I grew up eating just about every sugared cereal known to man like any other American eight-year-old. When my mother and I went grocery shopping I begged her to buy me Cookie Crisp, Cap’n Crunch, Count Chocula and all the rest.
She usually would buy me these cereals because secretly, I think that she liked them too. The only one she refused to buy me, though, was Boo-berry because it resulted in the milk turning such an unnatural shade of blue, she thought it might be poisonous. I’m not sure I totally disagree with her when I think about that in retrospect.
Cereal, though, has a very interesting history, and the reason we eat so much of it in American has a lot more to do with religious zeal and influence than it does with the science of nutrition, or for that matter health itself.
The major religions, of course, all have various rules, some being rather strict, about what to eat. In general, they all tend to focus on avoidance of gluttony, avoidance of certain foods at certain times, and the proper preparation of food. These are also all important concepts in the modern nutrition science as well.
However, the eating of cereal is unique because it originally started out as a healthful food, that was intended to be a staple of a salubrious (and sexless) diet which not only promote physical health but moral rectitude. But eventually, it became the exact opposite--an unhealthy sugar loaded food that was promoted by cartoon characters and cheap plastic toys stuffed away in the bottom of the boxes.
II. How did cereal originate?
Our story begins with a curious figure of Sylvester Graham, who as you might guess by the name, invented the graham cracker–sort of. He actually first described this type of bread in a cookbook, The Hydropathic Cookbook (1855). The bread’s main ingredient was made from unsifted flour, ie unprocessed and unbleached flour.
To understand why Graham specifically promoted a “rough” or unprocessed grain, I think it is important to understand the historical context in which the book was released. Graham lived in the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution, where food was becoming more and more processed, and he believed this was unhealthy. Ultimately, he was right...mostly.
In fact, by identifying that highly processed foods were deleterious to health, Graham was remarkably prescient. I myself have noted my own opposition and concern with what I have called a an industrial diet, which I think is harmful to not only individual health, but is ultimately inefficient and draining the fixed resources of the planet.
But that’s another story.
Graham, didn’t stop with promoting unprocessed grains, and that’s where the story gets a bit interesting. Graham also advocated for temperance (not in agreement with) and vegetarianism (definitely not in agreement with), and furthermore believed, that these measures would influence behavior and moral character.
Specifically, Graham advocated for an life that was abstemious, austere, and abstained from things like alcohol tobacco and sex.
Even though he was on shaky ground in terms of any scientific perspective by positing that a dietary life that was “clean” would produce a “clean” life, Graham found followers of his dietary products.
James Caleb Jackson, for instance, used his flour to create a bland cereal which he called granula, which would later be transformed into the modern cereal granola.
And he also found followers for his teachings regard health, behavior, and nutrition, and one happened to be Ellen G. White, one of the principal founders of the Seventh Day Adventists.
The Seventh Day Adventists were a religion founded on observance of the laws of the Bible, especially the Old Testament, which included eating a kosher diet as well as strictly observing a sabbath day. In addition to this, they also promoted a vegetarian diet, based on some the scriptures in the Old Testament which seem to suggest that a vegetarian diet is preferred.
Ms. White, in order to help promote this lifestyle, created a center in Battle Creek, Michigan to allow Seventh Day Adventists live according to these principles. It was called the Sanitarium, or The Sans, for short, and to help run it, she hired a doctor and his brother, John Harvey and William Keith…Kellogg.
Yes, the cereal company, Kellogg. In fact, John Harvey Kellogg, in particular, probably, more than any other single person, responsible for our many the popular (and often wrong) conceptions regarding a ‘healthy’ breakfast and also, protein in the diet (ie promotion of a vegetarian diet as the ‘ideal’ healthy diet).
John Harvey Kellogg himself was a doctor and both a vegetarian and Seventh Day Adventist, who believed that protein, particularly animal protein, was the root of all problems, dietary and moral, in modern society, and as director of The Sans, he promoted those ideas (and his solutions) in a variety of ways.
The Battle Creek Sanitorium was an interesting place, utilizing a wide varieties of methods to help people treat illness and achieve optimal health. They included things like homeopathy, naturopathy, hydrotherapy, phototherapy, diet, exercise, massage and electrotherapy. Some of these interventions were quite brutal (especially on the reproductive organs), and would make make for pretty good pulp fiction, except for the fact that they actually happened. But you can find out all these facts for yourself, if you wish.
In any case, it was during this time at the Sans, while experimenting with different grains in order to make a palatable cereal, that William Kellogg, John Harvey’s little brother, developed a flake made out corn that was light and toasty. It also happened that it tasted good too. Noting this, Kellogg saw an opportunity to market this corn flake to the general population as a healthful alternative to the diet that most Americans were accustomed to, which tended to include large amounts of meat (particularly pork) and alcohol.
III. A Journey back to a Junk Food
William Kellogg, by his nature, had an entrepreneur’s mind–unlike his brother. And as such, William urge his brother John urged his brother to keep the recipe for his corn flakes secret. John, though, probably in the spirit of his belief as a doctor and for the patients he treated at the Sans, did not want to keep the recipe secret. People seemed to enjoy the crispy flake quite a bit, including a another Seventh-Day Adventist who spent time at the Sans named CW Post, who just happened to have a company that made cereal, and was allowed to see how these corn flakes were made.
