Breakfast is often lauded as “the most important meal of the day.”
What is less commonly mentioned is the origin of this ode to breakfast: a 1944 marketing campaign launched by General Foods, the manufacturer of Grape Nuts, to sell more cereal.
During the campaign, which marketers named “Eat a Good Breakfast—Do a Better Job,” grocery stores handed out pamphlets that promoted the importance of breakfast while radio advertisements announced that “Nutrition experts say breakfast is the most important meal of the day.”
Ads like these were key to the rise of cereal, a product launched by men like John Harvey Kellogg, a deeply religious doctor who believed that cereal would both improve Americans’ health and keep them from masturbating and desiring sex. (Only half of his message made it into the ads.)
Before cereal, in mid-1800s America, breakfast was not all that different from other meals. Middle- and upper-class Americans ate eggs, pastries, and pancakes, but also oysters, boiled chickens, and beefsteaks. The rise of cereal established breakfast as a meal with distinct foods and created the model of processed, ready-to-eat breakfast that still largely reigns. And it all depended on advertising that suggests that breakfast is the most important meal of the day.
Before the invention of cereal, breakfast was not as standard or routine as it is now. "The Romans believed it was healthier to eat only one meal a day," food historian Caroline Yeldham has said. Many Native Americans, Abigail Carroll writes in The Invention of the American Meal, ate bits of food throughout the day (rather than at set meals) and sometimes fasted for days at a time.
Of medieval Europe, historians alternatingly write that breakfast was only a luxury for the rich, only a necessity for laborers, or mostly skipped. And while many American colonists ate breakfast, it was a reputedly harried affair that took place after hours of morning work.
Historians tend to agree that breakfast became a daily, first-thing-in-the-morning institution once workers moved to cities and had set schedules. In Europe, this first began in the 1600s, and breakfast achieved near ubiquity during the Industrial Revolution. With people going off to a full day’s work, breakfast became a thing. By this time, there was already a tradition of certain foods—like bread, ale, cheese, porridges, or leftovers—being cooked or eaten in the morning. Although, since chroniclers of history spend little time describing breakfast, tracing the origins of favorite dishes is difficult.
Why are eggs a staple of brunch? Searching for the eggs–breakfast link takes one back at least to early history; John A. Rice, a Bible scholar, describes Mary of Nazareth preparing eggs for a breakfast attended by Jesus. What about pancakes? Paleontologists speculate that humans ate primitive pancakes over 5,000 years ago; more recently, Thomas Jefferson enjoyed crepe-like flapjacks.
But once breakfast became an American institution, the meal grew increasingly like dinner. “Americans wanted meat, meat, meat. And potatoes. And cake and pie,” Lowell Dyson, an agricultural historian, wrote of food preferences in 19th-century America. This mania extended to breakfast, and dishes like beefsteaks and roasted chickens joined staples like cornbread, flapjacks, and butter on American breakfast tables.
It was not a recipe for good health. Americans complained chronically of indigestion, which early nutritionists and reformers named dyspepsia. As the historian Abigail Carroll has explained, “Magazines and newspapers [just overflowed] with rhetoric about this dyspeptic condition and what to do about it.” It was the 1800s equivalent of today’s conversations about obesity.
Americans needed a simpler, lighter breakfast. What they got was cereal.
Before cereal represented an over-sugared, overprocessed relationship with food, Americans viewed cereal as a health food. Its origins lie in sanitariums run in the mid- to late 1800s. It was a period when doctors were still often called quacks: Germ theory was just gaining prominence, and Dr. John Harvey Kellogg’s favorite medical tool was a bath. His malady cures resembled spa treatments; “hydrotherapy” was popular at the time.
Kellogg and his peers believed they could improve Americans’ health by changing their diets. They thought that too much meat and too many spices had negative effects, and they preferred whole grains to white breads. A dietary reformer named Sylvester Graham invented the graham cracker in 1827. James Caleb Jackson, who did not allow red meat at his sanitarium, invented a cereal that he named “granula” in 1863. And Kellogg developed corn flakes in the 1890s.
The original versions of these cereals were spartan affairs. They were not sweet, and people had to soak Jackson’s granula in milk just to make it edible. Critics called granula “wheat rocks.”
But people wanted them. "The first year that the product was available saw more than 50 tons manufactured and sold in spite of primitive production facilities,” a Kellogg biographer wrote of his corn flakes. “Soon cereal manufacturing companies sprang up all over the country.” By 1903, there were 100 cereal companies in Kellogg’s town of Battle Creek alone.
It was a full-on craze. Cereal was seen as a solution to the nation’s dyspepsia, the author Abigail Carroll argues, and since it didn’t need to be cooked, it was a convenience food at a time when, post-Industrial Revolution, people had stricter schedules and less access to a kitchen or farm.
The most successful food trends tend to combine science and morality, and the invention of cereal was no exception. Kellogg termed his lifestyle—more exercise, more baths, and simpler, blander foods—”biologic living,” and he gave lectures and wrote long tracts to promote it. He described the modern diet as unnatural and too diverse. “To eat biologically,” he wrote, “is simply to eat scientifically, to eat normally.” Like a paleo devotee, he promised a return to man’s “natural” diet.
