The origin story of the breakfast behemoth, is actually a very adult one. The first cold cereal was introduced in 1863, when a religious conservative vegetarian and health spa (then called a “sanitarium”) proprietor named James Caleb Jackson created what he called “granula” made out of graham flour. The cereal was so hard it needed to be soaked overnight. John Harvey Kellogg, another religious vegetarian (specifically, a Seventh Day Adventist) and sanitarium owner, similarly introduced his own version of “granula,” which he named “granola” when Jackson threatened to sue. Unfortunately for Jackson, who’s been lost to mainstream history, it was granola — and Kellogg — that stuck. 

Kellogg’s divine inspiration for granola derived from his concern about proper bowel movements and, most famously, his preoccupation with masturbation, which he believed caused a whole litany of health problems, including epilepsy, mood swings, and acne, among other ailments. The solution, he thought, was a well-balanced diet, devoid of heavy spices, flavours, and sugar; so, he developed granola and, with the help of his less religious brother, cornflakes. His brother Will, not being obsessed with masturbation and dietary purity, was convinced that adding sugar to their recipe would make it more popular. Though John disagreed, Will won the fight, wrenching the company from John and ultimately popularizing the lightly sweet cornflakes we’re familiar with today. 

In the 1910s, the Quaker Oat Company touted their Puffed Wheat and Puffed Rice inventions as food science breakthroughs and “the eighth wonder of the world.” They were also, according to the company, the first “food shot from guns,” as the rice and wheat grains were puffed in a cannon-like cylinder that was heated from the outside. 

Other forms of cereal would soon follow. The Ralston Purina company developed an early version of Wheat Chex for followers of Ralstonism, a strict — and racist — religious sect that believed in mind control. But it was Cheerios, originally called Cheeri-Oats, that was born at the exactly right time: 1941, right before America entered World War Two. As the war ended, men returned from overseas, while women, after spending several years in the workplace, were sent back to the kitchen. Cereal provided a way for tired, frustrated housewives to quickly and wholesomely feed their rapidly growing families before the kids headed to school and their husbands to work, and so cereal, which had been merely one of many breakfast options in the decades prior, soon became dominant.

“Families with children were becoming more time pressured. Therefore, there was a consumer need for a more convenient breakfast option that can be more quickly prepared than the traditional heartier eggs, bacon, et cetera breakfast,” says Jon Quinn, the Director for the Center of Brand Leadership at the Indiana University Kelley School of Business. “The rise of mass media advertising, like radio and television, drove demand” as well, he says.

It was around this time that Tony the Tiger would emerge as a mascot that directly targeted children with sugary Frosted Flakes. With Tony, this new form of youth advertising, which would compel children to request that their mothers buy them specific brands of sweet cereal, would catapult cereal into millions of pantries. Breakfast cereal, which had originally been developed as a nutritious food that people ate at health spas, was transformed into the almost dessert-like product most of us think of today.

Now you know. It was mostly about masturbation.

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