That bowl of corn flakes might not be as pure and innocent it seems.
Cereal’s sordid past is filled with greed, lies, betrayal, family conflict, religious extremism and unethical business practices — just the sort of the thing to start your day off right. Here are a few skeletons you’ll find in that pantry closet:
Unusual health practices. Cereal owes its existence to sanitariums, which is where cereal was developed and popularized. In the mid-to-late 1800s, these health resorts began popping up all over the country and served as a convalescent destination for middle- and upper-class citizens who suffered from a variety of health woes. There they would be subjected to a restricted diet, along with specific exercises and therapies. At the Battle Creek Sanitarium, which Dr. John Kellogg was hired to run, you could start your day with a Granose biscuit, enjoy shock therapy or a machine-powered enema in the afternoon and end your day with Wheatose Mould with Grape Sauce.
Extreme beliefs. As a Seventh Day Adventist and ardent vegetarian, Dr. John Kellogg believed meat was to blame not only for the chronic indigestion that scourged the nation, but its moral maladies as well. During the mid- to late 1800s, meat figured prominently on the breakfast table, so Kellogg wanted to provide people with an alternative. Cereal, he believed, would promote health and curb sexual desire. Not to be outdone in those claims, an early version of Wheat Chex, called Shredded Ralston, was developed for followers of Ralstonism, a racist social movement. The cereal was part of a diet said to give them control over the thoughts of others.
Unethical business practices. Kellogg’s first cereal was a shameless copy of a product made at the Jackson Sanitarium. Later, one of Kellogg’s patients at the sanitarium, C.W. Post, copied Kellogg’s concept and began producing his own cereal. He was accused of stealing the corn flakes recipe from Kellogg’s safe.
Family Conflict. The Kellogg brothers worked together harmoniously at the Battle Creek Sanitarium for a time, but eventually parted ways over business disagreements about the direction of the cereal side of the business. They couldn’t even agree on the story about how they had invented flaked cereal.
False Advertising. In the early 1900s, Post put more effort into selling his products than he did into making accurate claims about them. Grape-Nuts, his ads claimed, could help a person beat alcoholism, improve IQ and cure appendicitis. It also allegedly “made red blood redder,” whatever that means.
Marketing to children. Sugar cereal has long been heavily marketed to children. With the rise of television, cereal product placement became the norm in children’s cartoons and television shows — Andy Griffith, Fred Flintstone and Yogi Bear all pitched various brands of cereal during their programs. Some claimed these techniques were manipulative, and eventually Congress passed laws that restricted advertising to children. They’re not the only gullible ones though: If you believe “breakfast is the most important meal of the day” you’ve been influenced by a good marketing campaign that is decades old.
For a pdf version of this story as it appeared click here: A Sinister Cereal Timeline