I was eating a bowl of Corn Flakes in my apartment and I picked out a single flake, looked at it, and wondered what it was. Of course, I could turn the box around and see the list of ingredients. They were Trader Joe’s Organic Corn Flakes and they were made from organic milled corn, organic evaporated cane juice, sea salt, organic barley malt extract, soy lecithin, and some vitamins. But how, I wondered, did milled corn turn into this thin, bumpy thing—golden, delicate, and slightly translucent in the light? I thought of a corn kernel, popped corn, corn tortillas, and cornbread, all of which I’ve prepared in my kitchen. I understood how those foods were transformed from their raw ingredients. But I could summon no vision about the flake. Out of curiosity, I saved it and waited for it to mold. It didn’t.

As far as processed foods go, Corn Flakes appear unsophisticated. They’ve got nothing on Malt-O-Meal Berry Colossal Crunch with Marshmallows, for example, which looks more like a spread of miniature prizes from a claw-grab game than something you eat. Nor can they compete with Kraft Dips Guacamole, the complexity of which made it the subject of a lawsuit due to its paltry avocado content (less than 2 percent). In fact, there is innovation in a Corn Flake, but you can’t really see it. Eighty-eight percent of corn is genetically engineered, so non-organic brands likely include corn grown from designer seed. The science behind these seeds is controversial. It’s also coveted; in 2013, six Chinese nationals were indicted for trying to steal Monsanto’s GMO corn seeds, worth tens of millions. One of the men was caught digging in an Iowa cornfield.

Along with a bajillion other ready-to-eat foods, cereals depend on shelf life. Even a “fresh” apple may be more than a year old. Martin Lindstrom, a marketer by profession, says in Brandwashed: Tricks Companies Use to Manipulate Our Minds and Persuade Us to Buy that the average apple you buy in the supermarket has been off the tree for 14 months. In cereals, the problem of freshness can be solved in several ways. Trader Joe’s Corn Flakes contain mixed tocopherols (Vitamin E); Kellogg’s adds the preservative BHT to its packaging. The makers of early Corn Flakes devised a solution that required no additives and shot the product’s popularity up like the puck in a strongman game at a Corn Belt county fair.  

Oddly enough, Corn Flakes were apparently invented as an antidote to masturbation, according to several accounts. A medical movement originating in the early 18th century declared that solitary sex led to illness, ranging from spinal tuberculosis and epilepsy to bad posture. A century later, these anxieties still held. John Harvey Kellogg believed that spicy foods and meats could encourage sexual arousal and lead to “self-pollution.” To avoid that horror, he advised a vegetarian diet with lots of cereal grains—which he was perpetually trying to coax into a palatable form. He was an influential figure who preached that cereal would save lives. “I get erections,” one patient confesses to a fictionalized Kellogg in the film adaptation of T.C. Boyle’s novel The Road to Wellville. “I warn you sir,” the doctor replies. “An erection is a flagpole on your grave.”

Kellogg’s experiments with grains took place at his own oasis of health, the Medical and Surgical Sanitarium in Battle Creek, Michigan. “The vast resort offered the combined features of a medical boardinghouse, hospital, religious retreat, country club, tent Chautauqua, spa,” writes Gerald Carson in his 1957 book Cornflake Crusade, “all carried forward in an atmosphere of moral reform and asceticism.” At “The San,” physical health, spiritual health, and chastity could all be achieved through enemas, sinusoidal baths (a bath with the application of an electrical current), and proper diet. The problem with the Kellogg health diet was that it was tasteless and boring. One San dinner menu offered a choice of three entrées: “Protose Fillets,” “Nutolene,” or rice. Before the cereal boom, breakfast was “porridge or mush, graham gems, parsnips, tomato toast, ‘some kind of sauce,’ and a little milk.”

In 1894, Kellogg saw a Shredded Wheat prototype in Denver, became intrigued, and almost bought the patent. In hopes of improving upon the concept, he boiled, steamed, and flattened milled wheat. He and his brother Will Keith—whose signature would later appear on the Corn Flakes box—turned out batch after batch of dough so sticky it had to be scraped off the rollers with chisels. Until one day, they happened to send a rancid batch of wheat mush through their machine, and out the other side came large, perfect flakes. They had hit upon the necessary principle of tempering; having been set out for several hours after soaking, moisture had spread uniformly throughout the grain. In 1895, commercial production began on the first wheat-flake breakfast food, infelicitously named “Granose.”

The wheat flakes were a taste sensation among San patients and, encouraged, the brothers tried the same method with other grains. Corn Flakes proved even more popular than Granose. Recognizing their commercial potential, Will Keith made two changes to the original recipe. First, he added sugar, a modification that John Harvey forcefully opposed. Second, he removed the germ and bran portions of the corn—the parts containing nutrients and fiber—and milled only the starch-rich center, which he called “the sweetheart” of the corn.

“The emerging system of warehousing and centralized production dictated that packaged products like breakfast cereal be able to survive for several months,” writes Melanie Warner in Pandora’s Lunchbox. “After just a month, boxes [of Corn Flakes] could develop a rancid odor due to the presence of oil from the germ portion of the corn.” Had W.K. not modified the Corn Flakes recipe and stripped the grain’s nutrients, the ubiquitous product might have offered real nourishment to millions of people over the past century. Yet, without the recipe change, Corn Flakes probably could not have survived the pack-and-ship system nor gained the outrageous popularity they did. Rather, Kellogg’s rival might have done it all instead and we’d be eating “Post Toasties.”