Post has already started his own company, Postum Cereal Co., in 1895, and actually had been producing Grape Nuts as its first cereal for several years. It was not until 1904, that Post’s company followed with the flake cereal based on corn. (Post originally called this cereal Elijah’s Manna, but the name was soon changed to Post Toasties.)
Kellogg, around this time, started his own company to compete with Post, and if you ever look at a box of cornflakes, you will see:
The phrase: “Original and Best” was a direct statement to consumer, and to Post himself in regards to who invent the flakes, and of course, who was superior a it.
In any case, both Post and Kellogg eventually became extremely rich in the cereal business, but Kellogg a bit more so because of the introduction of one little substance that changed the face of cereal forever from a food with religious conviction to a Saturday morning ritual for hyper TV-crazed kids–sugar.
The obvious contradiction of adding sugar to cereal was apparent to anyone who was a Seventh Day Adventist, or the like, who believed that cereal was a pure and natural food whose intention was to promote and healthful, abstemious, and salubrious life of zeal. William’s brother John actually sued him over this! But to no avail, sugared cereal became a huge hit, and really has remained so ever since.
Kellogg today is a company that had revenue of over 12 billion dollars in 2010 with over thirty thousand employees, including Snap, Crackle, and Pop, Toucan Sam, and the Honey Smacks Frog, among others. Post is also big…yeah, yeah, yeah..it’s not small…no, no, no. And this would make sense, since they are the makers of Honeycomb.
IV. Some Afterthoughts about Cereal
I obviously intended this blogpost to be interesting and informative to the casual reader who may not know why there is so much cereal out there, and why it is marketed the way that it is. But this post only partly explains the situation, and it really has a more serious side to it than a bunch of cute cartoon characters who peddle sugary cereals that kids like to eat.
It really has to do with a vicious cycle that I have talked about in the past, where bad observations and bad science get coupled with irrefutable or highly moral/religious sentiments. In this case, it is the thought that grains are healthy and innocuous in regard to our healthy when compared to things that we like to eat like meat, cheese, eggs, and the like. This assumption was held by not only Seventh Day Adventists, but more importantly, a group of individuals who were interested in imposing their values on others. So when I say this, I do not want to knock or criticize Seventh Day Adventists. I don’t think that a fair thing to do, since I don’t consider their religion, or any religion, so to speak, that espouses a regimented diet, restricting certain foods, a problem in any way. No attempt has ever been made to convert me to Seventh Day Adventist religion in any forcible or even subtle way. It is a free country, and I myself, restrict many things in my diet that would fall in-step with many of the principles of a Seventh Day Adventist diet. So let’s get that off the table, because it’s not the issue, and it’s not a constructive way to promote a dialogue.
I am more interested in calling out, so to speak, those who want to impose those values on others without using the faculty of reason. And although this includes religious zealots and holy-rollers, like Sylvester Graham, it sadly, involves scientists and the government to a much greater degree, who believe the assumption that diet high in grains, low in fat, that is calorie restricted is actually good for you, when the data shows that it is not a low fat diet high in grains actually makes you fatter and sicker.
Unfortunately, scientists studying different diets in order help prevent heart disease, seemed to overlook the fact that their observations were not that accurate, and their data was bad. In this process, the idea of the moral value of this simple and humble and perhaps non-violent diet seemed to find a way to be included into the argument for the diet, which gave it traction and support from many different groups more interested in promoting a value than facts, or even dialogue.
An industry grew up around this, and it today is HUGE. If you look at the biggest food companies out there, you will see companies like ADM, Proctor and Gamble, RJR Nabisco, and Kraft dominate the list. These are multi-billion dollar conglomerates who sell foods like cereal, and other processed, sugary foods–often under the guise that they are healthy. They have a lot sway in regards to how we eat, and they have a lot of power to influence us–especially when the prevailing attitudes about nutrition are something like: Do they know what they are talking about? It’s all so contradictory! Often, people think of the scene in the famous Woody Allen movie, Sleeper, where he ends up in the future, and figures out that eating chocolate and smoking are actually good for you!
There is a reason that these companies are so profitable. (I would also include beer companies in this category, to an extent–After all, InBev bought Budweiser for 52 billion dollars!). It’s because their products are cheap to make, they are easy to store, don’t spoil, and have a high mark-up. You can’t say the same for beef, fish, vegetables, or eggs. These are highly nutritious foods, but they are hard to produce (a cow after all is a living thing that needs to be cared for!), and they spoil very quickly. As a result, they have to be handled extremely rapidly and carefully once they are produced to get them to your plate. There is a huge cost in this, which is just not present in packaged foods like cereal.
But with the rise in obesity and diabetes in our culture, there is another huge cost involved–our health. It translates to higher medical cost treating the complications of diseases like diabetes, arthritis, and cardiovascular disease–the diseases that were intended to be addressed!
We are now in a situation that is really complex. Grains are not healthy, but they are profitable, and huge part of our economy (which is you have been sleeping like Woody Allen was, would know is in the tank as it is). We already spend almost 20% of our GDP on healthcare, and studies, over and over, show we are not getting the bang for our buck. There will be difficult choices ahead, and the decisions will not be easy. Implementing any change will be even more difficult and painful.
Not eating cereal will certainly not solve all of our problems, because after all, Tony the Tiger, in my view, really is Grrrrreat! But, if you ask me, his cereal stinks.
And frankly, wouldn’t you feel gypped if you found a leprechaun and he gave you some crazy colored crunchy marshmallows instead of his pot of gold?