Kellogg Brothers and Post Pioneer Affordable, Nutritious Breakfast Foods

Charles W. Post, William Kellogg and John Kellogg (left to right) are responsible for the modern day dry cereal.

In the late 1800s, when the rich ate eggs and meat for breakfast while the poor ate porridge and other boiled grains, brothers John Harvey Kellogg, MD, (1852-1943) and William Keith Kellogg (1860-1951) started the Sanitas Food Company to produce a new concept: a healthy, dry flaked breakfast cereal that was a prepared food. A patient of John’s, Charles William Post (1854-1914), around the same time also started selling a rival brand of corn flakes called Grape-Nuts. Dry cereal was slow to spoil, could provide nutrition to all, and can be easily carried by military troops on missions or by adventurers on expeditions.

“I have been using Grape-Nuts food for some time, and my liking for it increases with use,” wrote a veteran of the Civil War who was quoted in a New York Times article in October 1905.1 “Now it has occurred to me that Grape-Nuts food ought to be added to the army ration for the reason that it furnishes so much satisfying, nourishing food in such small bulk.” Some soldiers even gave Grape-Nuts a pet name: shrapnel.2

Humble Origins

But it wasn’t the Kelloggs’ or Post’ famous empires that actually invented prepared cereal. The first person to invent dry, whole grain breakfast cereal was British professor James Caleb Jackson (1811-1895), who in 1863 created what he called “granula.”3,4 But Dr. Caleb’s cereal wasn’t as ready to eat as those from the Kelloggs and Post. Granula, made of wheat flour and water, had to be baked until it was hard as a brick and broken into smaller pieces, rebaked, and then soaked overnight in water or milk until it was soft enough to chew. It was also said to be tasteless, according to a Wikipedia entry on Dr. Caleb.5

The Kellogg brothers moved the idea of dry breakfast cereals forward by pioneering the process of making flaked cereal. Even today, the Kellogg Co. makes corn flakes by cooking the grain under steam pressure, drying it in hot air for several hours to reduce moisture, pressing it through a flaking roller, then toasting it, according to the company.6

Will Kellogg, generally referred to as W.K. Kellogg, was an American industrialist in food manufacturing. According to his Wikipedia biography, he was a Seventh-day Adventist and a vegetarian. He began his career selling brooms before moving to Michigan to help his brother run the Battle Creek Sanitarium. The sanitarium was part of a pioneering effort by the Seventh-day Adventist church to make modern, commercial cereals from grains. The brothers pioneered the process of making flaked cereal. In 1898, in a happy accident, they inadvertently flaked wheat berry while making granola, according to the company. W.K. kept experimenting until he flaked corn and created the recipe for corn flakes.

Trade Secrets

W.K. wanted to keep the process a secret because of its commercial potential, but his brother let anyone in the sanitarium observe the flaking process. One sanitarium guest was Post, who copied the process and started his own company in 1895, the Postum Cereal Co. (later becoming Post Cereals and then General Foods). The initial product was Postum cereal beverage, and the company later made Grape-Nuts dry cereal, which drove sales into the millions of dollars.7 Upset over Post’s commercial success and claiming Post had stolen the formula, Dr. Kellogg left the sanitarium and started the Sanitas Food Company with his brother to make whole grain cereals. However, the brothers eventually argued over whether to add sugar to their cereal (W.K. wanted it), and in 1906, W.K. founded the Battle Creek Toasted Corn Flake Co., which later became the Kellogg Co., one of the first food manufacturers to put nutritional labels on its products.

About Lori Valigra

Lori Valigra writes about science, technology, and business for general and specialty news outlets in the U.S., Europe, and Asia, including coverage of the "farm to fork" movement and food safety. She’s been involved in several media startups, and had articles published by The Boston Globe, Reuters, Science magazine, and others. She holds an MS in science journalism from Boston University and a BS in medical writing from University of Pittsburgh. She won numerous journalism fellowships and awards, including the Knight Science Journalism Fellowship at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Lori enjoys bicycling, snowshoeing, gardening, and traveling. She lives in the western mountains of Maine.

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