The Inventor of Corn Flakes

The Inventor of Corn Flakes

How a man who considered flavorful foods to cause sin, invented modern breakfast cereal.

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The name Kellogg is almost synonymous with breakfast cereals. We see it boldly printed on cardboard box after cardboard box while wandering down the cereal aisle of the grocery store. Today the market is saturated with breakfast cereals, but there was a time when no such products existed. That was until an eccentric man by the name of John Harvey Kellogg, fueled by some peculiar beliefs, invented Corn Flakes.

Let?s go back to 1852 when John Harvey Kellogg is first born in Tyrone, Michigan [1]. He was 1 of the 16 children in the Kellogg family, whom later moved to Battle Creek, Michigan. If the name Battle Creek sounds familiar, that?s because it?s now known as ?the Cereal City? since two big names in cereal, C.W. Post and Kellogg had their roots in the area.

Growing up in the Seventh Day Adventist Church, Kellogg was heavily influenced by his religion from the very beginning. This sect of the Christian Church heavily preached the duties of healthful living and maintaining your body. This was in part, because they saw the body as housing the holy spirit, but also as a way to respect God who made man in his image [3].

In the mid-1800s, one couple within the church, James and Ellen White, started popularizing strict health reforms based on visions and messages Ellen had said to receive from God. They began spreading lists of banned substances like tobacco, coffee, tea, and medicines [4]. Soon, the Whites began associating unhealthy lifestyles with increased tendencies to commit other unmoral acts. It was preached that your ?holiness? was lessened, and your chance of ascension into heaven reduced, if you didn?t maintain your personal health, or defiled your body by consuming banned foods. Kellogg strongly respected the strict religious beliefs and dietary rules first introduced by the Whites, and such limitations were exactly what would drive him to invent an entirely new food segment. These ideas had such a strong hold over Kellogg that during adulthood he wrote the following quote in a booklet about health:

?The use of highly seasoned food, of rich sauces, spices and condiments, sweetmeats, and in fact all kinds of stimulating foods, has an undoubted influence upon the sexual nature of boys, stimulating those organs into too early activity, and occasioning temptations to sin which otherwise would not occur. The use of mustard, pepper, pepper-sauce, spices, rich gravies, and all similar kinds of food, should be carefully avoided by young persons. They are not wholesome for either old or young; but for the young they are absolutely dangerous [5].?

Besides instilling certain values and beliefs into Kellogg as a young man, the Whites also played an important role in sponsoring his medical education. 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. Although the institute started as only a cottage and two-story residence hall, throughout the years it would expand to hold hundreds of patients at a time [3].

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 their only medically trained physician [3]. The Whites decided it would be best to have a doctor who not only had a medical degree, but also embraced their faith. To find this, they searched within their congregation and landed on John Harvey Kellogg.

The Whites had met J.H. Kellogg?s father when he had donated to the fundraising efforts to build the Western Health Reform Institute. This meant that the young Kellogg had been raised in the health reform movement. The Whites saw him as an active and bright young man, who could be capable of taking only the good from medical training, while resisting any kind of temptations. In exchange for promising to come back to work at the institute, the Whites gave Kellogg money to attend medical school [3].

After spending one year at the University of Michigan Medical School, Kellogg moved out to New York City to complete his medical degree at Bellevue Hospital Medical College in 1875 [3]. By this time, the institute had grown to over eight buildings on fifteen acres of land. Although the Whites were ecstatic to welcome Kellogg back, the young doctor was hesitant in returning to lead the facility. However, after accepting a temporary job offer from the Whites, a year later Kellogg was designated medical director, a role he would hold until his death [4].

As the leader, Kellogg changed the name from Western Health Reform Institute to Battle Creek Sanitarium, a play on the words sanitary and sanatorium, and often affectionately shorted to ?the San.? He pulled the institute forward by changing their mainly hydrotherapy based methodology, or using water to cure ailments, into the present by incorporating more medical and surgical principles. Although he was medically trained, his ideas did not 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]. What those reasons are I couldn?t quite find. That being said he truly was a talented surgeon and even boasted about performing 165 consecutive surgeries without a single mortality [1]. At the time, a record like this was quite impressive.

Kellogg compiled all of his ideas regarding a healthy lifestyle into one theory that he called biologic living. 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 was one of the first things to go. Kellogg claimed that patients recovered from surgery much faster if they hadn?t consumed any meat for several days preceding to the surgery [1]. He also claimed meat could lead to ailments ranging from kidney or liver stress to tooth cavities. Not to mention, he believed it intensified tuberculosis and mental illness [3].

The strict dietary guidelines were also fueled by Kellogg?s religious beliefs and his attempt to help Adventists keep their bodies clean and free from sin. To do so, any rich sauces, seasonings, or spices were removed from recipes. Meals became largely composed of whole grains, vegetables and fruit. There was no longer any sugar, salt, or dessert [4]. Kellogg whole-heartedly believed in this regimen, just read a quote from one of his books titled ?Plain Facts for Old and Young: Embracing the Natural History and Hygiene of Organic Life.?

The custom of making food pungent and stimulating with condiments, is the great, almost sole, cause of gluttony. It is one of the greatest hindrances to virtue. Indeed, it may with truth be said that the devices of modern cookery are most powerful allies of unchastity and licentiousness.

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. To some, this might?ve been seen as a major setback, but Kellogg was quite driven with his spiritual beliefs, and instead made this into 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.? Many patients had problems with either mastication or digestion, so Kellogg tried to find ways to process the nuts to ease these bodily functions. He found success when he ground nuts down into a fine paste, or what today we would call a nut butter [3].

Kellogg soon became 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.

Drawing inspiration from a colleague, who made a product called Shredded Whole Wheat Bread, Kellogg began investigating ways to grind or roll grains. Although patients at the San responded overwhelmingly negative to Shredded Whole Wheat Bread, saying it lacked any taste and had an awful texture, Kellogg was not deterred [3]. Borrowing pastry rollers from his wife, and a paper cutting knife from an Adventist publishing house, Kellogg rigged together a machine that would produce the first flaked cereal. The process was soon patented by Kellogg, which involved cooking the wheat, letting it cool, running it through the pastry rollers, and then scrapping 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.

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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, Kellogg wanted to make the business more focused on food manufacturing. Unfortunately, the other directors of the San did not 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]. Although the first flaked cereal was wheat based, the brothers soon moved onto corn products by launching Sanitas Corn Flakes. Through a large marketing and advertising campaign headed by Will, the cereal became a huge success [3]. The duo seemed to perfectly balance each other. John Harvey took interest in finding new ways to produce healthful food, while Will was responsible for the more business-related tasks. However, it would not be long until the brothers would part ways.

Will had dreams for 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 is no doubt that without the creative ventures of John Harvey, the Kellogg Cereal Company would not 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 main stream society with the company currently owning many popular brands like Rice Krispies, Corn Flakes, Special K, and Frosted Flakes.

John Harvey?s passion always lied 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. The grounds expanded to include lecture halls, bathes, a gymnasium, private suites, research labs, and a conservatory. Kellogg was not 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 a 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.

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