A Short History of Breakfast Cereals

Ormai sono un elemento fondamentale delle colazioni di tutto il mondo, ma i cereali così come li conosciamo oggi nacquero per sbaglio alla fine del 1800 negli Stati Uniti, quando i fratelli Kellogg tentarono di riciclare del grano raffermo per servirlo ai pazienti della loro clinica.

Jenny Beacraft

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The process is very simple: open the box, let the cereals fall into the bowl, pour some milk on it, and enjoy! Breakfast cereals are an everyday staple in homes throughout the Western world with numerous varieties on offer. Although warm cereals like porridge (oatmeal in the US) have a long history globally, it is products by the US company Kellogg’s that have really revolutionised breakfast time – for better, and for worse. It all started in a medical spa and resort in Michigan known as the Battle Creek Sanitarium, and with the invention of the humble corn flake.


Breakfast in America traditionally consisted of leftovers from the night before, hash, or fried foods such as eggs and sausages. When the industrial revolution came, people were urged to spend less time preparing food. At the same time, diseases like tuberculosis became common, and doctors warned against the evils of refined carbs and meat. 


John Harvey Kellogg was a physician with a passion for healthy living. In 1886 he established Battle Creek, a wellness retreat where he treated his patients with plant-based diets designed to calm their minds and curb their sexual urges. 

Looking for plain foods that would improve his patients’ digestive health, Dr. Kellogg started experimenting with cereal. There are several versions of how ‘corn flakes’ were invented. According to the Kellogg Company, in 1898, John Kellogg and his brother Will were trying to make granola when they left a piece of wheat-based dough unwatched, causing it to ferment. When compressed in thin sheets, the dough produced flakes that became crispy when toasted in the oven. Will Kellogg kept working on the recipe and discovered that corn produced even crunchier flakes. They served them at the sanitarium, and the patients loved them. Witnessing this reaction, Will Kellogg decided to sell them to the general public. His brother wasn’t interested in this commercial venture, so Will bought the rights to the recipe and, in 1906, founded the Battle Creek Toasted Corn Flake Company.


The completion of the transcontinental railroad meant that the United States were more connected than ever and that a mass market was available for entrepreneurs like Kellogg. He invested in advertising campaigns that presented his corn flakes as an attractive as well as healthy snack — distancing the product from his brother’s conviction that cereal would reduce one’s sex drive. Sales shot up, and by 1909 the company was manufacturing 120.000 boxes of Corn Flakes a day. Resentful of his brother’s success, John Kellogg sued Will for the use of the family name, but lost.


Will Kellogg was all about innovation, and he kept experimenting with food production. When the Big Depression struck in 1929, Kellogg’s doubled its advertising and accelerated production. Will also cut working hours in his factories from forty to thirty hours a week, improving production figures without reducing salaries. However, rival cereal products were starting to appear, and Kellogg’s needed an edge.


When he founded his company, Will Kellogg thought that adding some sugar to the corn flakes would make them even tastier — and he was right. From the 1950s on, however, new varieties of corn flakes were introduced making the cereal even sweeter, as children were targeted as a lucrative market. Honey, almonds, strawberry purée or, simply, more sugar were added. Parents began to notice their kids experienced increasing hyperactivity in the mornings and midday slumps, while their weight shot up. In the last few decades, national regulations have been introduced to control the amount of sugar in cereals. 

Today the original Kellogg’s Corn Flakes is still considered a nutritious breakfast. Present in 180 countries around the world, the recipe for the cereal that shook up breakfast time remains the same as it was a hundred years ago.   


Questo articolo appartiene al numero Ottobre 2022 della rivista Speak Up.

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