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Why Was Cereal Invented? A Brief History of Corn Flakes

The last time you poured yourself a bowl of Kellogg's Corn Flakes, you may not have been aware of the complicated history behind this iconic breakfast cereal.

If you've ever asked yourself, "Why was cereal invented?" trust us, the story is a surprising one featuring a sanitarium in Michigan, some moldy dough, and two brothers with the last name Kellogg who were deeply committed to health. The events that unfolded gave birth to a whole new industry and helped make the breakfast product the incredibly popular food it is today.

Why Did the Kellogg Brothers Invent Cereal?

Strictly speaking, American businessmen and brothers John Harvey Kellogg and Will Keith Kellogg didn't invent cereal. However, they did invent modern-day corn flakes, which many people consider to be the first breakfast cereal. It was originally a health food for John Harvey Kellogg's patients at the sanitarium in Battle Creek, Michigan.

Born in 1852, John Harvey Kellogg was a prominent figure in the Seventh-day Adventist Church and a devout believer in the church's principles of biologic living, which emphasized a vegetarian diet, the consumption of whole grains, and a clear digestive tract.

After becoming the Battle Creek sanitarium's director in 1876, John Harvey Kellogg began to test various bland foods that aligned with the church's health-focused beliefs and encouraged digestive health in his patients. His younger brother, William Keith Kellogg, joined him in this mission.

Together, they began experimenting with whole-grain cereals, and around 1877, they began making a breakfast dough made of wheat flour, oats, and cornmeal that John then baked and pounded into small pieces.

The First Corn Flakes

The invention of corn flakes involves a happy accident. One day in 1898, someone left out a batch of breakfast cereal dough for too long, and it began to ferment. A person rolled the moldy dough into thin sheets anyway, and then baked them at a high temperature until they became crispy. This resulted in flakes a person could easily break apart and enjoy with milk.

Notably, these original corn flakes were free of added sugar. This was a deliberate choice, aligning with the Kellogg brothers' commitment to healthy living.

Historians can't seem to agree on whether or not the brothers were the ones who invented the original recipe for corn flakes, but they do generally agree it was Will who worked out that using more corn versus wheat made for a crunchier, more satisfying flake.

It's a popular myth that John Kellogg, who famously promoted chasteness, invented corn flakes to discourage masturbation among his patients. While he did encourage eating bland foods for that purpose, there's no evidence he ever recommended corn flakes specifically as a method for suppressing sexual urges.

The Birth of the Kellogg Company

Will recognized the commercial potential of the brothers' invention and saw an opportunity to mass market corn flakes. In 1906, he founded the Kellogg Company, which remains one of the leading cereal producers in the world today.

The breakfast food was initially known as "Kellogg's Toasted Corn Flakes," highlighting the method John and Will used to make them.

Although Will did end up adding sugar to his recipe for corn flakes, Kellogg's corn flakes maintained its selling point as a nutritious yet convenient breakfast option, aligned with the health food trends of the time. In the future, many of the company's other cereals would contain added sugar too.

The Rise of the Flaked Cereal Industry

While John Kellogg and his brother Will were fine-tuning their breakfast cereal ideas, a man named C.W. Post was also dabbling in food science. Coincidentally, Post also had a keen interest in health foods and had spent time at the Battle Creek sanitarium in the 1890s as a patient.

In 1895, Post founded the Postum Cereal Company, which would later become Post Cereal and then Post Consumer Brands. His first cereal, which he released to the public in 1897, was a dry and crunchy blend of barley, wheat, salt and dried yeast that he called Grape-Nuts. The company still sells Grape-Nuts today.

General Mills, another player in the cereal game, was also going strong in the early 1900s. Today, people associate General Mills with some of its best-loved cereals, such as Count Chocula, Cheerios, Honey Nut Cheerios and Kix.

With these major brands competing in the market around the turn of the 20th century, the flaked cereal industry was born. Of course, Kellogg eventually dropped "toasted" from the name of its most famous cereal, using simply "Kellogg's Corn Flakes," and the company would go on to introduce the world to popular cereals like Cocoa Pebbles and Rice Krispies.

Post also continued to be a force in the market. In the years since its founding, the brand has given consumers Honey Bunches of Oats, Honeycomb, Shredded Wheat and others staples of the American breakfast.

The Enduring Appeal of Breakfast Cereal

Cereal's convenience and long shelf life made it a go-to choice for people's busy mornings. As the American public's love for the breakfast food grew, so did the need for marketing and other techniques that Kellogg and its competitors, such as General Mills and Post, could use to differentiate their products.

Like the others, the Kellogg brothers introduced new advertising strategies to promote their cereal. They ran early commercials and newspaper advertisements, even offering consumers a free box of Kellogg's Corn Flakes as a part of certain promotions. It wasn't long before the iconic green rooster named Cornelius became synonymous with the Kellogg's brand.

Meanwhile, the brands continued to innovate, developing a variety of flavors, shapes and textures to cater to people's different tastes. Despite the proliferation of other cereals and flakes in the market, Kellogg's Corn Flakes has remained a staple in many households.

In recent years, there has been a shift in consumer preferences toward healthier breakfast options with lower sugar content. Responding to this trend, Kellogg and other producers have introduced varieties with less added sugar as a selling point. In general, however, cereal remains a very popular food item in American households and shows no signs of going anywhere.

This article was created in conjunction with AI technology, then was fact-checked and edited by a HowStuffWorks editor.

Original article: Why Was Cereal Invented? A Brief History of Corn Flakes

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