* * *

The Corn Flakes’ trade-off—in which nutrition is sacrificed for convenience, portability, and profitability—is a metonym for food production during the last century. From Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation to the documentary Food, Inc.  to Michael Pollan’s bestselling books, there is a wealth of information available about—as Tyler Cowen puts it in An Economist Gets Lunch—“How American Food Got Bad.” It’s not precisely understood why refined foods make us sick, but we know that they do. As soon as the Western diet—high in refined flours, sugars, and fats—is introduced to a group of humans, Western diseases—heart disease, diabetes, stroke, and certain cancers—follow. Eat anything else, even a diet of whale blubber, and it seems you’ll fare better.

The reason my Corn Flake never molded has to do with the removal of the oily germ and the added tocopherols. But there is another factor, too. After the milled corn was mixed with heat-stable additives, cooked, dumped, de-lumped, dried, tempered, and flaked, it was toasted at a temperature far higher than I could achieve in my home oven. “Most commercial cereal has been dried so thoroughly that it is virtually immune to decomposition,” explains Warner. This destroys some to all of the nutrients left in the processed grains, rendering them, in a way, both immortal and lifeless.

In 1917, food-safety advocate H.W. Wiley wrote: “Food must not be dead. It must have a soul: the vitamines.” After toasting, modern Corn Flakes are sprayed with synthetic vitamins, a practice that probably adds nutritional value, but maybe not that much. Adding vitamins back into food after they’ve been processed out “ignores the issue of synergy: how nutrients work naturally as opposed to when they are isolated,” Catherine Price writes in The New York Times. Take broccoli, for example. Real florets appear to have seven times the anti-cancer properties of a capsule filled with the same compounds. There’s also the issue of what synthetic vitamins are made from. According to Warner, half the global supply comes from China, which is not known for its achievements in food safety, and are manufactured out of sources like “sorbitol, sheep grease, acetone, and coal tar chemicals.” If Corn Flakes have anything that could be called “soul,” it’s probably not in the vitamin spray.

* * *

There was a gold rush mentality in Battle Creek, Michigan, at the beginning of the 20th century. By 1911, the town—dubbed “Cereal City”—was home to 108 brands of Corn Flakes. Will Keith, alert to Corn Flakes’ commercial potential, bought his brother out, stamped the box with his aforementioned signature, and fought off imitators by investing millions in advertising.

Corn Flakes was the first cereal to offer a free prize with purchase—a “Funny Jungleland Moving Pictures” book during the recession of 1910. And two years earlier, Kellogg’s employed another campaign appealing to cupidity, curiosity, and also to a kind of naughtiness. (Will Keith was unconcerned with preserving the cereal’s original chaste aims.) Newspaper and magazine ads directed women to “Give the grocer a wink! And see what you’ll get.” (They got a Corn Flakes sample.)

Corn Flakes developed an early knack for tapping the lifeblood of American marketing. The Kellogg company offered premiums, emphasized the product’s flavor, invented cartoon mascots, and spent, as one biographer put it, “almost unparalleled” amounts of money. In this way, a brand new breakfast food became so ubiquitous it began to be associated with America itself. A Bing Crosby song begins: “What’s more American than Corn Flakes?” “Baseball?” the song considers. In one 2013 blog post, a woman remembers singing this song in youth choir and proposes an answer to the question—what’s more American?—with the image of an ad for "Deep Fried Snickers Wrapped in Bacon."

In a commercial for General Mills Country Corn Flakes, circa 1950, two actors stand side-by-side in the style of Grant Wood’s iconic painting, “American Gothic,” singing a jingle—“Oh, they won’t wilt when you pour on milk”—to the tune of “This Land is Your Land, This Land is My Land.” One wonders if the ad is meant to parody the Kellogg’s strategy of associating its product with “Americanness.” Or maybe General Mills just wanted in on the action.

These days, “action” is not the word one would use to describe the Kellogg Company. Cereal sales have dropped and, according to a recent Bloomberg article, “the consensus on Wall Street is that Kellogg is a takeover candidate.” The only recent Corn Flakes commercials on air (or on YouTube) are aimed at the Indian market. In the U.S., Kellogg is pushing Special K Red Berries and other, “healthier” choices.

The new ad campaign, featuring the song “Tomorrow” from Annie, urges viewers to set cereal out at night for the next day’s breakfast. “Waiting quietly while the rest recharge,” a rhapsodic voiceover explains, as we see the nighttime exterior of a house, then a line of cereal boxes dimly spotlighted on a kitchen counter, “is the most important box in the world. The key to everything… A magic formula of protein and grain that helps turn little boys to soccer players, moms to super-moms.” If this sounds like puffery, that’s what the ad agency was going for. “Nighttime is when we dream, when people are a little bit more loose and free,” Britt Nolan of Leo Burnett tells The New York Times. “We wanted to grab people by the lapels to get them to recognize that cereal is a beautiful thing.”

* * *

“Soul,” once proclaimed George Clinton of Funkadelic, “is a ham hock in your Corn Flakes.” The metaphor is both racial and historical, as Roots drummer Questlove observes, but it’s also about something mass-produced, mass-marketed, mass-consumed, and sterile (early Kellogg’s Corn Flakes packaging boasted that their flakes were “never touched by human hands”) being disrupted by an object that’s less refined and closer to life.

Over-dried and spray-coated, time-tested and familiar, Corn Flakes are the epitome of conventional food. But the cool thing is, they’re also necessary for Clinton’s formulation. Soul is mostly about the ham hock, but without Corn Flakes, a ham hock isn’t soul.

An ongoing series about the hidden lives of ordinary things