Food for Thought

Cereal is a Surreal Breakfast Staple

From bacon and eggs to pancake and waffles, breakfast in America is many things to many people. However, a poll conducted by a popular media company found some common touchstones, like cold pizza and cereal.

Out of more than 314 million people in the US, 49 percent start their day with a bowl of cereal. The all-American champion breakfast food was conceived from the poor American diet of the mid-1800’s. It was considered a wonder food for the ailing masses, and that itself is reason enough to honor the morning staple every March 7, National Cereal Day.

Healthy History

The term cereal comes from the ancient Greek word “Cerealia,” a major festival celebrating Ceres, the goddess of agriculture. Cereal is a type of grass cultivated from its grain, which is actually a type of dry fruit.

Cereal, oatmeal, and porridge quickly became significant breakfast components in North America. The story goes that during the Civil War, Americans were plagued with gastrointestinal issues due to their unhealthy meat-based diet. 1860s reformers perceived the excessive meat consumption as physically and spiritually unwholesome. Some believed that a high-protein diet contributed to sloth and lust, and that maladies of the gastrointestinal tract like constipation, was an act of God to punish the carnivorous people who ate too much pork and beef.

Civil War Illustration courtesy of Thure de Thulstrup.

This is why in the early 19th century, reformers called for cutting back on having meat for breakfast. They tried numerous vegetarian alternatives. Late in the century, the Seventh-day Adventists based in Michigan made food reforms part of their religion, and indeed non-meat breakfasts were featured in their sanitariums. Then *poof* breakfast cereals came to be.

Seventh-day Adventist church in Takoma Park, Mary Land. Photo courtesy of Farragutful.

Before the sweet and sugary cereals with cartoon character mascots and high profit margins of today, it was a food product of quite a different animal. Dr. James Caleb Jackson, an operator of Our Home on the Hillside in Dansville, New York, was the first to create a cold breakfast cereal called Granula in 1863. Made from dense bran nuggets, it was literally so hard that the Granula cereal needed to be soaked overnight to make digestion not so taxing. The taste was bland too.

Granula cereal, photo courtesy of mrbreakfast.com.

A member of Dr. Jackson’s sanitarium would go and form the Seventh-day Adventist religion, which Dr. John Harvey Kellogg became part of. John is a skilled surgeon dedicated to healthy food for his patients, and the creator of granola. With the help of his brother, Will Kellogg, the pair would continue to invent healthy, meatless breakfast foods until inadvertently creating a process that allowed wheat to flake. Two years later, corn flakes were formulated and they became an immediate success.


Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, photo lifted from the United States Library of Congress‘s Prints and Photographs division.

George H. Hoyt made Wheatena circa 1879, during an era when retailers would typically buy cereals in barrel lots, and scoop it out to sell by the pound to customers. Hoyt, who had found a distinctive process of preparing wheat for cereal, sold his cereal in boxes, offering consumers a more sanitary and consumer-friendly option.

1950s-60s box of Wheatena. Photo courtesy of toylots.

Fast forward to 1939, thanks to sugar and marketing savvy, cereal as a health food started to change. That’s when the first sweetened cereal, Ranger Joe Popped Wheat Honnie surfaced in grocery stores, which would set the trend for a sweetened product that appealed to children. Radio and TV ads also aided the popularity of cereal with cartoon characters appearing on the box and the box appearing or mentioned in cartoons.

Surreal Facts

1. Corn Flakes were made to prevent masturbation. Dr. John Kellogg concocted the classic cereal while making a dietary plan for his patients in Black Creek Sanitarium. When he found out that spicy foods increased sexual desire, Kellogg prescribed a diet of bland food to curb it.

Another Corn Flake fact, —this time on the normal spectrum— is that it is the first company to put prizes in their cereal boxes. In 1909, The Funny Jungleland Moving Pictures Book came with every purchase of two packages of corn flakes.

2. ’70s children had red poop from eating Franken Berry Cereal. A report from the 1972 paper Pediatrics, tells how one 12-year-old exhibited red poop after consuming the popular strawberry-flavored cereal. The red-poo epidemic was benign, but eventually earned the title, “The Franken Berry Stool.”

3. Astronauts from Apollo 11 boosted their brain power in space with breakfast cereal. The cereal was mixed with fruit and pressed into cubes since it was impossible to pour anything into a bowl with milk in the absence of gravity.

4. Kix cereal’s atomic-energy inspired Lone Ranger ring in 1947, actually contained trace amounts of radioactive polonium which glowed. It’s shelf life was short, and none of the product exists today.

5. A cannon from the Spanish-American War made puffed cereal possible. To produce puffed cereals, makers utilize a pressure-cooking method called “gun-puffing.” This process was developed by Quaker Oats at the turn of the 20th century, and was perfected using an army cannon converted into a pressure cooker.

Grain puffing, photo courtesy of Paul Adams.

6. 2.7 billion boxes of cereal are sold yearly. That’s enough to wrap around the earth thirteen times.

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