"The Most Important Meal of the Day": The History of Breakfast Cereals
EMG Breakfast Cereals Notes
Listeners might be surprised to know that the thought that “breakfast is the most important meal of the day” is a very recent one. In fact, in history the earliest meal was often seen as a minor one and even a sinful one. In this episode, our host, Simon Majumdar, follows the history of breakfast and discovers the origins of breakfast cereals.
EAT MY GLOBE: THINGS YOU DIDN'T KNOW YOU DIDN'T KNOW ABOUT FOOD
"The Most Important Meal of the Day:" The History of Breakfast Cereals
I’m actually making a documentary about breakfast.
Yeah, it’s going to be a cereal.
Right. Let’s begin.
Hi everybody. I’m Simon Majumdar and welcome to the latest episode of Eat My Globe, a podcast about things you didn’t know you didn’t know about food.
And, on today’s episode we’re going to be talking about a product that actually began its life as a health food. A product that has been part of the western diet at least for well over 150 years. A product that globally generates nearly $37.5 billion a year in income for the companies that produce it. A product that has created, at least in my case, many happy childhood memories. And, a product that has even inspired its ranges of restaurants around the world dedicated solely to selling varieties of this one dish.
Yes, that’s right folks. Today, on Eat My Globe, we’re going to be talking about one of the most American of food products. The history of breakfast cereals.
I still remember my first visit to an American supermarket. It happened in 1981 while I was making my first trip to the United States to visit relatives in the fine city of Houston, Texas. This supermarket was a wondrous thing with aisles stuffed with hundreds of products all in their bright packaging, and all a bit far removed from the rather drab supermarkets of recession hit Britain. What astounded me most of all was not just the variety of products on offer in every category, but also the incredible number of different brands for each product. There were probably twenty or more different soap powders, gels and tablets. Dozens of varieties of kitchen towels or bathroom tissues and, most of all, a seemingly endless variety of the subject of today’s episode, breakfast cereals. Seriously, one aisle, almost the entire length of the supermarket, was crammed on both sides with what appeared to be hundreds of varieties of breakfast cereal.
I’d never seen anything quite like it. Of course, we… we had breakfast cereal in the United Kingdom. And like so many others, I had fond childhood memories of reading the back of cereal packets as I ate a morning bowl of cornflakes or delving into the contents of a newly opened box to find the hidden prize that was offered inside. However, I had no idea until that moment that such a bewildering variety of breakfast cereals existed, and I will admit to pestering my relatives to allow me to try as many of them as I could before I returned home again. I’m sure that there are even more available nowadays, and even though I don’t indulge in them quite as much as I did in my youth, I have always been fascinated by how this one particular category of food came to be so very popular.
However, before we start to look at breakfast cereals themselves, I think it’s worth taking a brief look at the very concept of breakfast and how that concept has developed over the centuries before the first cereals began to appear.
I also think it’s worth noting that, as I know from my own travels around the world, breakfast staples differ considerably from culture to culture, and while I think it would be a wonderful thing to explore how the notion of breakfast developed differently, say in South East Asia compared to North Africa, for the purposes of this episode, I’m going to stick to the development of breakfast in the West, with particular reference to Great Britain and of course the United States of America, as they are the areas that will most impact the emergence of breakfast cereals. So there.
Now, our pals at Merriam Webster define breakfast as
“The first meal of the day, especially when taken in the morning.”
Which makes sense, particularly as the word suggests it is the breaking of the fast that has occurred since any meal the evening before.
However, it is worth noting that up until the period just preceding the period of the Industrial Revolution in the mid 18th century, breakfast had far less significance than it does now in the structure of people’s daily eating habits, and eating the morning meal was not seen to be essential to good health. In fact, in some cases it was often considered quite the opposite and even in some cases as a rather sinful act.
That is not, of course, to say that morning meals did not happen.
There is archaeological evidence from around the period 4000 B.C.E. that people raised grains, including rye and oats, which were then ground and boiled in water to make a style of porridge. And, by 3000 B.C.E., the workers of Ancient Egypt were known to have fueled their day’s work with early meals involving bread and beer.
