Corn Flakes: The Weird Origin Story Of Breakfast Cereal
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New-age health gurus declare that the "body is a temple." And indeed, they frown on abusing the body in any way—alcohol, smoking, and sugary, fatty foods are all a big no-no. But one man (and his family, church, and community) took this abhorrence to whole new levels. And this specific hatred is what gave us the bounty of breakfast cereal. If you have ever wondered what the history behind your ready-to-pour breakfast was, you’ve come to the right place. This is the story of the birth of corn flakes. It’s not as simple as you think.

The story begins in the USA. Anyone who has ever visited the country can vouch for just how huge the breakfast aisles in that country are—the variety is mind-boggling. And why not? Cereal is the most popular breakfast item in that country, as it is in most western (and increasingly eastern) countries. But that was not always the case. One Englishman in America writing home remarked on the huge breakfasts available at hotels. He could choose between breads, pastries, pancakes, fritters, boiled chickens, cold cuts, and hot beef steaks, without which a middle-class breakfast was considered incomplete.

With those extraordinary amounts of rich foods as part of all meals, it was only expected that the country would suffer from an epidemic of indigestion, often referred to as dyspepsia. It was a recurrent topic of conversation, much like obesity today. To try to improve the nation's diet, Sylvester Graham created the Graham cracker in 1827, and James Caleb Jackson developed the first cereal, dubbed "granula," in 1863.

But John Harvey Kellogg was motivated by more than just the need to find a cure for indigestion. He had other issues he cared more about: he believed a diet centered on bland foods like cereal—part of what he called "biologic living"—would lead Americans away from sin. At the Battle Creek Sanitarium, where he practiced as a physician, surgeon, and inventor, and where his brother William also worked with him, he purveyed such "treatments" as hot and cold-water baths, hydro-therapy with water enemas, electric-current therapy, light therapy using both sunlight and artificial lamps, and a regimen of exercise and massage. Among the more famous of the hospital's clients through the 1910s and 1920s were President Warren G. Harding, actor Johnny Weissmuller, Henry Ford, Amelia Earhart, Sojourner Truth, and Mary Todd Lincoln. As a fervent Seventh-Day Adventist, Kellogg was consumed with the idea of healthy living and eating and living a "pure" life devoid of sin. He was convinced that sex—even pleasuring oneself—was impure and harmful. "Neither plague, nor war, nor smallpox," he wrote in one of his anti-sex books, "have produced results so disastrous to humanity as the pernicious habit of onanism. Such a victim dies literally by his own hand." According to him, sinful food was a source of sinful behavior. "Highly seasoned [meats], stimulating sauces... and dainty tidbits in endless variety," Kellogg wrote, "irritate [the] nerves and…react upon the sexual organs." Sinful foods could be alcohol, caffeine, nicotine, meat, or even stimulating sauces. So extreme were his views about sex that he himself never consummated his marriage. In addition, the doctor proposed the use of punishing and excruciating methods of circumcision for boys, as well as other painful strategies to prevent erections. Moreover, he also proposed the usage of pure carbolic acid to stop young girls from indulging in masturbation. His research also advanced eugenics, a set of practices with the aim to upgrade the human race by prohibiting the "inferior" ones. Kellogg was against interracial relationships and favored sterilizing those with mental disabilities. In short, the man was a hot mess.

Bland, hard, flavourless cereal, he believed, was the key to not excite the passions. The Brothers Kellogg came up with something akin to granola that they called "granula" but, as we said earlier, that was already patented. They then experimented with different types of bread and with using whole wheat grain dough to make thin, rolled sheets of toasted crackers. In 1898, they tried the process with corn, and voila, thus were born "corn flakes." The flaking process was also patented by Kellogg.

Then came a rift—the brothers had distinct ideas about the future of the product. John Harvey, ever the purist and committed to his idea of "biologic living," wanted the corn flakes to stay hard, bland, and tasteless. But William, the business-savvy brother, saw the potential of the product as a quick seller on grocery store shelves. He wanted to coat the flakes with sugar! To John Harvey, that was a bridge too far. It was William who, after a long legal battle, got the rights to use the "Kellogg" brand name, and it was then that the corn flakes came in their sweet avatar. A former patient at Battle Creek, C.W. Post, also started a cereal company and grew to be fabulously wealthy as well. At one point, near Battle Creek, there were over 100 cereal factories operating in the town to satisfy the new craze, many making fabulously exaggerated claims about the health benefits of their products.

Cereal was a perfect to-go breakfast item. It even enabled people to take on employment during the Industrial Revolution. Cereals also pioneered advertising as we know it. Advertising geniuses William Kellogg and C.W. Post put tremendous amounts of resources into marketing their cereal. This led to the creation of the first cartoon mascots for cereals. Additionally, cereal advertising also played a role in the early days of television. In 1949, a fortuitous encounter on a train between Kellogg's chairperson and an ad executive, Leo Burnett, sparked a work relationship that revolutionized the cereal industry and established the standards for TV ads. Burnett employed "motivational research" in order to intrigue women and kids with various forms of packaging. This was the beginning of a subliminal marketing approach. With Burnett's help, Kellogg's became the first to air color TV shows and commercials that were tailored to children. Due to the success of these strategies, by the middle of the 1950s, the company owned nearly half of the expanding American processed cereal market and was in a perfect position to utilize the same tactics to expand into Europe.