry Ford, and Thomas Edison. (Visitors to Battle Creek variously subjected themselves to yogurt enemas, electric-light baths, and a range of intimidating exercise machines, among them the Mechanical Camel.)

Kellogg’s first attempt at a health-promoting breakfast cereal was a conglomeration of mashed biscuits of oats, wheat, and cornmeal that went on the market in 1877 under the already-coined name of Granula. (Jackson, peeved, sued, and Kellogg changed the name to Granose.) His next attempt produced the first flake cereal, made by rolling out partially cooked whole grains, then toasting them until they were crisp and dry. He first tried wheat, which was a dud; then corn.

Picture of cereal executives

Kellogg executives meet to sample breakfast cereal as part of a weekly routine in 1979. Photograph by James L. Amos, National Geographic Creative

A Spoonful of Sugar

Kellogg’s cornflakes, though invented by John, owe their commercial success to his brother Will, who insisted on adding sugar to the recipe to make John’s admirable but bland flakes more palatable. In terms of appeal, Will was right, which is why his signature (not John’s) ended up on the original Cornflakes box. The sugar-fortified flakes were the foundation of the soon-to-be-enormous Battle Creek Toasted Corn Flake Company, established in 1906.

In terms of advertising, however, the Kellogg brothers were small potatoes compared to Charles W. Post. Post, who came to Battle Creek in 1891 for ulcer treatments, soon segued from patient to health-food entrepreneur. He first invented Postum, a bran-based substitute for coffee (“It makes blood red”), then Grape-Nuts, a cold cereal made from a crushed mix of baked wheat and barley. Post’s shameless and unsubstantiated claims for his cereal’s benefits contributed to what was shortly to become a turn-of-the-century cereal bonanza. Grape-Nuts, according to Post, could boost the IQ, anchor loose teeth, and cure consumption, malaria, and appendicitis. By 1911, over a hundred cereal companies were in operation in Battle Creek, and cold cereal–quick and convenient—was fast becoming the standard American breakfast meal.

 

Tony the Tiger was invented in 1951 to help promote Frosted Flakes for Kelloggs. Watch a vintage television ad of Tony the Tiger that aired in 1959.

 

Breakfast cereal owes its phenomenal success to both advertising and sugar. The first pre-sweetened cereal, Ranger Joe Popped Wheat Honnies, came on the market in 1939, fondly hoped by its creator to prevent kids from loading excess sugar on their breakfast bowls. It didn’t; instead, the industry, inspired by it, produced more and more sugary and kid-targeted cereals. Today, for example, Fruit Loops are 48 percent sugar by weight; Apple Jacks (with marshmallows), 50 percent; and Honey Smacks, 56 percent.

Sugary cereals went hand-in-hand with television. By the 1960s, over 90 percent of cereal advertising was aimed at kids, through such catchy cartoon icons as Rice Krispies’s elvish Snap, Crackle, and Pop; Frosted Flakes’s Tony the Tiger (“They’re Gr-r-reat!”); and the perennially foiled Trix rabbit (“Silly rabbit. Trix are for kids.”)

Picture of fruit loops

Today many brands of cereal that are marketed to children are laden with sugar. Photograph by Vox Efx, Creative Commons 2.0

Should You Eat Cereal for Breakfast?

Even fortified with the vitamins that are ordinarily eliminated during processing, cold cereals were nutrition-less enough that Robert Choate, 1970s science advisor to Richard Nixon, protested their promotion and sales. Choate analyzed sixty popular cereal brands and found that two-thirds of them offered nothing but “empty calories.” He further pointed out that rats fed on ground-up cereal boxes fared better than rats fed on the cereals themselves.

It’s an ongoing concern. Dozens of studies indicate that breakfast is a good idea. Kids do better in school and adults are more efficient at work if they eat breakfast. However, all breakfasts aren’t created equal, and those with a high glycemic index—sugary bowlsful with a lot of quickly absorbed carbohydrates—lead to a rapid peak and drop in blood-sugar levels.

Related: Learn about the American addiction to sugar-based products. 

Packaged cereals, though there are exceptions, generally aren’t the best breakfast choice: one recent study of 275 popular cereal brands found that 75 percent were high in sugar. Better are sturdy whole-grain foods that hold blood-sugar levels steady over prolonged periods of time. Recommendations include peanut-butter sandwiches, burritos with beans, and whole-grain cereals with yogurt.

Or oatmeal or cornmeal mush. Which pretty much takes us back full circle to where we were before James Caleb Jackson, in 1863, started the whole cereal cascade by grinding up his twice-baked whole-wheat crackers.


References

  • Breakfast Cereals Compared lists the nutritional components of many popular cereals. Included is a list of the nutritional worst picks.
  • Bruce, Scott. Cerealizing America. Faber & Faber, 1995.
  • Carroll, Abigail. “Reinventing Breakfast” in Three Squares: The Invention of the American Meal. Basic Books, 2013.
  • Gitlin, Martin, and Topher Ellis. The Great American Cereal Book. Abrams Image, 2012.
  • Lawrence, Felicity. “Drop That Spoon! The Truth About Breakfast Cereals.” The Guardian, 23 November 2010.

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