Wake up and smell the McCafé: Cold cereal, donuts and orange juice are breakfast staples because somebody somewhere wanted money.
Not all of it. But nearly every breakfast staple — cold cereal, donuts, yogurt, bagels and cream cheese, orange juice, frappuccino — is a staple only because somebody somewhere wanted money. Wake up and smell the McCafé.
Seeking to provide sanitarium patients with meatless anti-aphrodisiac breakfasts in 1894, Michigan Seventh-Day Adventist surgeon and anti-masturbation activist John Kellogg developed the process of flaking cooked grains. Hence Corn Flakes. Hence Rice Krispies. Hence a rift between Kellogg and his business partner/brother, who wanted to sweeten Kellogg’s cereals in hopes of selling more. Guess who won.
In pre-Corn Flakes America, breakfast wasn’t cold or sweet. It was hot, hearty and lardy, and it had about 4,000 calories.
“Breakfast was the biggest meal of the day. Eaten before you headed out to do a whole day of farm chores, it had to keep you going until dinner,” says food historian Andrew F. Smith, author of Eating History: Thirty Turning Points in the Making of American Cuisine (Columbia University Press, 2009). Pre-industrial Americans loaded up on protein-rich eggs, sausages, ham and American-style belly-fat bacon along with ancient carb classics: mush, pancakes, bread.
The Great Cereal Shift mirrored — and triggered — other shifts: Farm to factory. Manual to mechanical. Cowpuncher to consumer. Snake-oil superstition to science. Biggest of all was food’s transition from home-grown/home-butchered to store-bought.
“Cold cereals are an invention of vegetarians and the health-food industry, first through Kellogg’s and then through C.W. Post, which steals all of Kellogg’s ideas,” Smith explains.
“These companies realized early on that people like sugar, and kids really like sugar — so they shifted their sales target from adults concerned about health to kids who love sugar. It’s a thoroughly American invention.”
As is orange juice, another breakfast contrivance marketed as healthy for kids. Media buzz about vitamin C and advances in pasteurization spawned the orange-juice industry in the 1930s, turning an obscure luxury into a household necessity.
“Orange juice has come to symbolize purity in a glass,” writes agriculture expert Alissa Hamilton in Squeezed: What You Don’t Know About Orange Juice (Yale University Press, 2009). Her research reveals a highly processed product whose use of cheaply grown foreign fruit now mandates a massive carbon footprint:
“Orange juice marketers have succeeded in creating an aura of golden goodness around the product. The idea that orange juice is ‘an essential part of a balanced breakfast’ is familiar and for the most part unchallenged.”
Hamilton is outraged that commercial orange juice is “advertised as pure, fresh, and additive-free. Those who buy orange juice buy the stories that the industry tells.”
Major companies use “flavor packs” engineered by the same firms that create perfumes for Dior and Calvin Klein to make their juice smell and taste “fresh” despite its long shelf life:
“Flavor packs aren’t listed as an ingredient on the label. … The formulas vary to give a brand’s trademark taste. If you’re discerning, you may have noticed Minute Maid has a candylike orange flavor. That’s largely due to the flavor pack Coca-Cola has chosen for it.”
Tropicana, meanwhile, is owned by PepsiCo.
“Ask yourself why, like most people, you drink orange juice,” Hamilton urges. “You probably say the reason is that it is good for you, or that it is high in vitamin C, or that you grew up drinking it and like it. If so, then I must frankly tell you that, when it comes to orange juice, you are acting like a robot.”