Cornflakes of the Church

Coffee and mustard were considered sinful. So Kellogg made cereal instead.

Cornflakes of the Church

Coffee and mustard were considered sinful. So Kellogg made cereal instead.

As a typical American kid, I grew up eating cereal for breakfast and was enthralled with the exciting commercials featuring well-known mascots like Tony the Tiger, Toucan Sam, and Cap’n Crunch. I remember picking out a box of cereal based on the toy that would be found inside.

When I moved to The Netherlands nearly a year ago, I was surprised to find no such branding and advertising associated with their cereals. Not to mention, the cereal section in their grocery store consisted of only about 20 options, not the full aisle I’d been used to in American grocery stores. To my mind, which had been flooded with cereal advertising from such a young age, this section of the store seemed utterly boring (not to mention much healthier than I was used to).

I did come across one Dutch grocery store that had an “American section” and to my delight carried Reese’s Puffs and Cinnamon Toast Crunch. Finally, I would be able to have a proper sugar-filled breakfast cereal. There was just one problem — each box cost about ten euros—a high price compared to an average Dutch cereal box of 2–3 euros. I won’t lie to you, one time I did splurge on a box to have a taste of my childhood while living in a country far, far away from where I grew up.

In the mid-1800s, one couple within the Seventh-day Adventist Church, James and Ellen White, started popularizing strict health reforms based on visions and messages Ellen had said to receive from God. To carry out their mission, the Whites built the Western Health Reform Institute, a sort of half hospital, half health resort to demonstrate suitable diets, exercises, and health practices.

Several years into operating the Western Health Reform Institute, Ellen and James White had a problem on their hands. Society was becoming more interested in science-backed medicine, and the institute had just lost its only medically trained physician [3].

It wasn’t just the Whites who lived by religious practices and beliefs, most people in that time period did. One of the popular beliefs then, was that unhealthy lifestyles increase your tendency to commit immoral acts.

Substances like tobacco, coffee, tea, and medicines, were banned. It was believed that your ascension into heaven was reduced and “holiness” lessened if you consumed them. The use of mustard, pepper, rich gravies and sauces were instructed to be avoided by the young boys as they could stimulate and influence their sexual nature.

Yet, science was picking up pace too. New medical practices like disinfection of midwives’ hands and clothing were advocated, general anaesthesia was discovered using chloroform in operations, and the stethoscope was invented!

Conforming to the times, the Whites decided it would be best to have a doctor who not only embraced their faith but also had a medical degree. The answer: John Harvey Kellogg.

John was first born in Tyrone, Michigan [1], 1 out of 16 children in the Kellogg family. He grew up being heavily influenced by his religion from the very beginning, due to the Seventh Day Adventist Church. This sect of the Christian Church heavily preached the duties of healthful living and maintaining your body.

Kellogg, a member of the Whites’ congregation, strongly respected the strict religious beliefs and dietary rules that they had created. But, besides instilling certain values and beliefs into Kellogg as a young man, the Whites also played an important role in sponsoring his medical education. The deal was that he would work for them in exchange for the sponsorship. And just as they wanted, a few years later, Kellogg was designated medical director of the institute — a role he would hold until his death [4].

As the leader, Kellogg pulled the institute (changing the name from Western Health Reform Institute to Battle Creek Sanitarium) forward by incorporating more medical and surgical principles.

Yet, his ideas didn’t always hold up to science. He often waffled back and forth between scientific principles and his spiritual beliefs. For example, he was known for wearing white clothing head to toe for health reasons [2], for no obvious reason. That being said, he truly was a talented surgeon and even boasted about performing 165 consecutive surgeries without even a single mortality [1]. At the time, a record like this was quite impressive.

Such un-scientific ideas about health and food weren’t just limited to the 1800s. Today, while all breakfast cereals claim to be healthy and promote the latest nutrition trend, many are often bending the truth.

Slogans like, “Get all these vitamins in just one serving.” and “Nutrition: That's the Cheerios Tradition.” are some examples of the countless cereal catchphrases that bombard supermarket aisles and television ads. These are inaccurate, as often cereals are made from refined grains and lots of sugar! Despite advertising them as  “low-fat” with “whole grain” ingredients, those “whole grains” are usually a very small percentage of the overall package. As for the other part, cereals usually are low-fat…for the simple reason that they’re made of mostly carbs and sugar.

So, is this really a problem? As long as it has some nutrients and is tasty for kids, it should be fine, right?

Well, actually no. Cereals don’t usually have enough fibres and proteins, which are not only good for health— high intakes of sugar lead to an increase in chronic diseases— but also to keep your stomach full and reduce cravings after breakfast.

Alternatives to cereals can be porridge, which contains milk, oats and honey, or eggs; leading to a healthier life.

Kellogg also had a similar theory, called biological living, which simply boiled down to, “eat healthy to live healthily”.

