Holy Grain: The Spiritual Beginnings of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes

Holy Grain: The Spiritual Beginnings of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes

Why you should care

Because this crunchy breakfast cereal aimed to save your soul.

As new patients approached the sprawling grounds of Battle Creek Sanitarium, they saw men in short-sleeve shirts and women in floor-length dresses doing lunges and backbends. New arrivals soon noticed their tanner cheeks and shrunken waistlines — taking on a cultivated air of health, well-being and moral fortitude. They were there because their health had fallen apart, and Dr. John Harvey Kellogg was the man to put them back together. So long as they submitted to his unorthodox ways …

Like bathing in the sun for phototherapy, being blasted with water in an enormous tub, attending lectures on the evils of spicy food, getting jolted by electricity to stimulate muscles or having an enema if they were feeling down. Kellogg’s therapies were all part of his mission to restore the physical and spiritual health of America. The biggest challenge, as he saw it? Curing America’s biggest so-called sin: masturbation. Kellogg believed a clean diet brought one closer to God, so he focused his handiwork on the creation of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes.

The crunchy breakfast cereal was invented in the late 1800s and quickly become known for being high in fiber but low on taste — a perfect cornerstone for Kellogg’s governing philosophy on “biologic living.” Back then, the United States was not a healthy place: The very small food pyramid for the average American involved a lot of meat, fat and alcohol. Indigestion ran rampant, and a health movement arose to fight for America’s moral and dietary fiber. Don Scherencel, director of the Historic Adventist Village, home to the Dr. John Kellogg Discovery Center, says Kellogg never saw a healthy colon in all his years performing surgeries. “Everybody came to Battle Creek because their body wasn’t healthy, and [Kellogg] was there to help.”

There were 101 cereal companies founded right here, because if it said Battle Creek on the box, then it had to be healthy.

Don Scherencel

For Kellogg, diet and disposition were intrinsically linked, and he believed that moral degradation and the desire to consume heavily spiced foods was a vicious cycle — one that would eventually leave humans physically and morally bankrupt. “Highly seasoned [meats], stimulating sauces … and dainty tidbits in endless variety, irritate [the] nerves and … react upon the sexual organs,” he wrote in Plain Facts for Young and Old. Simply put, the road to hell was paved with dipping sauce.

The solution? Instead of a diet based in animal fats and white starches, Kellogg promoted simpler foods — fiber and whole carbohydrates (cue an era that saw the birth of graham crackers and granola). And his contribution to cereal goodness was a simple, high-fiber alternative devoid of variety, sugar or any other “dainty tidbits” that might react with the sex organs. Simply put, in order to stop the moral decay plaguing America, Kellogg had to get men’s hands out of their pants and into cereal boxes.

Kellogg’s link between morality and diet is not an enormous surprise given that he was a staunch Seventh-day Adventist, a religious movement that started in 1860 and preached strict adherence to vegetarianism and biblical dietary rules. The socially conservative group valued abstinence, other than in the pursuit of babies. Overachiever that Kellogg was, he reportedly abstained from sexual intercourse with his own wife, opting instead to adopt children.

John Kellogg

John Harvey Kellogg tried to save America with wholesome breakfasts.

Source Bettmann/Getty

Beliefs aside, Kellogg’s sanitarium did manage to make people feel better. “If it didn’t work, Battle Creek Sanitarium wouldn’t have continued to grow,” Scherencel explains. Famous personalities like Mary Todd Lincoln, Sojourner Truth and Thomas Edison sought Kellogg’s therapies, and the Michigan institution soon became the place to be for resurrecting one’s physical and spiritual well-being at the turn of the last century.

But even more people were desperate to get their hands on Kellogg’s corn flake cereal. This was not just a function of the American desire to start their day with a belly full of fiber; the industrial revolution meant that more people were living in city centers and leaving their houses early for work. In those changing times, convenience became king to American consumers, and cereal was a fast, easy breakfast for people heading to work.

Kellogg began traveling the country and giving lectures on his therapies as an opportunity to spread his gospel of high fiber and biologic living. But Kellogg seemed to care more about his clean-living message than product sales. He went so far as to give his recipe for corn flakes away during his lectures, which led to a number of knockoffs but — unsurprisingly — no noticeable decline in sexual activity. C.W. Post, a former patient of Kellogg and founder of Post Cereals, took the recipe and ran, creating similar high-fiber cereals with added sugar (and minus the sanctimony). “At one point, Battle Creek was known as health city. There were 101 cereal companies founded right here, because if it said Battle Creek on the box, then it had to be healthy,” says Scherencel.

Meanwhile, Kellogg’s brother, Will Kellogg, who was employed as a bookkeeper at the sanitarium, had his hand deep in the cereal box — looking for a profit. While John Harvey Kellogg invented the cereal, his own brother undermined him by founding the Kellogg Company and marketing it to the world. And to add insult to injury, Will Kellogg committed the cardinal sin of adding sugar to the original Kellogg recipe, thus endangering the souls of customers in the most delicious way. The added sugar and stolen recipe were enough to lock the brothers in a brutal feud that lasted for years.

John Harvey Kellogg preached that bland eating was the path to spiritual enlightenment and physical well-being, but ultimately convenience and great taste won out over his moral crusade. And while his brother went on to grow Kellogg Cereals into the breakfast staple it is today, the doctor continued caring for the spiritual and physical well-being of his patients in Battle Creek to his dying day.

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