Then vs. Now: How Breakfast Cereal Became So Sweet

America’s first cereals were anything but sugary.

Loading the player...

These days, America’s cereal aisle is a colorful jungle of fruity, chocolaty, and sugary flakes and pebbles. This popular quick breakfast has such a penchant for sugar that it’s hard to believe it hasn’t always been that way.

Cold, ready-to-eat cereal is actually a pretty new concept, coming around only after the Industrial Revolution. Prior to that, colonial Americans enjoyed the original cereals for breakfast: hot oatmeal porridge or grits. Oatmeal had been a common breakfast in Europe for centuries, and grits were introduced to colonists by Native American tribes, according to culinary historian Heather Arndt Anderson in her book Breakfast: A History.

Colonial Americans only ate two meals a day, so breakfast was a large and hearty feast. Along with the cereals, colonial Americans also feasted on eggs, bread, and leftover meat from last night’s dinner.

Breakfast traditions remained pretty constant—but the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century changed everything. The culture moved at a faster pace, and meals were expected to follow suit. Additionally, it became less and less common to have hired domestic help in the home, so mothers were often left to handle all the food prep. Naturally, meals became less elaborate, and this made quick and easy breakfast options very attractive.

The First Cereals

In the second half of the 19th century, a new healthy lifestyle movement began (which was later given the name Clean Living Movement). This movement pushed against the excessive meat consumption that was popular at the time, along with other “stimulants” like sugar. The Clean Living Movement preached vegetarianism and wholesome, natural foods.

The first cold cereal was borne from this movement. Dr. James Caleb Jackson debuted the cereal in 1863, and it was called Granula. (Nope, that’s not a typo.) Dr. Jackson believed the typical meat-heavy American diet was tough on the digestive system and causing a range of health problems, and he claimed that his hearty, high-fiber cereal could cure those ills.

Granula was nothing like today’s cereal. This brittle cereal was essentially tough cakes made of graham flour that were crumbled up. It was so rocklike that it could only be eaten after soaking it overnight in milk, so it wasn’t exactly “convenient.”

Granula wasn’t a hit, but it did pave the way for John Harvey Kellogg (yes, *that* Kellogg). Kellogg was a Seventh Day Adventist, a religion which has long been known for promoting healthy and vegetarian lifestyles. Sticking with the teachings of his religion, Kellogg believed food should not “excite the passions,” and he held some pretty radical beliefs about the link between food and sexuality.

Kellogg’s first cereal was the still-popular Corn Flakes, and they debuted in 1894, according to Anderson. They patented it, but C.W. Post still copied the popular flakes. (Don’t feel too sorry for Kellogg: He and his brother later copied Jackson’s Granula. After the threat of legal issues, they changed the name to Granola.)

The Clean Living Movement may not have convinced Americans to go vegetarian, but it did drastically alter American diets for decades to come. More and more Americans ditched their meaty breakfasts and opted for whole-grain cereals instead.

Cereals Jump on the Fortification Trend

The early 20th century was an important time for nutrition science: This is when the majority of vitamins and minerals were discovered, named, and researched.

As vitamins were discovered, so were vitamin deficiencies. Researchers finally found a cause for several common ailments Americans were experiencing, such as vitamin C deficiency (a cause of scurvy), iron-deficiency anemia, iodine deficiency (a cause of goiter), and vitamin D deficiency (a cause of rickets).

To prevent these illnesses (which were nearly endemic), researchers collaborated with food companies to fortify common staples in the American diet. Milk was fortified with vitamin D, salt was fortified with iodine, and in the 1930s, cereals and breads became fortified with B vitamins and iron.

Fortifying cereals had pros and cons. On the bright side, it was an affordable way for families to ensure their quick and easy breakfast helped protect against common health ailments, and it did help reduce the prevalence of these deficiencies.

However, fortifying cereals paved the way for more processed cereals. Refining grains can provide a more pleasant flavor and texture, but it also strips away many of the important nutrients in grains (such as the B vitamin thiamine). It became the norm to strip away B vitamins in processing, and then add them back in via fortification.

Here Comes the Sugar

Let’s back up. Corn Flakes were, and still are, pretty healthy. The original recipe was void of sugar, but even today, they continue to be low in saturated fat, sodium, and sugar.

Kellogg and his brother, Will, had been running a pretty successful company together, until conflict arose: Will wanted to add sugar to the recipe to drive up sales further. John was adamantly opposed. When Will went ahead and did it anyway, John left the company altogether. (He went on to write several healthy, vegetarian cookbooks with his wife, Ella.)

The American food culture continued to shift in the early 20th century. Post-Industrial Revolution, more and more “convenience foods” debuted, such as Bisquick pancake mix, Pillsbury biscuits in a can, and Cream of Wheat. In other words, convenience was officially the law of the land, and ready-to-eat breakfast cereals fit right in.

Three big things happened in the mid-20th century that pushed sugar into cereals:

  • Cartoon mascots were added to cereal boxes. For example, the beloved Rice Krispie Elves appeared in the 1930s, according to Anderson.

  • Kellogg’s began putting prizes in cereal boxes in 1945, thanks to the new availability of cheap, plastic toys.

  • Sugar became cheaper and more available after World War II.

With these three changes, ready-to-eat cereals became a product that was heavily marketed to kids, and they became increasingly sweet.

People were far less critical of the sugar counts than they are now; in fact, sugar was actually being marketed in the second half of the 20th century as a health food. Sugary food advertisements at the time boasted that their products helped boost your energy. One 1970s advertisement stated, “Sugar … only 18 calories per teaspoon, and it’s all energy.”

A Return to Granola

Culture is almost always cyclical, and the counterculture of the 1960s once again took a stance against the poor diets of the mainstream, just like Kellogg and Jackson did a century earlier. The counterculture believed the obsession with convenience foods (like cold cereal and frozen waffles) was creating a public health crisis.

The food industry fed their wishes and revamped granola, introducing the granola that you can buy today. (In other words, it was nothing like Jackon’s or Kellogg’s early versions). Despite the fact that this newer version of granola was heavily sweetened, it was a hit for “hippies.”

The fact that the hippies flocked to this sugary granola on their quest for health demonstrates just how much American culture had shifted since the Clean Living Movement, especially in regards to sugar. After all, granola often earns criticism today for being one of the most sugary cereals in the breakfast aisle. (Here are more surprisingly sugary foods to look out for.)

Cereals Today

Sugar is under greater scrutiny today than it was in the 1970s. Breakfast cereals have received a lot of negative attention from activists who claim the mascots, prizes, and sugar are an irresponsible attempt to market unhealthy food to children. After all, today’s cereals contain an average of 9 grams of sugar per serving—and cereals marketed to kids average 10.4 grams of sugar per serving, according to a study by the Environmental Working Group.

This sugar scrutiny is part of a larger movement in the United States, harkening back to Kellogg’s Clean Living Movement. “Clean eating” is a thing, there’s a "Reducetarian" movement to eat less meat, and oatmeal has made a comeback. It’s basically the 19th century again.

That said, wholesome and low-sugar cereal options *are* available, including the original Corn Flakes. Just flip to the side and check the nutritional label. A good-quality cereal should list a whole grain as the first ingredient, be high in fiber, and contain as little sugar as possible. Learn more tips for buying healthier cereal here.