How Did Cereal Become a Staple Breakfast Item?

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For kids who grew up in the 1980s and 1990s,
it was sugary cereal commercials that dotted
the television landscape, featuring lucky
leprechauns, wise-cracking droids and adorable
Gremlins.
A common theme among all of them was advocating
these products were a “magical part of a
complete breakfast“, helping to ingrain
that idea into our collective mindset.
Of course, anyone who has even a modicum of
knowledge about proper nutrition knows that
regularly partaking in a massive dose of extremely
calorie dense, sugary cereal is not at all
needed nor advisable in a “complete breakfast”.
So how did we get here?
What did people historical eat for breakfast
and who was the first to claim eating cereals
like mini-ETs was a nutritious way to start
the day?
To begin with, both large groups of people
eating breakfast and large groups choosing
to skip it is nothing new.
While The Iliad and The Odyssey make mention
of soldiers and manual laborers eating a meal
very close to the start of the day, with items
on the menu being things like barley bread,
olives, fig, and wine, many in the ancient
world did not eat breakfast at all.
In fact, as far as a set meal goes, it wasn’t
uncommon to choose to only eat one large meal
towards the end of the day.
For instance, according to food historian
Caroline Yeldham, outside of the aforementioned
individuals like campaigning soldiers and
those who spent their days doing intensive
manual labor, many Ancient Romans did not
typically eat a morning meal, preferring the
aforementioned one, very large meal a day
eaten at about three or four in the afternoon.
That said, those Romans who did eat a morning
meal, with said meal called jetaculum, seem
to have eaten things like bread, olives, raisins,
cheese, and nuts, washing it down with some
wine-based beverage, somewhat similar to the
Ancient Greeks.
As for the legionary on the go, they ate things
such as a porridge made from wheat and barley
soaked in water.
In all cases, this was essentially pre-prepared
or quick to make and eat food that provided
what the body needed to sustain high energy
output throughout the morning.
The trend toward abstaining from breakfast
at all saw a huge upsurge during the Middle
Ages, with many opting for a two meal system-
one around noon and one in the evening.
Eating a meal shortly after waking during
this period in the Western world seems to
have been largely considered a form of gluttony,
as noted by 13th century priest Thomas Aquinas
in his Summa Theologica.
That’s not to say nobody ate breakfast,
however, even in this anti-breakfast era in
the Western world.
Those requiring a lot of calories to get through
the day generally ate things like rye bread
and beer in the morning, though it appears
the more devout of these individuals tended
to take their desire for a morning meal as
a sign of moral weakness, and their giving
into it as something of a sinful act.
Unsurprisingly given manual laborers tended
to be poor, beyond being considered somewhat
gluttonous, eating breakfast in this era also
tended to be looked down upon by the affluent
as something only poor people did.
It was also during this time that the midday
meal, which, as mentioned, for many in the
Western world was the first meal of the day,
was actually called “dinner,” from the
Old French word “disnar” which meant breakfast.
So, in other words, lunch was breakfast and
it was called dinner…
It was during the 14th and 15th centuries
that adding a meal between last night’s
feast and the midday one started coming into
fashion for all classes.
In fact, the English word “breakfast”
dates back to the mid-15th century when it,
unsurprisingly, literally meant to break the
fast between two meals.
Within a few centuries, breakfast became normalized
and there are records of it being pushed as
the “most important meal of the day” going
all the way back to the early 18th century,
with those who could afford such items eating
things like eggs, tea, and coffee, along with
more classic breakfast items like breads,
nuts, and fruits.
In fact, by the mid-18th century, certain
of the English elite even started building
designated breakfast rooms.
This finally brings us to the 19th century
and the more direct genesis of the sugary
breakfast cereal we have today.
It was in this era that many Americans were
suffering from dyspepsia, or indigestion,
seemingly caused by a high protein / high
fat diet largely composed of fatty meats and
not nearly enough fiber.
Symptoms included upper abdominal pain and
bloating.
To combat this, and other real and perceived
ailments, alternate breakfast items began
popping up, generally attempting to avoid
meats and animal fats altogether.
On top of this, with the industrial revolution,
breakfast became less about socializing and
more about quick consumption- the factory
workers needed their caloric intake but didn’t
have enough time to prepare or eat a full
sit-down meal.
