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The Sleazy Story of Cereal's Success

The Sleazy Story of Cereal’s Success
Angelo Coppola

“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.

Breakfast cereals in many ways are the archetypal processed food product of  modern capitalist food economics.  — Michael Pollan

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]

From the industry's point of view, cereals are just wonderful, because what they  are is really, at heart, carbohydrates — pretty cheap to buy. It's just like a blank canvas for an artist to create products using very cheap materials to create enormously lucrative products.   — Joanna Blythman, author Bad Food Britain

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.

Advertising

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.

Cereal Advertising Characters - Tony the Tiger

Moms and dads have grown up with the characters. And they pass that  love along to their kids. So, it's a  virtuous circle.  — Greg Peterson, Managing Director     Kellogg UK

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.

I think the battle between the egg and cereal is a battle between two ways of life. The egg stands for wholesome families and country life. The cereal stands for city life, employment, new ways of thinking, speed...modernity in general.  — Fay Weldon, author and advertising copywriter

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%.

Convenience

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.

You process it: you strip it of anything that slows down eating. You add re- enforcing substances: you add sugar to it. You add other stimuli to it. You make it into a habit. You add the  emotional gloss of advertising. You add toys to it. You make it part of the routine. You make it something that  is socially acceptable.  — Dr. David Kessler, former USDA     Commissioner

Nutrition

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.

The cereal makers have always    been able to stay one step ahead        of the health fads and health          authorities and managed to             constantly update their                product.                  — Michael Pollan

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.

Too busy for cereal.

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.

Humans Are Not Broken

Whoa, this article took a heck of a long time to produce, so I hope you enjoyed it and that it provided you with some things to think about. How do you deal with busy, modern life? Do the memories of cereal characters still paint your opinion of the brands they represented? Why are we in such a rush these days, or is that a myth? I would love to hear your input in the comments section. Also, hat tip to Elana K. for posting The Foods that Make Billions video link on the Facebook page!

Sources:

  • The Foods that Make Billions, Cereal: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zYkLByB7HQ4
  • [1] National Association of Wheat Growers: http://www.wheatworld.org/wheat-info/fast-facts/
  • [2] Wikipedia, wheat: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wheat
  • [3] Wikipedia, Battle Creek Sanitarium: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_Creek_Sanitarium
  • [4] Wikipedia, Kellogg: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kellogg_Company
  • [5] Wikipedia, Robert Choate: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_B._Choate,_Jr.
  • http://twitter.com/Feralization Karen Phelps

    Damn, Angelo! Awesome work. I’m currently working on an article on food prices and I’ve run into much of this same information. One of my current rants as a result of my research (check last week’s Twitter feed…) is how the marketers and food producers will stop any discussion of healthier food choices by invoking the What-About-Poor-People rule, as though they are on a virtuous mission to help poor people. “The poor, working classes need cereal! They need convenience and affordability!” Unfortunately, this is a lie predicated on larger, much scarier problems, and it essentially makes me an anarchist to talk about real solutions. You dig long enough, and you begin to understand that the problems (and hence, the fixes) are much, much more involved and radical than you ever could have imagined. Folks, I hate to be the one to break it to you, but we are actually living in a sci-fi novel.

    Again, great work Angelo. Will share far and wide.

    • http://www.humansarenotbroken.com/ Angelo Coppola

      Thanks, Karen. I look forward to reading your article when it’s published. I’m curious to see if I find your solutions to be radical or otherwise. :)

    • Nick Mailer

      Also, boxed cereals are incredibly expensive for what they deliver!

  • Richard

    This fabulous post reminds me of my days as a psychology graduate student research assistant around 1990. A certain cereal company hired our lab to study the cognitive and mood effects of their oatmeal as compared to corn flakes with orange juice and with fasting for the morning. The public never saw the results published because, while (instant) oatmeal produced better cognitive performance and mood than the corn flake-based breakfast in the hours that followed, it turns out that fasting worked even better. A few cents of over processed oats, which at the time was starting to enjoy its own popularity for being “heart healthy” and full of that gut moving bran, simply spiked and soon crashed blood sugars with the “instant” variety. No worries – plenty of marketing money from that huge gap between raw ingredient costs and consumer prices to find other pathways to promoting empty calories. Sad how long, even after the study was over, that I believed the message of “healthy whole grains”. It took me 20 more years to truly understand the concept of “nutrient dense foods.”

    • http://www.humansarenotbroken.com/ Angelo Coppola

      Wow, Richard. This is fascinating and something I will certainly write about in the future. I’ve touched on it on Latest in Paleo…but it’s the studies we haven’t seen that could easily be the most important. What’s perhaps even more scary is how the system of publishing research works when it comes to pharmaceuticals.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Kem-Johnson/100001811404457 Kem Johnson

    Is this your best post yet? PDG IMHO.
    I’d like to think I can read something prurient into the shot of those Aspen girls… well, if I was forty years younger, anyway.

    And don’t forget that God was in the mix at Battle Creek as well as money, maize and ego.

    • http://www.humansarenotbroken.com/ Angelo Coppola

      God was a huge part of it in Battle Creek, including the rift between the brothers. The Road to Wellville is an interesting book / movie that focuses entirely on the period of time. http://amzn.to/Zfrbop

      …and I’m sure the cereal company would love for us to read as much into those Aspen girls as we would like.

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  • Garrett Fox

    Killer article bro. Also, big fan of alliterative titles

    • http://www.humansarenotbroken.com/ Angelo Coppola

      Haha! Maybe i should start doing that for all the feature stories. :-)

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  • http://www.humansarenotbroken.com/ Angelo Coppola

    So funny! I had no idea. :-)

  • Jack Yee

    Thank you so much for doing this post! Really appreciate the hard work that went in on this great article!

    • http://www.humansarenotbroken.com/ Angelo Coppola

      Thanks, Jack. Glad you’ve enjoyed it!

  • http://www.facebook.com/cori.ove Cori Ove

    Oh man! I try to not give my kids cereal every day (and it has to be gluten free) but now I’m thinking I should never give them cereal again! Damn all the information that will make my kids healthier, but make me have to get up earlier so I can cook some eggs for the kiddos! :)

    • http://www.humansarenotbroken.com/ Angelo Coppola

      Maybe some cereal on occasion isn’t the worst thing in the world. Like you, I would choose gluten free if possible, and personally, I would also try to choose companies that don’t market to kids with cartoon characters. #votingwithdollars

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  • http://www.facebook.com/Shieldmaiden96 Kimberly Robinson

    What bothers me is how cereal still has a pull, how some indoctrinated part of my brain still wishes I could fill a salad bowl with something sugary, chocolaty, and worthless doused in equally worthless milk and eat it, even after six months of being completely sugar and wheat free, sourcing grass fed proteins and raw dairy. I eat five times the fresh vegetables I used to and some part of me still wants cocoa pebbles. Does that ever end? Tell me it ends.

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