You want to talk great branding? Check this out: “Breakfast is the most important meal of the day.”
Sure, it’s a great ad slogan. But is it true?
In a word…maybe. Studies that link skipping breakfast with a 27 percent increase in coronary heart disease—or that find greater weight loss for those who eat a big breakfast instead of a big dinner—lend credence to a phrase that first appeared in a 1917 magazine edited by John Harvey Kellogg. Yes, that Kellogg. More on him later.
Kellogg was selling Corn Flakes (which he invented for a pretty surprising reason—again, we’ll get into that soon). That makes him a dubious source on meal importance. In this case, though, it seems that he was onto something. The science isn’t entirely settled on breakfast yet, but enough studies show positive associations with the morning meal that we hesitate to sneer at Kellogg.
Whatever the truth of their claims, Kellogg and other entrepreneurs of American breakfast history used advertising like a gigantic hypnotist’s watch, and they changed the way we eat. Many of those changes are still with us. What’s a healthy breakfast, after all? Bacon and eggs? Orange juice? Whole grains? Who knows?
This is the story of how the notion of the healthy breakfast was cooked up and served to the hungry consumers of America. We’ll give you one guess as to who held the spatula. (It was the food companies.)
But Don’t Get Us Wrong
To be clear, we’re not trying to vilify food manufacturers or advertisers. They were just doing what manufacturers and advertisers do. And there’s one part of the consumer you just can’t lie to: their taste buds.
Just ask Howard Moskowitz, the food market researcher and psychophysicist who, among other things, pioneered the concept of the “bliss point” in food—a precise calibration of flavors that appeals to the most possible consumers at once. Oh yeah, he also invented Cherry Vanilla Dr. Pepper.
Advertising can’t push food on a populace that doesn’t like the food in the first place, Moskowitz says.
“If people like [a food product], if they can’t get it, and if you advertise it in a catchy, effective way, they will buy it and buy it again,” he tells HealthyWay. “The product sells itself, or, better, re-sells itself. A lousy taste experience and the product is dead, unless, of course, it’s so darn cheap, and one doesn’t have to live with it but feed it to someone else.”
And so, with these words of wisdom, we ask you to proceed without judgement. Just because Corn Flakes were invented to…well, you’ll see…doesn’t mean you can’t still enjoy a bowl.
1. Inventing Breakfast
We’ve all heard it million times—you can’t skip breakfast. So who made that up, the scientists or the food manufacturers?
It wasn’t until January 2017 that the American Heart Association issued an official scientific statement that says eating breakfast is associated with reduced risk of cardiovascular disease. (They also recommend skipping the midnight snacks and planning meals with purpose.) And even the AHA is quick to call for more research before making universal recommendations, especially on the heels of reports that some pro-breakfast studies were funded by cereal manufacturers.
We’ve been eating hearty breakfasts since long before these studies. And speaking of hearty breakfasts, they all seem to involve some form of pig meat: bacon, sausage, ham. Where did that start? It turns out we have weak pork sales and some snappy advertising to thank.
Before the 1900s, there wasn’t anything particularly special about breakfast. People tended to eat what was most convenient for them. Many rural families ate egg products for breakfast for the simple reason that chickens lay eggs in the morning, and they ate salted ham because it was convenient.
Then, during the industrial revolution, people began moving from rural to urban areas and taking up non-farm-related jobs. No chickens in the backyard, no cured meats hanging in the barn. Besides, manufacturing jobs didn’t really burn that many calories. Soon people abandoned their bacon and eggs in the mornings, opting for much lighter options.
In the 1920s, the Beech-Nut Packing Company—which made its fortune in bacon—was suffering from low sales. To fix this, the company reached out to advertising legend Edward Bernays and asked him to find a way to get people eating more meat. Bernays approached a well-known New York doctor and got him to convince 4,500 of his colleges that a heavy/hearty breakfast was good for the body. Just like that. No need for scientific studies or comprehensive testing.
Of course, it didn’t hurt that bacon is, by all accounts, delicious. Remember Moskowitz’s law.
“Think about the last lousy food or beverage you ate or drank,” Moskowitz says. “What’s the likelihood any [ad] from a hip, 27-year[-old] agency ‘creative’ will get you to put that crap in your mouth? Forget your shopping cart…Your mouth, not [passing] it off to some other sucker?”
Advertising is no silver bullet, but bacon didn’t have a problem with flavor. It had an image problem, which Bernays fixed. He made sure the public knew about the “revolutionary” medical information he more-or-less manufactured from whole cloth.
Newspapers ran the story, and soon sales for the two most popular hearty breakfast items—bacon and eggs—soared. The union between medical “fact” and advertising was born. To this day, some scientists continue to make the misleading claim that eating breakfast is a causation of healthy attributes, when in reality, it may just be an association.
2. The Real Purpose of Corn Flakes
Kellogg’s Corn Flakes have been an American breakfast staple since the early 1900s. Some find them bland. Believe it or not, that’s the whole point.
John Harvey Kellogg was born on Feb. 26, 1852, in Tyrone, Michigan, to a strict orthodox Seventh Day Adventist family. Kellogg showed an interest in health and medicine from an early age and would later become a successful physician, author, and pioneer of healthy eating and living. He wrote many books about the benefits of a vegetarian lifestyle, exercise, drinking enough water, and abstaining from physical intimacy completely. Yes, completely. As in, even alone.