Enter breakfast cereals.
The first modern, designated breakfast cereal
(forms of porridge aside) was invented in
1863 by a vegetarian Christian abolitionist
doctor named James Caleb Jackson.
Created for his sanatorium patients as a healthy
start to the day, it was comprised of crumbled,
twice baked graham flour (which is essentially
a type of non-bleached, “all-natural”
finely ground whole wheat flour) and bran
(hard outer layer of the grain), he called
“granula”.
The end product resembled a much harder version
of modern Grape-Nuts, but with significantly
larger nuggets.
Jackson’s granula was reportedly so hard
that it needed to be soaked in liquid for
at least 20-30 minutes before it could be
comfortably bitten into it.
In the 1870s, Dr. John Kellogg ran his own
sanatorium in Battle Creek, Michigan and was
known for his very strange, sometimes sadistically
abusive methods, including electrically shocking
children’s genitals, applying forms of acid
to them, removal of the clitoris in females,
and circumcising males- all to attempt to
prevent masturbation and sexual urges.
(Interestingly, the latter male circumcision
treatment as something commonly performed
in America actually hails from this era; the
modern non-Jewish / non-Islamic practice of
foreskin removal was not really a thing in
the Western world until it began to be seen
as a way to prevent masturbation, see: Why
Do Men Get Circumcised?).
In any event, Dr. Kellogg visited Jackson’s
retreat and was most impressed with his granula.
So impressed, in fact, that he ripped off
the idea, creating his own version of it made
of wheat, corn, and ground oats.
He uninventively called it “granula”…
As a result, Jackson sued and Kellogg was
forced to rename his cereal “granola.”
A few years later, a failed Battle Creek suspender
salesman named Charles W. Post partially knocked
off Kellogg’s product and started selling
an exceptionally similar “granola” product
he called Grape-Nuts, claiming it could make
one’s “red blood redder.”
As with Jackson, Kellogg and Post both pushed
this food item as an ideal, healthy food to
start the day with, setting the trend that
has continued through today for this line
of product.
Between Kellogg and Post, at the turn of the
20th century, Battle Creek became a battle
ground for two companies that would come to
define the world of breakfast cereal.
For instance, legend has it that due to a
mishap making a batch of the original version
of Graham crackers (originally created by
Presbyterian minister Sylvester Graham as
a way to curb sexual urges, and particularly
the urge to masturbate), John Kellogg and
his brother Will invented a product they unimaginatively
dubbed “Corn Flakes”.
Post was a little more flamboyant, naming
his version of the same thing “Elijah’s
Manna”- meant as a striking allusion to
the biblical story about the food that saved
the wandering, starving Israelites.
With the famed prophet sitting on a rock and
hand feeding a raven on the front of the box,
Elijah became the first cereal mascot.
However, fairly quickly, religious groups
protested and Post changed the name to “Post
Toasties.”
Ultimately the Kellogg brothers split over
Will Kellogg’s decision to recommend adding
sugar to Corn Flakes to help it sell better,
something Dr. John Kellogg found borderline
blasphemous as such a thing, in his opinion,
encouraged sexual excitement.
The two parted ways with Will founding the
Battle Creek Toasted Corn Flake Company, which
went on to become the now billion dollar Kellogg
corporation (which besides their tasty flakes
was soon to also introduce another breakfast
staple- Rice Krispies).
His brother John Kellogg stuck to his original
principles and continued to dedicate his life
to ridding the world of such evils as masturbation…
Now, given the ladies of the house at this
time tended to be the ones who decided what
the family would eat, during the first few
decades of the 20th century, cereal advertising
was primarily aimed at housewives.
Kellogg’s told women to wink at their grocer
and see what they got (answer: a box of Corn
Flakes).
Quaker Oats likewise sponsored radio dramas
and mid-day radio shows aimed at housewives.
Post told moms that bringing up kids on their
cereals would help them later in life.
In the late 1930s, as breakfast cereal became
more established and commonly purchased anyway,
cereal companies started thinking it might
be best to skip the middlewoman, instead marketing
directly to children, who presumably would
pester their mothers for which cereal they
wanted.
For instance, in 1936, a “Dennis the Menace”-like
character named Skippy was used to specifically
market Wheaties to children.