This meant living to prevent disease, not just finding ways to later cure it. All his patients were to follow a vegetarian diet, perform aerobic exercises, drink ten glasses of water a day, and abstain from any caffeine or alcoholic substances [2,3].

It seemed that Kellogg was most concerned with food and its effect on the body. After he took over, the meals served in the cafeteria were completely overhauled to a much stricter diet. Meat, rich sauces, seasonings, spices, sugar, salt, and dessert were removed from recipes. (This was also fueled by Kellogg’s religious beliefs and his attempt to help Adventists keep their bodies clean and free from sin). Meals became largely composed of whole grains, vegetables and fruit[4].

To lead by example, Kellogg adhered to this strict meal plan just like all of his patients. The problem was that the food became so foul that it started to discourage people from visiting the San. This might’ve been seen as a major setback to some, but Kellogg instead made this an opportunity. He started experimenting with different foods and how to process them into more appealing forms.

With no meat being served in the San cafeteria, a lack of protein was Kellogg’s biggest issue. He soon became obsessed with nuts, and described them affectionately as “the most pure food” held within “a germ-proof shell.”

One of the things he experimented with was grinding nuts down into a fine paste, or what today we would call a nut butter [3]. Kellogg soon moved on to grain and nut combinations, formulating over 80 such products [3]. By far, his biggest breakthrough was with processing grains into more desirable textures. And yes, this is where ready-to-eat, flaked cereals finally come in.

Kellogg rigged together a machine that would produce the first flaked cereal. Kellogg soon patented the process, which involved cooking the wheat, letting it cool, running it through the pastry rollers, and then scraping it off with the paper cutting knife to form small pieces [4]. The ingenious part of this process is that any grain could be used in the flaking process. The number of products Kellogg could make was limitless.

To handle the production of the Sanitarium’s food, the Sanitarium Food Company was soon created by Kellogg, and his first cereal called Granula was launched. Quickly, the name Granula was switched to Granola due to a lawsuit filed against Kellogg by another Seventh Day Adventist, James Caleb Jackson, who already had a wheat product of the same name [1].

Interestingly, Jackson’s cereal contained wheat nuggets that were inedible unless soaked in milk or water overnight, and so the tradition of adding milk to cereal began [6].

The lawsuit was only a minor setback, and the flaked cereal was a real hit, so much so, that Kellogg wanted to make the business more focused on food manufacturing. Unfortunately, the other directors of the San didn’t support Kellogg in this business venture.

Luckily for Kellogg, his brother Will was quite business-minded, and the two joined forces to create the Sanitas Nut Food Company [4]. Through a large marketing and advertising campaign headed by Will, the cereal became a huge success [3]. However, it would not be long until the brothers would part ways.

Will had dreams of expanding the cereal company and realized they needed to change the formulation to appeal to more consumers. His plan was to take the healthy Sanitas Corn Flakes and add sugar to the formulation. Of course, John Harvey was vehemently against this idea and opposed it for both religious and health implications.

Since John Harvey was really not in it for the money, but for producing food for the San, he left the Sanitas Nut Food Company, giving Will full reign of the business [1]. To this day, the signature you see on Kellogg’s cereal boxes is William K. Kellogg.

There’s no doubt that without the creative ventures of John Harvey, the Kellogg Cereal Company wouldn’t currently exist today. He invented the flaking process and many of the first products. Ultimately, it would be his brother, Will, that popularized these cereals into mainstream society with the company currently owning many popular brands like Rice Krispies, Corn Flakes, Special K, and Frosted Flakes.

John Harvey’s passion always lay with the Sanitarium and he was a success on his own terms. Under his careful guidance, the San grew into a successful business that was a mixture of spa, clinic, and resort.

Kellogg wasn’t only a doctor, but also a lecturer, author, and inventor. Although he had some strange beliefs, ultimately, he was trying to spread the message of leading a healthful life, which is very respectable, especially considering the age he lived in.


1. Jackson, Dudrick, & Sumpio. (2004). John Harvey Kellogg; surgeon, inventor, nutritionist (1852–1943). Journal of the American College of Surgeons, 199(5), 817–821.

2. Davis, Ivan. (2004). Biologic living and rhetorical pathology: The case of John Harvey Kellogg and Fred Newton Scott. Michigan Academician, 36(3), 247.

3. Balmer, B. (1991). John Harvey Kellogg and the Seventh-day Adventist Health Movement,ProQuest Dissertations and Theses.

4. Bauch, N., & Curry, Michael. (2010). A Geography of Digestion: Biotechnology and the Kellogg Cereal Enterprise, 1890–1900, ProQuest Dissertations and Theses.

5. Kellogg, J. (1888). Plain facts for old and young: Embracing the natural history and hygiene of organic life (rev. ed.). I F Segner.

6. Kreiser, Christine M. (2011). Breakfast cereal. (The First). American History,46(4), 15–15.