The Sleazy Story of Cereal’s Success


“When you sit down bleary eyed with a box of cereal, you may think you’re just grabbing a quick, nutritious breakfast. But, you’re also contributing to the biggest success story of the modern food industry. Inside the cereal box is one of the most sophisticated confections of invention, processing and advertising that modern business has ever seen.”

Thus begins The Foods that Make Billions, a three-part series from BBC Two, which illuminated how the food industry transforms simple, inexpensive commodities into billion-dollar brands.

Their basic formula is to add “value” to extremely cheap base materials — like cereal grains. What value do they add? The answer is many layers of processing and additives, including high fructose corn syrup, laboratory created flavorings, vitamin fortification, packaging, marketing, and, of course, toys inside.

You might think to yourself, “But, I eat real food, so this really doesn’t have anything to do with me, does it?”

Well, that depends. Breakfast cereals have been around for over 100 years, so taking a look at how the cereal industry works can provide deeper insight into the processed food industry as a whole. This insight can then be applied to better understanding our societies, our cultures, and even our values. But, perhaps most importantly of all, since all of us have grown up with these products and their accompanying marketing messages, these insights can even be applied toward better understanding ourselves.

Like it or not, we are fed by big corporations. The Age of Plenty is a modern marvel that very few of us are willing to trade for simpler times and self-sustenance. Since we are apparently willing, if not eager, to outsource our survival to corporations who promise us ‘plenty,’ it is a fair question to ask, “Plenty of what?” That’s what we’ll be looking at here.

Grains: The Cheap, Characterless Commodity

In the United States, 42 out of 50 states grow wheat. About 2½ billion bushels of wheat are grown on over 60 million acres of land (that’s about the size of the entire UK). Half of this wheat is used domestically, while the other half is shipped around the world. But worldwide, wheat is only the second-most produced cereal grain, behind corn. And the United States is surprisingly only the 4th largest producer of wheat, behind China, India, and Russia. [1],[2]

Amazingly, the epicenter of the cereal industry is the small midwestern town of Battle Creek,Michigan. It is here where, in 1903, John Harvey Kellogg founded the health resort known as the Battle Creek Sanitarium. This was a vegetarian institution that promoted the health principles of the Seventh Day Adventist church, and for a while it was a faddishly popular destination for well-known and wealthy clients.

Here, they were subjected to frequent enemas, along with electrotherapy, hydrotherapy, thermotherapy, mechanotherapy, diatetics, physical culture, cold-air cure, and health training. A real party, celebrating life…as you can imagine. [3]

J.H. Kellogg promoted a low-fat, low-protein diet that was high in grains, fiber, and nuts. It was here and during this time that he invented what was to become the corn flake. John Havery’s corn flakes were rather tasteless and boring, though. There were missing a key ingredient that was later introduced by his brother, William Keith Kellogg.

It is W.K. Kellogg who founded the Kellogg company that today has worldwide revenues of over $13 Billion, annually. [4]

And what did W.K. Kellogg do to the corn flakes recipe his brother invented?

He added sugar. This made cereal palatable and a product that could be sold to the masses. Finally, sugar and grains were brought together. This marriage of commodities would ultimately cause a rift between the brothers, but from their union an era was born.

This was a major milestone for the processed food industry. Combining cheap grains with cheap sugar was like printing money. A 75-cent bushel of grain could now yield 12 dollars worth of cereal. Imitators would spring up to replicate this formula. Before long, there would be 108 different brands of corn flakes. Battle Creek was a boom-town.


W.K. Kellogg was first to market with his cereal — a clear advantage. But more importantly, to his company, he was first to embrace advertising.

Kellogg’s first print ad was either highly sophisticated or manipulative, depending on your frame of reference. The ad used a reverse psychology of sorts. It asked women NOT to purchase Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, because the company couldn’t keep up with demand. And yet, the ad included a coupon for the product.

Well, it had its desired affect. Soon, sales would leap from 30 cases per day to 3,000 cases per day.

Later, television would present a new opportunity for the company to reach customers. After a chance meeting on a train between W.K. Kellogg and legendary advertising pioneer, Leo Burnett, food advertising would be changed forever. Just as merging grains with sugar would change food processing, merging television advertising and characters with processed food brands would alter the fabric of our society, of our culture, and maybe even the psychology of our minds.

Nothing could sell breakfast cereals like these new characters.

So the cheap, characterless grains — that were still at the heart of the cereal products — now had characters with lots of heart. Tony the Tiger came into existence in 1951, and he helped Kellogg claw its way to absolute cereal dominance. Even in the UK, Kellogg was bigger than all of their competitors combined. And there were plenty of competitors.

Television provided the perfect opportunity to reach consumers. A product could be launched on television one day, and it could realize massive sales the very next day. Kellogg helped pioneer this system, embraced it quickly, and added it to their successful formula.

Grains, sugar, and television ads.

Even today, more money is spent on advertising breakfast cereals than on any other food. Kellogg outspends all of its rivals…by far.

What about eggs and traditional breakfasts? Farmers fought for marketshare, but as you can imagine, their budget was minuscule compared to the processors and peddlers of hay. Nonetheless, Fay Weldon’s “Go to work on an Egg” advertising slogan remains one of the most well-known in the UK. It was used to help persuade people to start their day with a good breakfast, instead of a light breakfast, which the cereal sellers lauded.