By the time that we arrive in the period of Classical Ancient Greece -- between 800 B.C.E. and 500 B.C.E. -- we find references to a first meal of the day being called Ariston. Depending on whether a person worked early or could afford to have a lie in, they would have ariston – a substantive meal – early in the day or towards midday.
In addition, ancient Greeks also partook in a snack -- which they considered not substantive enough to break their fast – prior to this ariston meal. This early morning snack time was known as Akratisma. This literally meant bread dipped in undiluted wine – wine was often diluted with a little water -- and was a snack that would hopefully see them through to this larger repast of Ariston.
The classical Romans too developed a similar approach. The first meal of the day in Roman life was known as “Prandium,” which came at midday.
However, for those whose expenditure of energy required fueling before that, there was the option of a snack known as “Ientaculum,” which translates from the Latin as “a bit while fasting.” Like the Greeks, the Roman ientaculum would have consisted of bread soaked in wine. But unlike the Greeks, ientaculum may have also included meat. In his excellent book, “The Breakfast Book,” Andrew Dalby argues that both the British and the French derived their name for “breakfast” from the same source, to denote that they were eating for the first time since their evening meal the previous day. In French, this word would have been “dejeuner,” and in English, it would have been to “break-fast.” In France, however, this “dejeuner” meal would have been taken -- as it had been in Ancient Greece and Rome -- towards noon, which led to the creation of another smaller meal taken earlier, we still have that word today, “Petite Dejeuner,” breakfast. Whereas in Britain, this “breakfast” meal would have been taken earlier in the day to afford protection from the more chilly climate, and would’ve been more akin to the time we now associate with a modern breakfast.
In previous eras, these early morning meals – akratisma, ientaculum, petit dejeuner, breakfast -- were seen more as “snacks” to tide one over for a big meal – lunch. And, for many people in the Middle Ages, breakfast was shunned as a meal and potentially partaking it would have ran afoul of religious laws because the church prohibited eating before morning mass.
In his work, “Summo Theologica,” written between 1265 and 1273, 13th century Benedictine monk Thomas Aquinas, amongst many other things, outlined his views on the sins of gluttony and included in this the notion of “Praepropere” -- the sin of eating too soon, or at the inappropriate time -- as an indication that the morning meal was something to be viewed with caution.
By the 15th century, breakfast had become a more acceptable meal. Although, by this time it had become separated into three very distinct types of meal. One, as before, was meant to fuel the working man and traveler or to aid the invalid. And, another, a more private affair served in bedchambers of the elite. And, a more lavish affair such as in the infamous “Black Book” of Edward IV of England, who lived from 1442 to 1483, which outlines the expenditure of his household, where there is a very specific reference to breakfast being granted as a privilege.
By the 16th century, we begin to see that not only was breakfast becoming more common, but also that partaking in the morning meal was becoming associated with good health. In his 1584 work, “The Haven of Health,” schoolmaster Thomas Cogan was one of the first to suggest that not only was breakfast permissible, but that it might be beneficial, saying
“to suffer hunger long filleth the stomack with ill humour.”
Although he did urge his students to only partake of a light morning meal and to save their heavier indulgences for the evening, saying that “Bread and Butter” was a countryman’s breakfast.
It’s really around the period of the 17th century that breakfast became a meal that was truly eaten by all social classes.
The notion of breakfast as a morning meal became more standardized at the beginning of the period we know as the Industrial Revolution, which began in the 18th century. The development of new technology and regular work hours meant that the timing of the work day became more standardized, with workers having to eat their morning meal at a set time, before they left home for work.
And in the 19th century, the wealthy had the luxury of time allowed for breakfast to become one of the most elaborate meals of the day.
Also, the building of large homes began to include space for rooms dedicated to the eating of breakfast, where families would gather to discuss family matters before leaving the house for the day -- we’ve all seen Downton Abbey, right? It’d be just like that.
If one was to look at one of the great culinary books of the era -- perhaps any era -- “The Book of Household Management” by Isabella Beeton, which was published in 1861, one can see that breakfast is a very major event for those who could afford the time and who had the income to enjoy it.
