Cereals, Manufacture of

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CEREALS, MANUFACTURE OF. In most of the world, the word "cereal" refers to the grains or seeds of cereal grasses. In the United States, however, it took on the additional meaning of "breakfast cereal" at the start of the twentieth century because products made from cereal grains were heavily advertised as food for breakfast. This had not always been the case in America. Before the late nineteenth century, Americans had preferred to eat pork, bacon, and lard for breakfast. In those days most Americans worked from dawn to past dusk at hard physical labor and the protein from pork and bacon and the calories from lard helped maintain muscle strength and provided energy. Early colonists who could not afford meat or lard ate porridge (boiled oats).

The Formation of Early Breakfast Cereal Manufacturers

The revolution in American eating habits that became a multibillion-dollar industry began in Akron, Ohio, in 1854, when German immigrant Ferdinand Schumacher began grinding oats with a hand mill in the back of his store and selling the results as oatmeal, suggesting that it be used as a substitute for pork at breakfast. This did not prevent people from dropping dollops of lard into their oatmeal, but the convenience of preparation made it popular. By the 1860s a health foods movement touted oatmeal as healthier than meats. Schumacher called his growing business the German Mills American Oatmeal Company; in 1877, he adopted the still-familiar Quaker trademark, which became one of the most successful symbols in history. He wanted to move away from the idea of oats as food for horses and the adoption of the Quaker symbol tied in nicely with the fundamentalist religious aspects of the health food movement. In 1888 his company merged with the Oatmeal Millers Association to become the American Cereal Company. In 1901 the company changed its name to the Quaker Oats Company.

Another successful entrepreneur was Henry Perky, who in 1893 began marketing shredded wheat, the earliest of the cold cereals; his Shredded Wheat Company was purchased in 1928 by the National Biscuit Company (abbreviated Nabisco). In the 1890s, William H. Danforth took over the Robinson Commission Company, and under the trade name Purina, the company produced a very successful line of food products for animals and a whole wheat cereal for people. By the 1890s cereal grains were touted as foods that made people healthier, even prolonging their lives, and health clubs that featured medical treatments, pseudoscientific treatments for ills, and special diets were popular. The Robinson Commission Company and Dr. Ralston health clubs merged to form Ralston-Purina, which during the 1890s was an outlet for introducing Americans to Purina breakfast foods.

In Michigan, Dr. John H. Kellogg experimented with ways to make healthy vegetarian foods for patients at his health clinic, the Adventist Battle Creek Sanitarium. In the early 1890s, he and his brother William K. Kellogg had developed a process whereby wheat grains would be mashed and then baked into flakes. In 1899, John Kellogg formed Kellogg's Sanitas Nut Food Company, but his narrow focus on producing foods just for patients proved frustrating for his younger brother. In 1895 the brothers discovered how to make corn flakes, which they sold by mail order. The corn flakes were popular, and in 1906, William Kellogg broke from his brother to found and run the Battle Creek Toasted Corn Flake Company. In the first year of the company's operation, it sold 175,000 cases of corn flakes. He soon changed the name of the company to W. K. Kellogg Company and the product was called Kellogg's Corn Flakes.

Among the many competitors that sprang up to rival Kellogg was C. W. Post, who in 1895 had invented Postum, a cereal beverage intended to be a coffee substitute. In 1897 he created Grape-Nuts breakfast cereal. In 1904 Post introduced a flaked corn breakfast cereal he called Elijah's Manna, which he later changed to Post Toasties. When Post died in 1914, his Postum Cereal Company began a series of mergers that resulted in the General Mills Company in 1928.

Expansion and Shifting Markets

Both William Kellogg and Post were canny marketers, aiming their advertising at busy adults who wanted something quick and easy to prepare for breakfast; corn flakes became their most popular products. Until his retirement in 1946, Kellogg was a relentless innovator. In 1928 he introduced Rice Krispies, whose crackling sounds enhanced its popularity. His company also introduced wax liners for cereal boxes, helping to keep the dry cereal dry and lengthen its shelf life. The Quaker Oats Company rapidly expanded its market in the 1920s. During the decade it introduced puffed wheat and rice; the manufacturing process involved steaming the grain under pressure and exploding them out of guns. Beginning in 1924, James Ford Bell used celebrities to market Wheaties, eventually focusing on athletes such as Olympic star Johnny Weissmuller to make Wheaties "the breakfast of champions." In 1937 General Mills introduced a new puffed cereal, Kix.

It was not until the late 1940s that breakfast cereals hit hard times. Physicians were telling their patients that eggs, bacon, and potatoes made for the healthiest breakfast, and as a result, adults bought less cereal. Kellogg's and General Mills compensated by targeting children as consumers. The new Kix slogan was, "Kix are for kids!" Kellogg's introduced Sugar Frosted Flakes and soon competitors followed suit with presweetened cereals.

The cereal manufacturers focused their advertising on children's television programs; for instance, Post advertised on Fury, pushing its sweet Raisin Bran cereal (introduced in 1942). During the 1960s surveys indicated that children made many of the decisions about what food to eat in American homes, encouraging cereal marketers to focus still more on commercials during cartoon shows and at hours that children were likely to be watching television.

In the early 1980s the federal government filed suit against Kellogg's, General Mills, and others for forming a trust that monopolized the breakfast cereal market. For a few years company profits declined, but in 1982 the suit was dropped. The cereal manufacturers found themselves in a marketplace driven by the same forces that had driven the market in the late nineteenth century. Eggs and bacon were condemned by physicians for having too much cholesterol and Americans were turning to "health food." Vitamin-fortified foods were developed not only for breakfast but for snacking and the term granola bar was attached to chewy, cereal grain snacks as well as cereals. The word sugar disappeared from labels as the cereal manufacturers once again targeted adults who wanted healthy diets. By 2002 the cereal market was about evenly divided between food marketed to children and food marketed to adults, and additives intended to prevent malnutrition among fad dieters were being included in adult cereals.


Johnston, Nicholas. "Bowled Over: Dig In for a Spoonful of Cereal History." Washington Post 30 April 2001.

Lord, Lewis J. "Fitness Food Makes Good Business." U.S. News and World Report 100 (20 January 1986): 69.

Martin, Josh. "A Very Healthy Business." Financial World 155 (15 April 1986): 40.

Park, Youngmee K., et al. "History of Cereal-Grain Product Fortification in the United States." Nutrition Today 36, no. 3 (May 2001): 124.

Sebrell, W. Henry. "A Fiftieth Anniversary—Cereal Enrichment." Nutrition Today 27, no. 1 (February 1992): 20–21.

United States Food and Drug Administration. "Selling High-fiber Cereals." FDA Consumer 21 (September 1987): 6.

Kirk H.Beetz

See alsoHealth Food Industry .