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.”
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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.