Eggs never really stood a chance, and try as you might, you’ll never find a toy submarine surprise in an egg. The best surprise is a double yolk. The worst? Well, better to keep that from the kids.

In the 1950′s, 50% of people were still eating a hot breakfast. But, by the 1970′s this number had dropped to just 20%.


Do we really not have time to cook anymore? The cereal companies would certainly like us to believe that. Commercial imagery of the rushed breakfast tells us that cereal is the best we can do in our hectic time of climbing the corporate ladder and getting the kids off to school.

Convenience is a big selling point, and the cereal industry does it all for us. When it comes to store-bought cereal, you don’t even need a kitchen. Just a spoon and a bowl will do quite nicely. No cooking, minimal cleaning.

And this is how breakfast was truly conquered.


In the late 1960′s, nutrition would take the spotlight and by the 1970′s the cereal business would have to react. It started off as an issue of poverty and hunger. But, eventually it would evolve into an issue of food quality for everyone as the processed foods began to come under scrutiny.

Choate testified to the Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs that, on a scale from [one to ten], with [ten] being the best, 40 out of 60 cereals ranked below [two] and were therefore “empty calories” which “fatten but do little to prevent malnutrition.” [5]

Yes, the term “empty calories” was invented to describe breakfast cereals.

Perhaps this is not so difficult to believe today, but this came at a time when Americans believed that breakfast cereals were a health food. The fact that corn flakes were invented at a health sanitarium frequented by the rich and famous was not forgotten. This remained a part of breakfast cereal’s mystique, and so “empty calories” was quite the shake up.

Around the same time an experiment was performed on rats that indicated a diet of milk and breakfast cereal was less healthy for the rodents than, get this, a diet of milk and the cardboard box used for packaging the cereals.

We began to question whether our children were eating too much sugar. But this pairing of grains and sugar was far too successful for the processed food corporations to abandon it. Once you remove the sugar from the cereal, you’re back to John Harvey Kellogg’s corn flakes: the kind virtually no one would choose to eat voluntarily.

As a consequence of processing cereal grains, nutrients are removed. However, for decades, the cereal companies had been spraying their products with vitamins and minerals — so-called fortification. This had been a liability at one time, but now the cereal companies began to use this to their advantage. They began marketing their nutrition labels in ads.

Unfortunately, “nutritional merit” completely skirts issues of quality, how nutrients are delivered naturally with cofactors, enzymes, etc. No processing can mimic this. Indeed, it requires a “machine” as complex as the Earth to create the real thing, along with a gradual process of co-evolution for proper symbiosis to occur between human beings and our food.

The cereal industry’s dexterous ability to spin the nutrition debate in their favor, showed that they could adapt to just about anything. And they have.

At times, spinning health trends in cereal companies’ favor didn’t even require much spin. For example, the fiber fad of the early 80′s became a huge boom for the cereal industry. The world was mad for fiber. Even though bran was boring, normally used for cattle feed, and often associated with bowel movements — it was through the magic of marketing and advertising that Kellogg’s All-Bran became the original high-fiber health cereal.

Millions were spent on advertising and promoting the tastiness of All-Bran. Sales spiked by 41%.

Today, there are cereals for nearly every diet imaginable, including low-carb, low-fat, gluten-free and sugar-free. If a diet has a name, food processors can put it in a box.Watch out Paleo(tm).

The clearest way to illustrate this is that even when food regulators create guidelines that would restrict advertising high-sugar cereals to children, the cereal companies have shown an ability to reformulate their recipes to squeak by within regulatory limits. Ceasing advertising is not something the cereal companies can afford. For Kellogg’s, keeping Tony the Tiger employed is inexorably linked with keeping itself in business.

The cereal story is one of constant reinvention and restless searching for ways to add value to grain.

Skipping Breakfast

The modern time crunch, whether real or imagined, now leaves consumers wondering if they have enough time even for cereal. In response (or perhaps in cause?), the cereal companies have turned to more processing and more sugar, i.e. adding even more “value” to their products in the form of individually wrapped breakfast cereal bars.

Milk was always paired with cereal, but this didn’t add to the cereal makers’ bottom lines. So creating a product that didn’t require milk, could be eaten on the go, and could be sold for an even higher price-point was nothing but win for lining the grainy wallets of the cereal business. And this is exactly what they did. The question of whether milk was a key component of the nourishment people received from a bowl of cereal never even made a difference. There was no way to quantify that in a profit-loss analysis.

What are we saving time for?

Our food and our meal tables are perhaps the most intimate part of our families’ lives. And yet they have been quite easily invaded by corporations selling us cheap food substitutes that are great for profits, but not so great for health — physical or mental. It was a flank attack via another intimate part of our private homes that made this possible. The advertising entered through the sanctity of our living rooms, often via lovable characters who have gained our trust.

Cooking and preparing food together has been a part of the human experience for tens of thousands of years. That alone does not mean it is a necessary or even good aspect of our humanity, but it ought to be enough to make us pause for a moment and consider whether we are making progress.

Today, the cereal industry continues to make adjustments that amount to fresh coats of paint smoothed over a condemned building. Whole grains. Natural flavors. A bit less sugar and bit more artificial sweetener. None of it really matters when the foundational elements are the same substance that the term empty calories was invented to describe.

And so what is that we are so busy doing that we must rely on convenience foods for nourishment? Are we busy trying to provide our children with better lives? Oh, the irony.


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