She sets her breakfast hour at eight in the morning. Mrs. Beeton then suggests a range of dishes including – it’s a heck of a list - so
“Broiled fish, such as mackerel, whiting, herring, dried haddocks, &c.; mutton chops and rump-steaks, broiled sheep’s kidneys, kidneys a la maitre d’hotel, sausages, plain rashers of bacon, bacon and poached eggs, ham and poached eggs, omelets, plain boiled eggs, oeufs-au-plat, poached eggs on toast, muffins, toast, marmalade, butter, &c &c.”
She then goes on to suggest that, on top of these, people can add cold cuts, pies, potted fish, and pressed meats.
While I am certain that this vast repast would not have been eaten at every meal, it definitely shows that by the middle of the 19th century breakfast had become a very serious proposition.
This indulgence, or overindulgence, was something that had become replicated in what was now the United States of America. The colonials in the 18th century would have eaten in a very familiar fashion to how they did in their homeland. The workers, sick and elderly taking a light bite to serve them through to the midday meal, while those who were more wealthy ate their breakfast at nine or ten in the morning. The dishes they were familiar with back in Britain would often be adapted to use the ingredients they found on their arrival. And perhaps the most famous of these is a dish called, “Hasty Pudding,” which had its origins in England, where it was comprised of flour mixed with boiling milk or water which could be then flavored and sweetened. In the colonies, they would use the indigenous corn that was available and sweeten the dish with molasses.
By the 19th century, however, breakfast in the United States was as serious a proposition as it was in Britain and fueled by the economic explosion in the country, perhaps even more so. In her book, “Three Square Meals: The Invention of The American Meal,” author Abigail Carroll talks not only about how impressive the variety of American breakfasts were to the foreign traveler, but also about the sheer volume of food eaten -- much of it heavily meat based -- for breakfast and the speed at which it was often consumed.
For the increasingly health conscious of the United States, this overconsumption of heavy food was seen as one of the key reasons for one of the main ailments of the country’s population, Dyspepsia. It’s a term that had come into use in the 1830s to describe chronic indigestion that had symptoms such as headaches and palpitations.
Doctors suggested various remedies to this serious health problem, including a reduction on the amount of meat consumed and the addition of other more “healthful” dishes to the breakfast menu.
In the 1830s, inventor Sylvester Graham developed a form of whole wheat flour that he believed would be better than refined white flour for the digestive health of those who ate it. In the 1880s, these were also to be used in a cracker, which we’re still very familiar with today -- the Graham Cracker.
In 1863, James Caleb Jackson, who lived from 1811 to 1895 and who was a religious conservative and food reformer, ran a sanitarium in western New York State. He baked the Graham dough into brittle cakes, which he then crumbled to produce what is now regarded as the very first breakfast cereal. He called it “Granula” and began to serve it to his patients. The wider American population did not show immediate attraction to the dish, primarily as the cereal required soaking in milk overnight. But Jackson considered it a success for its popularity with the patients at his sanitarium.
We then see the entry into our story of one of the most famous -- or should that be infamous -- men in the history of breakfast cereal. Mr. John Harvey Kellogg, who lived from 1852 to 1943. And his less well known but equally important brother, Will Keith Kellogg, who lived from 1860 to 1951. They produced in their sanitarium in Battle Creek, Michigan what is still considered to be one of the most popular breakfast cereals in the United States.
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John Kellogg trained as a doctor and became the Chief Medical Director at the Western Health Reform Institute of Battle Creek in New York State, where he expounded his theories on vegetarianism and fed his patients a diet consisting of vegetables and whole grains.
As well as his belief in vegetarianism, John Kellogg had some pretty eccentric theories about the evils of sexual intercourse, to which he had quite an aversion, and how it harmed one’s health. He never consummated his marriage, and he and his wife, Ella Eaton, adopted all of their children. He also believed that masturbation was even more sinful than sex itself, arguing
“If illicit commerce of the sexes is a heinous sin, self-pollution, or masturbation, is a crime doubly abominable. . . . It is the most dangerous of all sexual abuses because [it is] the most extensively practised.”
End Quote. “Self-pollution,” there you go.
Some of his treatments would not be considered – let’s say, appropriate, by today’s medical standards. These included performing circumcisions without anesthetic, because
“the brief pain attending the operation will have a salutary effect upon the mind, especially if it be connected with the idea of punishment, as it may well be in some cases. The soreness which continues for several weeks interrupts the practice, and if it had not previously become too firmly fixed, it may be forgotten and not resumed."