(Originally a comic strip, Skippy and his
creator, Percy Crosby, have a particularly
sad story).
The problem here is that children tend to
not like straight bran or wheat… but they
do love sugar.
In 1939, the first pre-sugared cereal was
produced, called Ranger Joe Wheat Honnies.
Ironically, the product was actually an effort
by the creator to minimize how much additional
sugar kids commonly put on their cereal by
including a relatively small, regulated amount
already.
But instead of curbing the practice of over-sugaring
cereal, it eventually resulted in the opposite,
starting with Post copying Ranger Joe Wheat
Honnies with their own version called Sugar
Crisp in 1949; thanks to a major breakfast
cereal producer now making such a pre-sugared
product, the rest of the industry followed
suit.
By the 1960s, cereal companies were devoting
approximately 90% of their advertising budgets
to directly appealing to individuals of the
youthful persuasion.
This is why it is so common today to have
“prizes” in the cereal box, tie-ins with
movies, video games, and TV shows, and products
called Sprinkles Spangle and Ice Cream Cone
Cereal.
On that note, this is also why adding more
and more sugar to breakfast cereal became
a thing.
As for widespread claims by the manufacturers
that these cereals are “part of a complete
breakfast,” technically the cereal companies
are not lying here.
Unsurprisingly given that the three primary
nutrient groups, known as macronutrients,
that humans need to survive are carbohydrates,
proteins, and fats, according to the American
Chemical Society, a healthy breakfast should
consist of mostly carbohydrates and proteins.
Shocker, I know.
And, indeed, cereal, even if it’s simply
a bowl of pure sugar, constitutes carbs.
So these products can indeed technically be
considered an essential part of a complete
breakfast, just perhaps not an advisable one
given the vast majority are essentially candy
cleverly marketed to appear nutritious, often
complete with a giant label on the side showing
all the vitamins added to the product… along
with tiny recommended serving sizes that nobody
even comes close to following to mask the
absolute massive number of calories and sugar
most real-world servings of the products contain.
But to be fair, combined with certain other
breakfast items, in extreme moderation this
staple of the breakfast world could potentially
be useful if one leads a very physically active
life, instead of just rolling out of bed only
to very soon after sit at a desk all day and
then come home and sit on the couch until
bed time.
On that note, perhaps those sedentary, wealthy
aristocrats of old were on to something in
choosing to skip the morning meal.
And for those who led a heavily manual labored
life, it is perhaps no surprise that some
form of grain-based morning meal seems to
have been the choice people made throughout
most of recorded history- easy to quickly
eat and comprised of a mix of simple and complex
carbs to provide both quick and relatively
longer lasting stores of energy, all while
avoiding too much protein and fat which, while
otherwise essential for life and important
for things like maintaining muscle mass, might
not sit well when eating mostly that in the
morning and then jumping right into hard labor.
Funny enough, while you might think products
like Grape-Nuts or Corn Flakes would offer
a better alternative to more sugary breakfast
cereals, at least in terms of avoiding a blood
sugar spike, it should be noted that Grape-Nuts
has a glycemic index of 71.
(For the uninitiated, the GI is a scale showing
the effect of a given food item on one’s
blood sugar levels, with 100 being pure glucose.)
This is surprisingly higher than such sugary
cereals as Fruit Loops (about 69) and Frosted
Flakes (about 55).
For further shocking reference, Corn Flakes
has a mean GI of about 81, and Rice Krispies
are at 82, while table sugar only has a GI
of 60.
That said, good nutrition is a lot more complicated
than just looking at a single number and there
is definitely a place for food items high
on the GI, particularly ones that offer other
benefits like lots of fiber and micronutrients.
It’s just surprising how high the vast majority
of breakfast cereals, even seemingly non-sugary
ones like Grape-Nuts, are on that index.
In 1941, CheeriOats were introduced as a “ready-to-eat”
oat cereal.
The name emphasized the main ingredient to
differentiate itself from the numerous other
brands out there whose products were generally
made of things like wheat.
Unfortunately for CheeriOats, Quaker Oats
took offense to the name, claiming the “Oats”
part infringed on their trademark.
While it is highly unlikely Quaker Oats would
have won in court, to avoid the issue altogether,
the name was changed to Cheerios in 1945.

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