Kellogg’s strict religious convictions lead him to believe all diseases were the result of congested bowels, personal stimulation, and “exciting” foods—wink wink, nudge nudge. In one of this publications, Plain Facts for Old and Young: Embracing the Natural History and Hygiene of Organic Life, Kellogg lays out 39 different ailments caused by “self-abuse,” and said “a man that lives on pork, fine-flour bread, rich pies and cakes, and condiments, drinks tea and coffee, and uses tobacco, might as well try to fly as to be chaste in thought.”
This guy wasn’t kidding around. Kellogg took his idea of abstinence very seriously, going so far as never sharing a bedroom with his wife. In 1876, Kellogg began working at the Battle Creek Sanitarium, a health spa organized by Seventh Day Adventists. There he focused on treating patients with lots of exercise, enemas (remember, your bowels are very important), and even invented bland, non-stimulating, regularity-inducing foods for patients to eat: Corn Flakes.
Kellogg only fed his patients healthy, plant-based foods. He preferred mild flavors to avoid stirring anyone up. What Kellogg failed to predict is how satisfying a bowl of Corn Flakes can actually be. The patients loved it. They wanted to eat it in their homes. In short, they wanted to buy Corn Flakes at the grocery store.
John Kellogg, along with his brother William, saw the opportunity. In that sense, they were early practitioners of what makes a successful commercial food company, according to Moskowitz, who helped to uncover consumer preference for Vlasic Pickles and Prego spaghetti sauce in the 1980s.
“In terms of giving people what they want, both Vlasic and Prego used the data wisely to identify specific products that had been avoided by previous brand managers as being too polarizing,” Moskowitz says.
The Kellogg brothers did something similar; they tracked a demonstrated preference and they responded, forming the Sanitas Food Company to sell their product. Corn Flakes took off, and by 1905, Sanitas we selling 150 cases of corn flakes a day. When William wanted to start adding a little bit of sugar to the recipe, making the flakes more appealing to a wider audience, John wasn’t happy. William left to start his own company (what we now know as Kellogg’s), leaving his brother behind.
Of course, we know that eating Corn Flakes isn’t going to stop any tingly feelings, and it was probably the best sales move to add some sugar to those flakes. But the cereal you grew up eating was the brainchild of a serial abstinence and health food nut. Who knew?
3. Orange you glad you have your health?
When you think about it, orange juice doesn’t make any sense as a morning beverage. It makes coffee taste toxic. It makes toothpaste terrible. Plus, who needs all that acid on a morning stomach? But the combined forces of advertising and culture have us all sipping the OJ bright and early. Here’s how that happened:
Back in the 1800s, it was fairly difficult for anyone to enjoy a citrus fruit in the United States. The state of Florida joined the Union in 1821 while California came onboard in 1850, but the transportation of perishable fruit was difficult and expensive. The U.S. had tropical, orange-growing states by the mid-19th century, and the arrival of railroads during that time supported a burgeoning industry. Growers planned their citrus empires and planted groves and groves of orange trees.
Oranges boomed. Then they busted. By 1900, there was an overabundance of the fruit. Cue the entrance of Sunkist. In 1908, the Sunkist company came up with a novel plan for all those extra oranges: Juice ’em!
Sunkist sold orange juice all across the country, touting it as a wholesome, healthy beverage. The company saturated newspapers, radio stations, schools, and magazines with ads, citing “3,000 physicians” who recommended feeding orange juice to babies.
Orange juice grew in popularity, even throughout the Great Depression. During World War II, Florida’s entire orange juice industry was threatened by a lack of production possibilities. This lead to the creation of the first mass-production orange juice product—OJ concentrate.
It wasn’t until recently that orange juice companies have been coming under fire for their health claims. People are starting to notice that orange juice is often heavily processed and loaded with sugar. Nothing is simple anymore—not even breakfast.
4. Coffee totters but does not fall.
You might think the whole “you’re too young to drink coffee” saying was started by parents who didn’t want to deal with insanely caffeinated children. That would make sense; who wants to wrangle caffeinated kids? But have you ever heard the claim that coffee will stunt a child’s growth?
That particular myth (yes, myth) didn’t originate from irritated parents, but instead from very strategic advertising.
Ever since the creation of coffee there have been people worrying that it’s bad for you. While it’s true excessive consumption of caffeine isn’t good for your body, the FDA states that drinking up to 300 milligrams of caffeine per day (about two to four cups of coffee) is safe for most people.
The health concerns we have about coffee today can be traced back to C.W. Post, a cereal manufacturer during the tail end of the 19th century. Post wasn’t just in the cereal business; he also made a warm, grain-based beverage called Postum. Postum’s biggest contender was coffee, and Post wasn’t about to let a caffeinated drink get the better of him. The company set out on a smear campaign against coffee, making outrageous “science-based” claims about the dangers of drinking coffee.
One of those claims was that if children drank coffee, they would become sluggish and lazy, do poorly in school, and fail to grow big and strong like other kids. However, none of this has ever been proven to be true. Even after Post’s death, his company was on a mission to make Postum a popular, kid-friendly drink, which meant doing whatever they could to demonize coffee.
Now, we’re not saying that kids should start chugging cups of coffee each morning. Just because there’s no current evidence of coffee-related health issues for kids doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Long-term studies on the subject haven’t been conducted yet to know otherwise.
All of which brings us to the pointiest point of the present inquiry: Don’t listen to the ads when you’re planning your next healthy breakfast. Listen to your physician.