What Is a ‘Healthy’ Cereal, Anyway?

What Is a ‘Healthy’ Cereal, Anyway?

After the FDA changed the definition of “healthy” (for food labelling purposes), it turned out that many popular breakfast cereals don’t meet the criteria. CNBC points out that Raisin Bran, Honey Nut Cheerios, and Corn Flakes have too much added sugar to qualify. If you were surprised, buckle in, because the idea of wanting breakfast cereals to be “healthy” has a long and bizarre history.

Breakfast cereals were invented as (very sketchy) health food

Commercially manufactured breakfast cereals have their roots in 19th-century health spas, or sanitaria, and the (frankly super messed-up) theories of health and disease promoted by their founders.

John Harvey Kellogg is one name you might know; he ran the Battle Creek sanitarium in Michigan. Bland foods were a cornerstone of health, according to his teachings; anything sweet, spicy, or meaty was supposed to excite the passions and weaken your nervous system. Kellogg believed that frequent enemas were also necessary for health, that masturbation was so harmful that children should be prevented from doing it through any means necessary, including mechanical devices and even surgery (you can thank him for the popularity of non-religious circumcision), and was a huge proponent of eugenics, to the point of starting a “Race Betterment Foundation” and writing books and articles on “race degeneracy.”

I don’t see anything particularly healthy about the above, but Kellogg was obsessed with these ideas about bland foods, enemas, and NoFap being keys to good health. And those bland foods were the original source of breakfast cereals as we know them today. (Flat breads and crackers may have been so popular because yeast leavening was seen as too similar to the process of making alcoholic beverages; these guys also shunned liquor.)

From the sanitaria and sanitarium-adjacent movements of the time, we get:

  • Graham flour (as in Graham crackers), from Sylvester Graham, who also promoted bland diets, vegetarianism, and as little sex as possible.
  • Granola, originally marketed as granula, from James Caleb Jackson. It took the form of bricks of baked grain mush, which you needed to soak in milk or water until they were soft enough to chew.
  • Corn flakes, from the Kelloggs, which were reportedly invented when a batch of the above went bad. John Harvey’s brother, Will Kellogg, founded a company to mass produce the flakes. (Fun fact: it was Kellogg who changed the spelling of “granula” to “granola,” after Jackson sued.)
  • Grape Nuts, marketed by Charles Post, who stayed at Kellogg’s sanitarium and apparently liked the idea of breakfast cereal enough that he decided to sell his own.
  • Shredded Ralston, the predecessor to Wheat Chex, from a guy who was also into eugenics and had an obsession with preventing vital forces from leaving the body; it gets weirder.

I’m afraid to google any more cereal brands now, to be honest.

Sugar was added to cereals almost immediately

Who wants a bland breakfast cereal? Almost nobody, it turns out. One of the first things Will Kellogg did when he began selling Corn Flakes was to add malt, sugar, and salt. Graham flour products were originally unsweetened — nothing like the cookie-like graham crackers we have today.

It didn’t take cereal-preneurs long to figure out that they could sell more of their product if it actually tasted good. According to this timeline from the New York Times, it was around the 1950’s that sugary cereals really took off. Corn Flakes weren’t sweet enough; we also needed Frosted Flakes.

In the 1970’s, the escalation continued. Popular children’s cereals were packed with sugar, cocoa, and multiple hues of food colouring. (You could still, of course, buy Grape Nuts from the shelf right above them.) As a kid in the 1980’s, I remember being told I couldn’t have the rainbow-coloured Rainbow Brite cereal because my mum was weirded out by it having “so much dye.” I read Calvin & Hobbes cartoons in which the title character chows down on the fictional Chocolate Frosted Sugar Bombs.

Granola came back onto this scene in the 1970s as part of a backlash against the sugared-up commercial cereals. The sugary cereals tried to cultivate their healthy image a bit more, too: Sugar Pops became Sugar Corn Pops in 1978 and Corn Pops in 1984. Cereals with added vitamins trumpeted these on the label. (The history of fortifying cereals with vitamins is a long one. Sometimes the vitamins were added to make the cereals seem healthier; sometimes the additions were required by law.)

What makes a “healthy” cereal today?

This brings us approximately back to the present. Cereals like Corn Flakes and Raisin Bran may seem healthier than their cousins Frosted Flakes and Froot Loops, but they still fall into the category of sweet tasty stuff to eat in the morning. It’s been said that American breakfasts are basically desserts, and that seems roughly accurate (outside of the bacon-and-eggs food group, that is).

So are Corn Flakes and their ilk “healthy”? I mean, I bristle at the whole concept, but I wouldn’t exactly go looking for health food in the cereal aisle if you asked me for a place to start. They’re not bad, though: Some have fibre, and most have added vitamins and minerals. We serve them with milk, which has at least a little bit of protein, vitamins, and other healthful stuff.

I think the more important question is if we have any reason to expect cereals to be healthy. The idea that a specific breakfast food gets our day off to a good start is more than a hundred years old at this point, and it never had a solid scientific basis to begin with. Eating cereal for breakfast is a lot like eating a muffin: tasty and well-accepted, but the nutrition label doesn’t exactly hold up to many health claims.


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