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Kellogg Brothers and Post Pioneer Affordable, Nutritious Breakfast Foods
by Lori Valigra
In the late 1800s, when the rich ate eggs and meat for breakfast while the poor ate porridge and other boiled grains, brothers John Harvey Kellogg, MD, (1852-1943) and William Keith Kellogg (1860-1951) started the Sanitas Food Company to produce a new concept: a healthy, dry flaked breakfast cereal that was a prepared food. A patient of John’s, Charles William Post (1854-1914), around the same time also started selling a rival brand of corn flakes called Grape-Nuts. Dry cereal was slow to spoil, could provide nutrition to all, and can be easily carried by military troops on missions or by adventurers on expeditions.
“I have been using Grape-Nuts food for some time, and my liking for it increases with use,” wrote a veteran of the Civil War who was quoted in a New York Times article in October 1905.1 “Now it has occurred to me that Grape-Nuts food ought to be added to the army ration for the reason that it furnishes so much satisfying, nourishing food in such small bulk.” Some soldiers even gave Grape-Nuts a pet name: shrapnel.2
But it wasn’t the Kelloggs’ or Post’ famous empires that actually invented prepared cereal. The first person to invent dry, whole grain breakfast cereal was British professor James Caleb Jackson (1811-1895), who in 1863 created what he called “granula.”3,4 But Dr. Caleb’s cereal wasn’t as ready to eat as those from the Kelloggs and Post. Granula, made of wheat flour and water, had to be baked until it was hard as a brick and broken into smaller pieces, rebaked, and then soaked overnight in water or milk until it was soft enough to chew. It was also said to be tasteless, according to a Wikipedia entry on Dr. Caleb.5
The Kellogg brothers moved the idea of dry breakfast cereals forward by pioneering the process of making flaked cereal. Even today, the Kellogg Co. makes corn flakes by cooking the grain under steam pressure, drying it in hot air for several hours to reduce moisture, pressing it through a flaking roller, then toasting it, according to the company.6
Will Kellogg, generally referred to as W.K. Kellogg, was an American industrialist in food manufacturing. According to his Wikipedia biography, he was a Seventh-day Adventist and a vegetarian. He began his career selling brooms before moving to Michigan to help his brother run the Battle Creek Sanitarium. The sanitarium was part of a pioneering effort by the Seventh-day Adventist church to make modern, commercial cereals from grains. The brothers pioneered the process of making flaked cereal. In 1898, in a happy accident, they inadvertently flaked wheat berry while making granola, according to the company. W.K. kept experimenting until he flaked corn and created the recipe for corn flakes.
W.K. wanted to keep the process a secret because of its commercial potential, but his brother let anyone in the sanitarium observe the flaking process. One sanitarium guest was Post, who copied the process and started his own company in 1895, the Postum Cereal Co. (later becoming Post Cereals and then General Foods). The initial product was Postum cereal beverage, and the company later made Grape-Nuts dry cereal, which drove sales into the millions of dollars.7 Upset over Post’s commercial success and claiming Post had stolen the formula, Dr. Kellogg left the sanitarium and started the Sanitas Food Company with his brother to make whole grain cereals. However, the brothers eventually argued over whether to add sugar to their cereal (W.K. wanted it), and in 1906, W.K. founded the Battle Creek Toasted Corn Flake Co., which later became the Kellogg Co., one of the first food manufacturers to put nutritional labels on its products.
Grape-Nuts actually is a misnomer; the cereal is made of wheat and barley. Post believed that sucrose, which he called grape sugar, was formed during baking. The idea of grapes combined with the nutty flavor of the cereal led to its name. The original preparation was a batter baked into a rigid sheet, and then crumbled into pieces before processing by a coffee grinder to produce nut-sized kernels, according to Post Foods.
The cereal was first marketed as a natural product for health and vitality as well as a brain food. Lightweight, compact, nutritional, and spoil-resistant, it became a popular food for explorers and people on expeditions in the 1920s and 1930s and was later adopted as a jungle ration for some U.S. and Allied Forces before 1944, according to Wikipedia.
But it wasn’t the Kelloggs’ or Post’ famous empires that actually invented prepared cereal. The first person to invent dry, whole grain breakfast cereal was British professor James Caleb Jackson.
Post was worth $33 million at the time he committed suicide. Born in Springfield, Ill., he graduated from public schools and enrolled at Illinois Industrial University, now the University of Illinois at Urbana. He studied only two years before leaving.8
He worked as an agricultural machinery salesman, inventing and patenting several farm implements including a plow and hay-stacking machine. According to Wikipedia, he suffered a nervous breakdown in 1885, then moved to Texas the following year to help start a new community in Riverside. He had a second breakdown in 1891, again due to work-related stress, and traveled extensively in search of a cure. He became interested in the chemistry of digestion as a possible solution and visited Battle Creek Sanitarium, where he met Dr. Kellogg before starting his own company. In 1913, after suffering from stomach pains, he shot himself to death after unsuccessfully seeking a medical remedy.9
Dr. Kellogg, who graduated from New York University Medical College at Bellevue Hospital in 1875 with a medical degree, is best known for his work at Battle Creek Sanitarium and for being a Seventh-day Adventist until he was disfellowshipped in 1907 after disagreements with the church. At the sanitarium, he used holistic methods to treat patients, with a focus on nutrition. He had many renowned patients, including former President William Howard Taft, aviator Amelia Earhart, Nobel prize winning playwright George Bernard Shaw, founder of the Ford Motor Co. Henry Ford, and inventor Thomas Edison.
Although their relationships soured over business, Post and the Kellogg brothers left behind a tremendous legacy in the food industry. Today their names are still well-recognized brands around the world, and products sold under their names reach countless numbers of consumers around the world, which is a testament to how one idea can change the eating habits of billions.
Lori Valigra is a frequent writer for Food Quality. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- THE ARMY RATION; A Good Suggestion from an Old Soldier. New York Times. Oct. 11, 1905.
- 200 Years of Military Food Slang. Pressure Cooker Diaries. Available at http://www.pressurecookerdiaries.com/food-history/military-food-slang.
- Granula, the First Ready-to-Eat Cereal. Civil War Talk. Available at http://civilwartalk.com/threads/granula-the-first-ready-to-eat-cereal.75757/.
- Timeline of United States inventions (before 1890). Wikipedia. Available at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timeline_of_United_States_inventions_(before_1890).
- Grape-Nuts. Wikipedia. Available at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grape-Nuts.
- The Making of Kellogg's Breakfast Cereals. The Kellogg Company. Available at http://www.kelloggs.com.au/Home/Company/StudyCentre/MakingKelloggsCereal/CornFlakes/tabid/117/Default.aspx.
- Grape-Nuts. Post Foods. Available at http://www.postfoods.com/post_heritage/#/period/1/.
- Charles W. Post. Wikipedia. Available at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ C._W._Post.
- Post, Charles William. Texas State Historical Association. Available at http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fpo26.