In the latter half of the 19th and early 20th century, Dr. John Harvey Kellogg operated a sanitarium in Battle Creek, Michigan, a place where you would stay for a month or two and receive four enemas per day, three meals of thick gruel (a mixture of grains such as wheat, rye, barley, millet or corn), and other treatments to “cure” lumbago, rheumatism, or cancer. Kellogg also advocated a regimen of fresh air, exercise, hydrotherapy and a vegetarian diet that abstained from coffee, tea, alcohol, as well as sex.
One day, while preparing a batch of gruel, Dr. Kellogg was called away, only to return hours later to find his gruel on the table, dry. Being frugal, he wondered if there was a way to salvage it; putting it through a roller, a light bulb of inspiration went off: flaked cereal.
A guest staying at Kellogg’s sanitarium, C.W. Post, observed the corn flake-producing process. He promptly copied the process and founded the Post Cereal Company to sell Grape-nuts cereal. This prompted Kellogg’s brother, Will Keith Kellogg, to start a competing company to make flake cereal. The Kellogg brothers began with the Battle Creek Sanitarium Health Food Company in 1898 that later became the Kellogg Food Company.
It required many years, but Kelloggs and Post persuaded Americans to replace their meat, eggs, sausage, and biscuits for breakfast with breakfast cereals. Sugar, then high-fructose corn syrup, became ubiquitous ingredients in cereals over time, not uncommonly comprising half or more of all calories, especially in products marketed to children such as Kellogg’s Sugar Smacks. The modest beginnings for Kelloggs and Post ballooned over ensuing decades to a multi-billion dollar, international industry selling around 5000 different breakfast cereal products.
Aided by the flawed rationale employed by our own U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the USDA and its food pyramid and plate, dietitians whose education is in large part supported by breakfast cereal manufacturers, and doctors with next to no understanding of nutrition, many breakfast cereals achieved the status of health food because of vitamin and mineral fortification and grain content. This blunder, of course, ignores the fact that grains raise insulin and blood sugar more than table sugar. Yes, there was cellulose fiber that was indigestible but bulked up bowel movements and even a few grams of prebiotic fibers. But breakfast cereals, whether sugared-up children’s varieties or bran-rich adult varieties, are nearly all rapidly-digestible carbohydrate. Fortification, of course, is of dubious usefulness, given the increased phytate content of modern grains that block absorption of iron, zinc, phosphorus, magnesium, and calcium, as well as impaired vitamin B12 absorption—fortification is a meager attempt to overcome the nutrient-depleting effects of grains. And given the misguided fat phobia of the last 50 years, cereals were low in total and saturated fat, useless strategies that only distort appetite and dietary nutrient composition.
Breakfast cereals therefore define a dietary dark age dominated by perverted notions of healthy food, breakfast habits that contributed to the overweight and obesity crises, the surge in type 2 diabetes and autoimmune diseases, as well as degraded school performance in children. So the notion of breakfast cereal started with two men who believed that four enemas a day cured cancer and that a diet based on grains was the key to health and longevity. It sounds ridiculous in retrospect but defined the dietary thinking of several generations.
But you now know better.