The breakfast cereal (made from wheat, rice and corn) is a relatively modern feature of the human diet, and is superfluous to human health. Then again, health wasn’t the issue when these new breakfasts were first introduced.
Agriculture began 10,000 years ago. Before then, our hunter-gatherer ancestors had little experience of eating grains. So, for over 99 per cent of human history, whatever we ate in the morning it certainly wasn’t a bowl of cereal.
In dietary terms, nothing epitomises the transition from a rural to urban way of life as much as the breakfast cereal. It all began where so many dietary trends begin, the United States. The early vegetarian movement at the end of the nineteenth century wielded significant influence within the Seventh-day Adventist Church. The Adventists weren’t keen on meat, but not for reasons of health or animal welfare. It was because they believed it induced ‘animal passion’.
The best-known cereal entrepreneur was Dr John Harvey Kellogg. He invented wheatflakes in 1894 and in 1898 he and his brother William Keith produced the first cornflake. It was William who founded the Battle Creek Toasted Corn Flake Company in 1906, later renamed the Kellogg Company. Around about the same time, muesli was developed by Swiss physician and proponent of raw-food diet therapies, Maximilian Bircher-Benner, for his hospital patients.
Kellogg’s was a hugely successful enterprise so naturally had its imitators. Before you knew it, a slew of companies and their cereals crowded the industry. Many of these cereals were wheat-based, refined and supplemented with copious amounts of sugar.
Despite brisk competition, Kellogg’s remained at the forefront of cereal productivity and today continues to supply the UK with household names. In 1924 they gave us the unforgivable All-Bran, which surely nobody could love. This was followed by Rice Krispies in 1928 and Bran Flakes in 1952. We were introduced to Frosties in 1954 and Special K in 1959. Sensing our lust (as it were) for yet more sugar, Kellogg’s introduced Coco Pops in 1960 and, arguably, their pièce de résistance, Crunchy Nut Cornflakes, in 1980.
So, can anything that is so refined and sugar-saturated have any redeeming features? No, frankly. Breakfast cereal advertising often makes much of the fact that cereals are commonly fortified with vitamins and iron. Indeed they are, because the heat treatment and refining process required to manufacture cereals means that most of the original nutrients of the natural whole grain (and there aren’t that many to start with) are lost. Vitamin B1 content decreases by 77%, B2 by 80%, vitamin E by 86%, calcium by 60%. Magnesium decreases by 84%, iron by 76%, and zinc by 78%. For this reason breakfast cereals are usually fortified with some B vitamins as well as iron, but to a lesser extent than the amount lost. Fortification is voluntary and doing so enables the manufacturer to brag about the product’s nutritional value.
Considering that eggs, bacon, sausage and beef constituted the standard pre-industrial breakfast of the day, the success of the Adventists in overturning an established culinary institution was quite a feat. The breakfast cereal is neither sexy nor healthy. But then, some people actually like the taste of soggy wallpaper.
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