The Devious Ad Campaign That Convinced America Coffee Was Bad for Kids

In the early 20th century, C.W. Post made a fortune selling his caffeine-free coffee substitute with pseudoscience. 

For most of my life, I've assumed that the grotesque amounts of coffee I began drinking around age 12 to keep up with my nightly homework load had something to do with the fact that I grew up to be a good 2-to-3 inches shorter than my pediatrician predicted. Coffee, as we've all heard, is supposed to stunt a child's growth. And I guzzled it from my tweenhood on.

It seems, though, that I assumed wrong. As Smithsonian's Joseph Stromberg recently explained in great piece of pseudoscience debunkery, the idea that coffee is bad for youngsters was actually a myth first propagated by the early 20th century cereal Tycoon, C.W. Post.

Before  he developed his signature breakfast products like Grape Nuts, Post went into business in 1895 selling a cereal-based, caffeine-free coffee substitute called Postum. Now, the words "cereal-based, caffeine-free coffee substitute" might sound about as appetizing to you as a wet wad of newspaper. But Post cannily marketed his product as a health beverage while spooking consumers about the allegedly malign effects of coffee on both adults and children.

Here is how one seemingly skeptical journalist explained the product's success in a 1922 issue of the Magazine of Wall Street:

Not himself a chemist, or a psychologist, or whatever one must be to establish that coffee drinking is harmful, the writer claims no knowledge of whether “Postum Cereal,” as it was called, met a real need, or merely played on a superstition. At any rate, the product proved to have a market. And backed by unceasing, driving efforts on the part of Mr. Post himself, that market was nurtured and developed until it became nation-wide.

This 1933 ad, turned up by Stromberg, claimed that "by crowding milk out of the diet of children, coffee is a cause of undernourishmentIt robs children of their rosy cheek sand sparkling eyes. It lowers their vitality, lessens their resistance to disease, and hampers proper development and growth." It also declared that a "world famous Research Institute" had found conclusive evidence that drinking coffee brought down children's grades. 

"Children 'brought up' on Postum are free from the evil effects of caffeine—the habit-forming drug—in coffee and tea," a 1910 ad informed parents, beginning a pitch that would probably go over fairly well with many a Whole Foods shopper today.

"Postum is made of clean, hard wheat, skillfully roasted, including the bran-coat which contains the Phosphate of Potash (grown in the grain) for building healthy brain and nerve tissue. 

"Begin early to insure a healthy nervous system for the little ones."

Later, the company introduced a comic strip character named Mr. Coffee Nerves, who deviously disrupted his victims' lives by making them irritable and jittery (or causing indigestion). The maddening grip of the coffee bean was so strong, apparently, that it could convince a child to up and run away from home. The ads always wrapped up with a happy ending after the hapless coffee drinker had, of course, switched to Postum.

Postum remained America's favorite coffee substitute late into the century, making up 87 percent of the market as of 1995. The problem was that, by then, the market was "moribund," as The New York Times put it, totaling just $7.5 million a year. It was, after all, the dawn of the Starbucks era. Meanwhile, a growing body of research has shown that coffee can be good for your health, and as Smithsonian's Stromberg reports, virtually none has demonstrated real ill-effects in children. Kraft Foods pulled Postum from shelves entirely in 2007, but reintroduced it last year. According to Utah's Deseret News, the drink is still a breakfast staple in Mormon households, which are forbidden, of course, from drinking coffee.*

*Correction December 28: An earlier version of this article stated incorrectly that Mormons are forbidden from drinking caffeine. In 2012, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints clarified that its traditional ban on "hot drinks" only encompassed coffee and tea, and not other caffeinated beverages, such as sodas. We regret the error.