But Dr. Kellogg believed that eating biologically would solve much more than dyspepsia and indigestion. Like Dr. Graham with his graham cracker, Kellogg believed Americans’ meat-centric diets led them to carnal sins. "Highly seasoned [meats], stimulating sauces... and dainty tidbits in endless variety,” wrote Kellogg, a vegetarian, “irritate [the] nerves and … react upon the sexual organs.”
In his mind, masturbation was a shameful act linked to bad health, and over-stimulating diets, diseases, and sexual acts formed an insidious cycle. Eating cereal would keep Americans from masturbating and desiring sex, he insisted. "How many mothers, while teaching their children the principles of virtue in the nursery,” he wrote, “unwittingly stimulate their passions at the dinner table until vice becomes a physical necessity!" (He also recommended circumcision and tying children’s hands with rope to prevent masturbation and sexual urges.)
Kellogg was a true believer. During his lectures, he explained how people could make their own cereal at home. "You may say I am destroying the health food business here by giving these recipes,” he said at one talk. “But I am not after the business; I am after the reform."
Like any food trend, though, the marketers took over the purists’ work. Kellogg felt particularly bitter about the development: The two most successful cereal entrepreneurs were his brother, Will Keith Kellogg, and one of his former patients, C.W. Post, who Dr. Kellogg accused of stealing the corn-flake recipe from his safe.
Each man created cereal companies, the Kellogg Company (which was headed by Will Kellogg and not Dr. Kellogg) and Postum Cereal Company (now Post Cereals). Both of them became wildly successful thanks to two key ingredients: sugar and advertising. By the 1940s, Post Cereals coated its cereals with sugar. The Kellogg brothers had long argued over adding it. Dr. Kellogg believed sugar was a vice in his pure creation, while Will Kellogg thought it was necessary to improve the taste of their “horse-food.” After some hand wringing, the Kellogg Company copied Post and coated corn flakes with sugar.
Still, cereal kept its health-food reputation, thanks in part to a constant barrage of advertising. Cereal manufacturers like C.W. Post claimed that cereal cured everything up to malaria and appendicitis. The proclamations on today’s cereal boxes that they are “a good source of Vitamin D” date back to Americans’ obsession with vitamins in the 1920s. To appeal to children, cereal companies pioneered the use of cartoon mascots. Characters like Tony the Tiger and Snap, Crackle, and Pop first appeared in the 1930s.
Advertising was they key to the cereal business. Whether they involved cartoon characters or wacky health claims, the important thing was to establish a brand for each cereal. “The sunshine that makes a business plant grow,” C.W. Post said, as he embarked on a career that would earn him a net worth (in 2016 dollars) of $800 million, “is advertizing.”
Cereal and breakfast foods don’t have a monopoly on animated mascots and zany health claims. But there are a number of reasons why the battle over breakfast is particularly ferocious.
The first is that any company that convinces people to eat their cereal, pop tarts, or bagels owns that person’s breakfast, because so many people eat the same breakfast every day.
Studies have found that consumers have strong brand loyalty to breakfast foods like cereal. Breakfast choices are likely more habitual because of the strength of morning routines. Ads by the chicken lobby may convince people to eat a bit more chicken, but an avalanche of Tony the Tiger ads can get tens of thousands of children to eat Frosted Flakes every morning for years.
Another is that while some Americans cook breakfast, people’s desire for a fast, convenient meal means that many breakfast foods are packaged products that rely on advertising. This can be gleaned from the structure of the cereal industry: Cereal is extremely easy to make—a fact that angered Dr. Kellogg, who patented his creation but failed to prevent others from copying it—yet just a few companies dominate the market.
As the Federal Trade Commission once complained in an antitrust lawsuit, competing with the cereal giants is difficult because they create dozens of cereal brands and promote “trademarks through intensive advertising [which] results in high barriers to entry into the cereal market.” The magic of Snap, Crackle, and Pop—and all the advertisements for cereals, pop tarts, yogurts, and breakfast bars—means high profits from an easily imitated product.
Another reason why the marketing battle over breakfast is so fierce is that corporations have for decades seen it as the meal that offers the most opportunity to wring out more food spending from consumers. Why have fast food chains focused more on advertising egg McMuffins, waffles from White Castle, and Taco Bell breakfast burritos? As those working in the industry explained to Time, “throughout the fast food world, lunch and dinner sales have been flat for years, while breakfast sales have climbed steadily.” The same logic is at play in cereal makers’ 1944 marketing strategy—the one that coined the phrase “Breakfast is the most important meal of the day.” “Breakfast is the grocer's most promising target,” one ad man explained. “Lunch and dinner in the average American home are fairly well set."
Did marketers and executives genuinely believe in the value of promoting cereal as a healthy breakfast? Nutritionists had debated back and forth for decades whether America’s increasingly desk-bound workforce needed a hearty breakfast. But by the time of the 1944 ad campaign, during World War II, government nutritionists had sided with the pro-breakfast camp. In the interest of improving the health of army recruits, they teamed up with cereal companies to suggest that everyone eat a “good breakfast of whole-grain cereal and fruit.”
Nutritionists are less certain about the value of this advice today. Those studying the issue say that studies supporting the importance of breakfast for weight management have been contradicted by more rigorous examinations—and that studies examining the importance of breakfast in children’s diets have failed to show that breakfast (by itself) helps them focus on their schoolwork. But marketers won’t be saying so anytime soon. Breakfast is the most skipped meal in America, which means money on the table for the food industry.
Be vigilant. Breakfast is the most marketed meal of the day.