Ever wonder how breakfast cereals, now often thought of as sugar-laden, high-glycemic, calorie-dense bad guys of the morning, got their start? As someone who counsels clients to make healthy choices for that most important meal of the day, I was surprised to learn that breakfast cereals actually began as health foods. More specifically, breakfast cereals emerged from a soap opera-like intertwining of events at two wellness centers (called sanitariums) that were seen as retreats for the health-conscious eager to cleanse their colons. The timeline below illustrates how these events nurtured the rise of America’s cereal magnates Kellogg, Post, General Mills, and Quaker Oats.
|1863||Dr. James Caleb Jackson, a religious conservative and vegetarian who ran the Danville Sanitarium in western NY, urges his meat-eating guests accustomed to breakfasts of beef or pork to try his new “granula.” Although the hard graham flour dough, dried and broken into shapes, is barely edible, Ellen G. White, a Danville guest and founder of the Seventh Day Adventist Church, so appreciates his vegetarian lifestyle that she incorporates it into church doctrine. One of the members of Sister White’s new church is medical doctor John Kellogg, also in the health spa and hospital biz.|
|1887||Committed to developing health food for patients at his Battle Creek Sanitarium in Battle Creek, Michigan, Dr. Kellogg develops a rough-milled mixture of oats, wheat, and cornmeal biscuit, which he also calls “granula.” When Dr. Jackson gets wind of this, he sues Kellogg for infringing on his brand name. A settlement changes Kellogg’s version to “granola,” and thus begins the Kellogg family’s historic involvement in America’s breakfasts.|
|1894||John and his brother, William K. Kellogg, who also works at the Battle Creek Sanitarium, keep experimenting with healthier, whole-grain versions of breakfast to replace meat, which they think is too hard on the bowel. Their greatest discovery happens by accident. The brothers were working on boiling wheat, rolling it into sheets, then grinding it. One morning, they find a pot of boiled wheat left out from the night before and decide to roll it anyway. Instead of forming a solid sheet, the mixture produces hundreds of flakes, one from each wheat berry. They toast the flakes and serve them to their patients, who love them. They call this new cereal “Granose Flakes.”|
|1896||Will Kellogg, who had begun a packaged food enterprise to fill orders for Granose Flakes, successfully creates flakes from corn instead of wheat. He urges John to sell their flaky products in stores, but his brother fears commercialism would hurt his status as a medical professional.|
|1897||Following a stay at the Battle Creek Sanitarium for his second nervous breakdown, Texan Charles William Post, impressed by the health foods served there, develops his own version of granula, known today as “Grape-nuts” and easier to chew than Jackson’s original. He also releases his own brand of corn flakes called “Elijah’s Manna” before changing the name to top-selling “Post Toasties.”|
|1906||Will Kellogg buys out John’s interest in the cereal patents and creates the Kellogg Company. The entrepreneurial younger brother adds sugar to the boiled grains (and so it starts!) and begins mass-marketing his cereals. By its third year, the Kellogg Company has sold more than one million cases of corn and wheat flakes, thanks to Will’s marketing genius.|
|1910||Quaker Oats, a venerable oat-and-grain processing firm founded on the success of oatmeal, acquires puffed-rice technology. Puffed cereals were made by stripping the grain of fiber, believed at that time to impede digestion, then pumping the processed product full of sugar to get America’s children to eat it.|
|1922||Wheaties came about because a Minnesota dietician working for the Washburn Crosby Company (which became General Mills in 1928) accidentally spilled a wheat bran mixture onto a hot stove. After Washburn’s head miller perfected the process for strengthening the flakes for packaging (which took a couple of years), the cereal debuted in 1924 as Washburn’s Gold Medal Whole Wheat Flakes, which soon became Wheaties. General Mills subsequently created CheeriOats in 1941, which in 1945 became Cheerios (the original version).|
|1940’s-50’s||Sugar content becomes a selling point as puffed cereals gain in popularity. Post comes out with Sugar Crisp, to eventually become Golden Crisp. In the 1950’s, Post also produced Sugar Coated Rice Krinkles, like Kellogg Rice Krispies but coated in sugar and marketed in a racist box. Not to be outdone, Kellogg debuts Sugar Frosted Flakes in 1952 and a year later introduces Sugar Smacks, renamed Honey Smacks in the 1980s. An analysis by Consumer Reports in 2008 found Honey Smacks and Golden Crisp to have the highest sugar content of any processed breakfast cereal (50+ percent sugar by weight!), one serving is sugar-equivalent to a glazed doughnut from Dunkin’ Donuts.1|
Today. Cap’N Crunch (from Quaker), Count Chocula (General Mills), Kellogg Frosted Flakes, and many others exemplify how far we have strayed from the health-food fervor of America’s founding fathers of breakfast cereal. Let’s do our part to support transparency in labeling and access to healthier, whole-grain, natural-fiber versions of breakfast cereal and other convenience foods. In this vein, the FDA has ruled that by July 2018, “added sugar” must have its own line in the Nutrition Facts box. This is a good start, but you still need to read the ingredients list. You can buy foods that are at least trying to get healthier. Here’s a partial list of cereals I can recommend:
- Cheerios Original, NOT the version touting protein, which also has 17 g of added sugar (vs. 1 g in the original).
- Several Kashi brand varieties like Autumn Wheat, Heart to Heart, GoLean Original, and Organic Promise types (Kellogg bought Kashi in 2000).
- Post (formerly Nabisco) Shredded Wheat (unfrosted). The original toasted wheat version is healthy and simple; for a long time, Nabisco marketed it as floating over Niagara Falls.
- Uncle Sam Original Cereal.
- Wheat Chex.
- Nature’s Path Heritage Bites.
- Kellogg’s Fiber Plus Cinnamon Oat Crunch.
- Fiber One Original.
- Arrowhead Mills Organic Spelt Flakes.
- Cascadian Farm Organic Multigrain Squares.
1 Better cereal choices for kids? Some child-focused products are 50 percent sugar
(consumerreports.org – Accessed January 21, 2017, archived from the original by the Internet Archive)