Though somewhere between useless and dangerous, the cereal industry has managed to convince the public to buy their product at twenty-fold the cost of the starch it contains, and has convinced them that it is healthy.
In the 19th century the Trans Continental Railroad has to rank as not only the greatest swindle of the Gilded Age, but one of the greatest swindles of all time. It was without precedent. The government was fleeced, the shareholders were fleeced, 70% of congress was bribed. Vast tracts of land were literally given to the rich. Miserable working conditions were endemic. Even the goods weren’t delivered. The Eastern half of the railroad was so poorly built that it was usually in disrepair two decades after completion.
But this made around a half dozen men so rich that their legacy of wealth lives on today: Leland Stanford, Charles Crocker, Mark Hopkins, Jay Gould, and other notables, all now shrouded in grand respectability.
This is a hard act to follow, but for our not-so-Gilded Age we propose breakfast cereal. This is a colossal swindle. The cereal manufacturers have managed to deceive America and a lot of Europe with absurd nutritional and health claims and by doing so, have made a fortune. All with a business as close to selling nothing for something as you are likely to find.
Breakfast Cereal Economics
Here is the business proposition. Take 25¢ worth of starch, a pound, say, wheat, corn, or oats. Make a thin crust, toast it, crumble it up, put it in a box, and sell it for $4. Of course, other than the raw starch calories, it has almost no food value at all, and for the 30-50% of the population that is insulin resistant, it is actually dangerous. Oh, you’ll reply, the huge profit is attractive, but no sane person will buy useless or dangerous food, especially at that marked-up price. So, we respond, sell it to children, get them to somehow want it and then they will pester their parents to buy it. Or better still; get the government to recommend it. How could this ever be done, you might reply, surely it is completely against the law to try to sell food directly to children, especially if it is a useless food, and surely the government has more sense than to recommend it. No, we reply, it’s not illegal at all, and you can even put toys in the box to encourage sales. And no one ever said the government’s recommendations had to make sense. In the realm of nutrition they never do.
We all know this works and works well. The real question is why did we and why do we still fall for it?
Breakfast Cereal’s Bizarre History
How did cereal get to be a children’s food? It actually started out that way. This story is so bizarre we wouldn’t have believed it if weren’t so well documented.
Cereal, like the Transcontinental Railroad was also a product of the Gilded Age and invented by John Harvey Kellogg, at the time an M.D. at a health sanitarium. Name ring a bell? His earliest product was Granola. He thought his cereal concoctions were health foods, effective against many of the prevailing illnesses of the time, but one in particular. Apparently, Kellogg was adamantly opposed to masturbation, and dealt with that infirmity with a variety of procedures, many of them quite brutal. As a component of this medical campaign, Kellogg espoused feeding children a bland breakfast, rather than the usual ham and eggs. We will let the reader guess which bland breakfast food Kellogg chose.
You can read all about this in the book Kellogg wrote called “Plain Facts for Old and Young,” available here. Jump to the chapter called “Solitary Vise.” Just so you will know where you are headed, here’s the opening sentence: “If illicit commerce of the sexes is a heinous sin, self-pollution, or masturbation, is a crime doubly abominable.”
Kellogg went into the cereal business with his brother, but they later split: the brother wanted to add sugar to the product to broaden the appeal. It was the brother that went on to form the successful company. A client at the sanatorium was one C. W. Post, who was so impressed by cereal that he became the archrival.
The anti-self-abuse business was off to a roaring start.
By the era of black and white television, breakfast cereal was well established and well loaded with sugar. Saturday morning featured non-stop cartoons and non-stop cereal ads, especially tailored for the child market. Disease prevention was no longer mentioned, and most sales were gotten by including trinkets in the boxes. This worked. Kids chose from the trinkets. Mothers had to extract promises to finish the box. Wheaties had miniature license plates. “Collect all 48.” Brilliant. Worked on me.
It would seem the scam was perfect. Every kid in the country was eating cereal and hooked on the trinkets. But that wasn’t enough. A huge opportunity was looming. America’s health was deteriorating. By 1972 the Federal Government had had enough and decided to straighten all this out. The result: The Food Pyramid. The worst public health decision ever made. (And that’s not an easy crowd to be the worst of.)
Before the Food Pyramid, the recommendation was soft and pretty sensible: the balanced plate, with a third meat, a third veggies, and a third fruit. No cereal at all. But a makeover was in the works and the well-honed market departments of the grain industry smelled gold. And they got it. The new Food Pyramid featured up to 11 servings of cereal a day. That’s a lot of servings. Meat, fruit, cheese, poultry, beans and eggs combined got 4-6 servings a day. Fats and oils were practically declared verboten.
The swindle was now complete. The entire country was shoveling down cereal like never before; the kids for the trinkets and the adults for the health.
There were a couple of flies in the ointment that would not go away, but the future looked bright.
However, the Food Pyramid launched the adult onset diabetes epidemic we are in the midst of. There can be little doubt of that. There is no question whatever that a diet high in starches and sugars causes adult onset diabetes, and removing this usually cures it. But the solution became “cut out saturated fat,” and eat more cereal. This grand advice is still found all over the place, though it’s a provable formula for making adult onset diabetes worse.
But even more serious, these pesky disease issues appeared to pose an existential threat to the cereal industry. It was already well established that breakfast cereal did little to prevent masturbation. They had managed to survive that, but what if cereal was actually unhealthy? So the mighty marketing wheels again started churning. It found a culprit—a straw man—and commenced to knock him down. Out came the advertising bucks, and this time, research bucks as well. The straw man? Refined grain. Zounds!, you reply: refined grain is surely bad. This is well known. So we will then ask you to choose between two replacement products: 1) whole grain or 2) no grain. If you picked 1), you lose. Number 2) is by far the healthiest grain. In every research imaginable where this experiment was done, no grain won every time. Grain is bad for you—period. But this is not what the world believes. So as usual, it’s facts be damned and full speed ahead. Whole grain is slightly—just slightly—better in a few very select areas. But even in those areas, no grain is better still. Your homework: try to find research where grain of any sort is compared to no grain at all. T’ain’t easy.
The Future of Grain
There are some pretty large chinks in the armor now, especially with best sellers like “Grain Brain” and “Wheat Belly,” and very successful low starch diets. Will this be the demise of the grain industry? Well frankly, I’ll put my money on any company that can launch a food “so bland it will cure self abuse” and survive 150 years. Time will tell.