How breakfast cereal
got hooked on sugar
In his new book The Case Against Sugar, author Gary Taubes chronicles the sweetening of morning meals throughout the 20th century, from the introduction of Ranger Joe to Kellogg's eventual candification
The dried-cereal industry had its roots in Battle Creek, Michigan, and the health-food movement of the late nineteenth century. The pioneers were John Harvey Kellogg, a physician who was a follower of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, and his competitor and former patient, C. W. Post. Both operated what they called "sanitoriums" for the well-heeled dyspeptic,* and both believed that the path to health and happiness ran through the digestive tract. As Kellogg would say, "The causes of indigestion are responsible for more deaths than all other causes combined." The idea of a breakfast flake that would aid digestion supposedly came to Kellogg in a midnight revelation, and he set to work on it the following morning. Post beat him to it, though, with his Grape Nuts, which by 1900 had earned him what was then the single largest, fastest legitimate fortune in America.
Post Grape Nuts were originally made with molasses and maltose from barley flour, but no cane or beet sugar. Kellogg's first cornflakes were sugar-free as well. But Kellogg had put his younger brother, W.K., in charge of the development progress, and while the elder Kellogg was away in Europe in 1902, W.K. added sugar to the toasted cornflakes to improve the taste and the flaking process. John Harvey was said to be outraged when he returned – "he felt that sugar was unhealthy and argued vehemently against using it," as the story is told in the 1995 history Cerealizing America. Consumers disagreed, though, and the sugar – a relatively trivial amount – stayed. Two years later, when Quaker Oats gave away a truly sugar-coated cereal at the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis, the company considered it candy, as did their customers, and chose not to market it, on the assumption that "America's sweet tooth was a passing fad." This turned out to be not quite correct.
It took 35 years for dried cereals, a health food, to begin the successful transformation into sugar-coated cereals, a hugely profitable breakfast candy. The process began with an industry outsider – Jim Rex, a Philadelphia heating-equipment salesman – and a line of thinking that seems almost incomprehensible in the context of the anti-sugar sentiments of today. As told in Cerealizing America, Rex was sitting at breakfast one day watching his children ladle spoonfuls of sugar atop their puffed-wheat cereal. "Sickened by the sugary excess, Rex began to think of ways he could get his kids to eat their cereal without plunging into the sugar bowl. The solution came to him in a flash of inspiration. Why not create a cereal 'already sugar'd.'"
The result, Ranger Joe, was the first sugar-coated, presweetened cereal sold in America. By then, Post Cereals was already planning to roll out a competitor, Sugar Crisp, nationwide.
Post then began the trend of rationalizing how a company positioned as a producer of health foods could justify selling a cereal coated in sugar. Echoing the logic of Jim Rex, Post executives would argue that presweetened cereal actually contained less sugar than what children would add on their own. By adding sugar, Post was merely "trading off sugar carbohydrates for grain carbohydrates and sugar and starch are metabolized in exactly the same way." Biochemists had already demonstrated that this was untrue, but it was not widely known. Either way, Post argued that "the nutritional value of the product" remained unchanged, with sugar calories replacing those from cereal grains. Sugar Crisp (now called Golden Crisp) sold spectacularly well, forcing the rest of the industry to play catch-up.
Kellogg's set out to produce a sugar-coated version of its iconic cornflakes as if "it was their salvation," releasing Sugar Frosted Flakes in 1952 and Sugar Smacks, a direct competitor to Post's Sugar Crisp, a year later. Kellogg's failed to produce a sugar-coated oat cereal and turned to chocolate instead. The company logic, again guided by nutritionists, was that "all this sweetness is not the best for children, [and] that bittersweet chocolate was good and healthy and it wouldn't be harmful to them." The result was Cocoa Krispies. When the first, bittersweet-flavored version didn't sell, the company added even more sugar. "The new cereal," as one Kellogg's salesman put it, "was a dietary flop, and a sales bonanza."
General Mills executives worried about the "possible dietary effects" of sugar-coated cereals, and its in-house nutritionist delayed the company's entry into the presweetened market for years, but eventually they were overruled. The marketing team at General Mills argued that if the company didn't compete, it wouldn't survive. In 1953, General Mills released Sugar Smiles, a mixture of Wheaties and sugar-frosted Kix; by 1956, they had released three more sugar-coated cereals – Sugar Jets, Trix, and Cocoa Puffs.
Over the next twenty years, the cereal industry would create dozens of sugar-coated cereals, some with half their calories derived from sugar. The greatest advertising minds in the country would not only create animated characters to sell the cereals to children – Tony the Tiger, Mr. MaGoo, Huckleberry Hound and Yogi Bear, Sugar Bear and Linus the Lionhearted, the Flintstones, Rocky and Bullwinkle – but give them entire Saturday-morning television shows dedicated to the task of doing so.
These companies would spend enormous sums marketing each cereal – six hundred million dollars total in a single year by the late 1960s, when the consumer advocate Ralph Nader took on the industry. Industry executives, bolstered by nutritionists – most famously, Fred Stare, founder and director of the nutrition department at Harvard – would justify the sale of sugar-coated cereals as a means to get kids to drink milk, or as part of a "healthy breakfast." The magazine Consumer Reports may have captured this logic perfectly in 1986 when it claimed, "Eating any of the cereals would certainly provide better nutrition than eating no breakfast at all."
The identical logic is still used today, when nutritionists and public-health authorities argue that children should be allowed to drink sugary chocolate milk because the benefit of obtaining the vitamins and minerals in the milk outweighs any danger that could come from drinking the sugar. This is based on a conception of nutrition science that dates back to the "new nutrition" of the 1920s, and whether it is true or not, or even vaguely true, was and still is the obvious question.
*Kellogg's many famous patients included J. C. Penney, Montgomery Ward, John D. Rockefeller, Eleanor Roosevelt and Johnny Weismuller.
Excerpted from The Case Against Sugar by Gary Taubes. Copyright © 2016 by Gary Taubes. Published by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.