And, also, applying carbolic acid to the clitoris of young women because
"the application of pure carbolic acid to the clitoris an excellent means of allaying the abnormal excitement."
Nasty piece of work, John Kellogg, I’m telling you.
He was also well known to use a bit of electrical aversion therapy if the mood took him. These treatment and opinions, which seem so alarming now, did not prevent him from treating some very well-known people and famous folks such as Amelia Earhart, Henry Ford and George Bernard Shaw.
On top of which, our “friend,” in commas, John Kellogg also had some very dubious views on race and was a keen follower of the practice of eugenics. This is a movement that believed that the human race could be improved and protected by promoting reproduction by those with “superior” traits and discouraging reproduction by those with “inferior” traits, which in practice was aimed at people in poverty, people of color, and often led to practitioners sterilizing people without consent or against their will. John Kellogg even founded his own foundation called the “Race Betterment Foundation” to promote the cause of eugenics.
So, it … it would be fair to say that John Harvey Kellogg was probably not a terribly nice chap. However, what concerns us today is his less harmful efforts in the cause of the health of the population of the United States. A young John Kellogg once devoured the writings of the older James Caleb Jackson and even likely tasted his Granula. He became convinced during his medical education in 1874 to 1875, that there was a widespread need for ready prepared cereals.
Thereafter, the Kellogg brothers produced their own version of Jackson’s “Granula” using wheat, corn and oats that was formed into biscuits, heated to a temperature to dextrinize the starch – that is, to make it more easily digestible -- and then ground so that it could be served with milk, water or fruit juices. They began to offer it to the public and it sold in large quantities. Not without reason, Jackson was less than thrilled about this and actually filed a lawsuit, and the Kelloggs were forced to change the name of their cereal to the now much more well-known, “Granola.”
However, the cereal with which the Kelloggs are most associated are, of course, Corn Flakes. These were part of John Harvey Kellogg’s desire to create digestible food that would be
“harnessing the digestive powers of spit.”
As with so many great discoveries, the origins of cornflakes are murky, but one version involves John’s brother, Will, allowing a large batch of wheat to sit out after it had been boiled. Rather than let it go to waste, they rolled the resulting substance out to see if they could create a dough and the result turned out to be flakes. They saw the potential in these and began to sell them under the name, “Granose.” They also began to experiment with other grains, such as corn.
Like so many siblings, John Harvey and Will did not always get along. As the book-keeper for the company, Will was less interested in his brother’s eccentric theories and more interested in persuading the public to buy more of their products. And, two elements persuaded Will that perhaps the long-term relationship between him and his brother was not something that could be sustained.
The first was a matter of confidentiality. Will believed that the process to produce their flaked cereals should be protected as a corporate secret, whereas John believed that it was a gift for everyone to enjoy. One of John’s former patients, Charles Post, was allowed to work on the Kelloggs’ experimental kitchen to pay off his bills at the Sanitarium and then promptly created his own company, the Postum Cereal Co Ltd, which became one of Kelloggs’ major rivals. Charles Post went on to produce his own cereals including, in 1897, the still famous “Grape Nuts.” Other companies soon followed suit and soon the town of Battle Creek became what one journalist described as the “Cereal Klondike” with over 100 companies operating in the town and trying to satisfy the cereal craze.
The second was a matter of, John’s treatment of Will. John treated Will merely as an employee and subjugated Will’s opinion, resulting in a personal conflict and Will’s further dissatisfaction. This came to a head over John’s flat-out refusal to consider Will’s idea to add sugar to any of their cereals because of its negative impact on the nutritional value. In 1906, it became too much to bear and Will left his brother and set up his own company. Will’s company, the “Battle Creek Toasted Corn Co.,” later became the Kellogg Co. The two brothers were estranged for the rest of their lives and even ended up suing each other, a lawsuit which Will won. Will, created a company that is still going strong today and whose turnover in 2018 was around $13 billion. So clearly, he had the last laugh.
Sugar in cereal too was to win out. In 1904, another well-known company, Quaker Oats, offered treats of sugared oats at the St. Louis World Fair. They considered these to be more of a candy giveaway than a potential product, but the love of sugar was obvious for everybody to see.
