Today, breakfast cereals are a ubiquitous part of our diet and food culture. We’re used to seeing them advertised on television, and most of us grew up being familiar with cereal mascots like Tony the Tiger.
However, the consumption of dried, sweetened cereals for breakfast only became common during the 19th century and most of the world-famous brands that exist in the present day had fairly humble origins.
From religious conservatives in Michigan to global corporations marketing their products to children, the history of breakfast cereal has had many twists and turns.
It can’t be said that one specific person invented breakfast cereal as we know it, and there are numerous people, companies, and cultural shifts that led to this food becoming a staple of the American diet.
The Origins Of Breakfast Cereal
Processed grains have been a part of our diet for thousands of years, and porridge has been around since ancient times. However, the type of breakfast cereals that we know today can be traced back to a man named Ferdinand Schumacher, who began processing oats using a hand oats grinder back in 1854.
The oatmeal that he produced eventually led him to create the Quaker Oats Company, which still makes oatmeal today.
In 19th century America, most people ate meat for breakfast, but this was all about to change due to a group of people who were part of a religious movement called the Seventh-Day Adventists.
In 1863, an Adventist named James Caleb Jackson invented a cereal that he called granula. This cereal was so dense that it had to be soaked overnight in milk so that it could be eaten.
It was marketed by Jackson as a health food, but the laborious preparation it required meant that it never really exploded in popularity as later cereals would.
The true beginnings of the mass-produced, breakfast cereal industry were at Battle Creek Sanitarium in Michigan. This facility was run by John Harvey Kellogg, another Adventist, who created a cold breakfast cereal called Corn Flakes to help his patients and also to promote a healthy, vegetarian diet.
In 1897 Charles William Post, a former patient of Kellog began marketing his own cold cereal to the American public. They were called Grape Nuts and were sold as a very healthy breakfast that were full of nourishment and could even help you quit alcohol.
In 1906 William Kellogg, John’s brother acquired the rights to the Kellogg brand and began producing Kellogg’s Corn Flakes with added sugar. This is when breakfast cereals began to move away from their healthy reputation, and the advertising campaigns started to focus on taste rather than nutrition.
Marketing To Children
Cereal consumption was steadily rising, but Kellogg’s wanted to accelerate this further, and in 1909 the company introduced cereal box prizes to help them specifically market their cereals to children. The first prize was an illustrated book called the Funny Jungleland Moving Pictures Booklet.
The trend of advertising to children continued to grow in momentum after the Second World War, and in 1949 the first animated TV commercial for cereal was created for Post-Sugar Crisp.
Most cereal companies were now aiming their advertising campaigns at children, and they began giving their cereals mascots such as Kellogg’s Tony the Tiger, who appeared in 1952 as the mascot for Frosted Flakes.
By the 1960s, most cereal brands had completely abandoned promoting themselves as a health food and were now entirely focused on sugar content, colorings, and fun marketing.
Cereals such as Cap’n Crunch, Lucky Charms, and Cocoa Pebbles came with toys and games and were promoted based on their sweetness and bright colors.
Some companies resisted the trend and still marketed their cereals as being healthy. Post Grape-Nuts were advertised as being high in protein and as a good choice for those on low-calorie diets.
The Re-Birth Of Healthy Cereal
In the 1970s and 1980s, the American public’s attitude towards sugary cereals had begun to change, and trends like the Atkin’s diet had also started to encourage low-carb diets.
Cereal producers responded by slowly moving away from promoting the taste and sweetness of their cereals, to focussing once again on their purported health benefits.
Many cereals were now marketed as being high in vitamins, and as containing whole grains that were high in protein and fiber. Companies a0lso started to favor using athletes to promote their products rather than the animated mascots that they had been using.
By 1990, various food reforms had taken place in the US, including The Nutrition and Labeling and Education Act, which required all food products to include a list of nutritional facts.
This led to a further shift away from overly sweet breakfast cereals, as consumers became more aware of exactly how much sugar was in what they were eating.
As more and more people became aware of the nutritional content of the breakfast cereals they had been eating, the popularity and consumption of breakfast cereal, in general, began to steadily decline.
People moved away from cereal as the go-to choice for breakfast and began eating things like eggs, granola bars, oatmeal, and even fast food. In fact, today around 18% of Americans skip breakfast as a meal altogether, and this has continued the steep decline in the consumption of cereal since it peaked in 1996.
Today, cereal producers like Kellogg’s focus on a kind of hybrid marketing of their products. They still advertise them as being healthy, and full of fiber and protein, but many cereals remain to have high sugar content.
Kellogg’s Special K Raspberry, for example, provides 11% of your recommended daily intake of fiber, but also 24% of your daily sugar intake.
So, cereal may not have completely returned to its health food origins, but in order to stay relevant to changing diets and tastes, cereal producers have had to adapt. There’s now more choice than ever, and if you want a bowl full of fiber or a sugary kick to start the day, the decision lies firmly with the consumer.