However, it took until around 1939 for the first pre-sugared cereal to be released to the American public. It was developed by an outsider to the industry, a heating equipment salesman by the name of Jim Rex. He worried about how much sugar his children were adding to their non sugared cereal. So, he developed the idea of a cereal that was already dosed with sugar and launched a brand by the name of “Ranger Joe.” It was a huge success. Over the next two decades, dozens of other pre-sweetened cereals, including Kellogg’s sweetened versions of their own corn flakes, followed.
The amount of sugar in some of these cereals was extraordinary, often as much as half of the calorific value. The companies then developed hugely sophisticated marketing campaigns -- both to promote cereal as the perfect breakfast in general, and to target specifically one of their key markets, children.
In 1944, General Foods -- who by then owned the Grape Nut brand -- ran a campaign named
“Eat a Good Breakfast – Do a Better Job.”
It was the first campaign to introduce us to a phrase that is still very much in use today, which is
“Nutrition experts say breakfast is the most important meal of the day.”
The marketing of cereals to children began in earnest with the development of cartoon mascots for each brand with whom the child could relate. The first of these appeared in the 1930s and many of them are still with us today such as, “Tony The Tiger” and “Snap, Crackle and Pop.”
By the late 1960s, cereal manufacturers spent nearly $600 million a year to promote their products to children. But, they began to face a backlash by those in the nutritional industry who believed that presweetened cereals offered little in nutritional value. And, it’s certainly worth noting how incongruous it was that an ingredient that had been developed as a concept to promote health and wellness in the American population was to become one, if not the key supplier, of sugar to the American diet.
One of the chief opponents of presweetened cereals was nutritionist Robert Choate, who, in 1970, testified on a Senate sub-committee in Washington D.C. He argued, using the information provided by manufacturers, that 40 of the 57 cereals they examined offered poor nutrition and were to all intents and purposes
The industry fought back against his findings but did improve both their labelling and nutritional values of their cereals.
This also included the continuing process of fortifying the cereals with added vitamins and minerals. The fortification of food in the United States was a process that began in the 1920s and 1930s with the addition of iodine to salt to prevent endemic goiter in schoolchildren in Ohio, and began a systemic process of fortifying foods such as milk with Vitamin D, breads and flours -- Vitamin B -- and to the fortification of calcium in many products including cereals. The addition of vitamins B and D and other fortifications in breakfast cereals continues to this day under the regulation of the Food and Drug Administration, also known by its initials, the FDA.
The trend towards cereals with more health benefits continued with the arrival of health specific brands such as Kashi, and the trend of creating healthier dishes such as “Overnight Oats,” which is an interesting throwback to the very first “Granula” produced by James Caleb Jackson.
And, despite challenges from an increasingly wide variety of other breakfast options, by 2025, the global market for breakfast cereals is predicted to grow another 4.3% from its already nearly 37.5 billion dollars market size. Not at all bad for a product that began its life as a way to counteract the mid-19th century American malaise of dyspepsia.
So hopefully, next time you tuck into a bowl of cereal, you’ll think about the Ancient Greeks and Romans who dipped wine in bread, the elderly and infirm of Medieval England who were allowed to take a bite before morning mass, the Victorians who turned breakfast into a bewildering feast, Will and his rather odd brother, John Harvey Kellogg, who, together, created the first flakes, and the cartoon characters that were part of our childhood.
Right now, I’m off to have a bowl of my favorite cereal. You know why?
Because they’re great. See what I did there?
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Thank you and goodbye from me, Simon Majumdar, and we’ll speak to you soon on the next episode of EAT MY GLOBE: Things You Didn’t Know You Didn’t Know About Food.
The EAT MY GLOBE Podcast is a production of “It’s Not Much But It’s Ours” and “Producer Girl Productions”
[Pouring cereal on a bowl sound]
and is created with the kind co-operation of the UCLA Department of History. We would especially like to thank Professor Carla Pestana, the Department Chair of the Department of History and Nicole Gilhuis for their notes on this episode. Also, a huge thank you to Sybil Villanueva for her help with research and the preparations of the transcripts for this episode, which can be found on the website.
Published Date: October 21, 2019
Last Updated: October 1, 2020
For the annotated transcript with references and resources, please click HERE.