We have all enjoyed breakfast cereal, most of us since childhood, but how many times have we considered where the delicious substance we’re enjoying with milk comes from? For most of us, the answer to that question means the aisle in the supermarket where we are overwhelmed with choices from Kellogg’s, Post, Nestlé and others.
But when we stop to think about it, that delicious concoction we’re shoveling in with a spoon had quite an amazing historic journey on the way to our bowls. It was complete with a national health crisis, cartoon characters, a couple of wars and a host of innovation.
A Brief History of Cereal and Advertising
Every good invention starts out as a concept, and believe it or not, the original idea behind breakfast cereal was to use it as a cure for an epidemic of indigestion. Following the American Civil War, many people suffered from indigestion due to high protein diets.
This is also the time when medical professionals first began to recognize and acknowledge the growing need for lifestyle changes, including healthier eating and exercise. Institutions known as sanitariums began to sprout up across the country and encouraged this kind of living. Sanitariums were an extremely popular and trendy place to detoxify from the world, and some of their devotees included U.S. presidents and national heroes like Amelia Earhart and Thomas Edison.
At these sanitariums, healthy diets and, surprisingly, vegetarian diets, were promoted as being integral to your health and welfare. Sanitarium dieticians began to experiment with ways to make what would eventually become our modern-day breakfast cereal.
These early concoctions often involved a decidedly unappetizing (to our modern, sugary cereal-loving selves) blend of flours and water that was baked and soaked in milk overnight – a process that probably sounds familiar to the large numbers of people returning to old-school breakfast cereals like muesli (basically a combination of rolled oats, mixed with fruits and nuts, then soaked overnight in milk). Europeans originally made muesli using orange juice instead of milk.
When, toward the end of the 1800s, a sanitarium in New York started losing business, the owners hired what would become a familiar name in breakfast cereal to do their marketing: John Harvey Kellogg.
This is the time in breakfast cereal history where advertising and the idea of “ready to eat” intersect, and these huge concepts built an entire breakfast cereal industry. After all, while soaking the cereals overnight in milk might have been considered healthy, and served readily at the sanitariums, they certainly weren’t convenient for the average household to serve daily.
John Harvey Kellogg and his brother Will would eventually formulate a very recognizable breakfast item – the cereal flake. The cereal flake they created out of corn turned out to be much more popular than the wheat flake produced at the time by competitors, and the product brought them much success. This is particularly impressive when you consider the cereal they created is still immensely popular a hundred years later.
Eventually, John’s brother Will Kellogg founded the Battle Creek Toasted Corn Flake Company, changing its name to Kellogg in 1906.
Will Kellogg and his company created many breakfast items, including variations of modern-day cereals like granolas and other now-common cereals like puffed rice. The name “granola” was coined by Kellogg to avoid a lawsuit over a similarly named cereal produced by a competing company.
Breakfast Cereal Gets Sweet
In the late 1930s, the first sweetened cereal was placed on the market. Marketed specifically at children, it became a huge success. This was the first major break from what had been considered a health food.
With this new market segment of children came the need to develop new marketing techniques to appeal to youngsters. Thus began the use of cartoon characters as shills for these new sugary breakfast treat.
Eventually, especially after the advent of TV in the late 1940s, breakfast cereal became inextricably tied to cartoons. Many argue that breakfast cereal would not have become a staple of the American breakfast table without the help of cartoon characters over the decades.
It wasn’t just kids who enjoyed this type of cereal, and it would soon become a normal occurrence for breakfast cereals to be sweetened. Other additives would soon be included in the recipes at the factories. During World War II, advertisers hyped vitamin additives to help fuel the American public during meat and other shortages during the war effort.
Around this time too, Kellogg and others began experimenting with chemical additives to increase the shelf life of cereals. This ushered in a whole new line of flavors and colors to appeal to the taste habits of the baby boomer generation and beyond.
Where Does Cereal Come From?
We’ve looked at how cereal came to your breakfast table historically, but now let’s look at modern-day breakfast cereal. Where does this product originate? What goes into the process of manufacturing the end product?
The basic ingredient of most breakfast cereals starts off as a cereal grain such as wheat, corn, oat or rice. Grains are hardy plants that can be grown in most parts of the world.
Rice has specific growing needs, and a lot of rice planting is done under water, making it more geographically specific. More than 90 percent of the world’s rice comes from Asian countries such as China, Bangladesh, and India.
Wheat can grow anywhere from the Artic regions to below the equator. The Southern and Midwestern parts of the United States grow a lot of grain. A significant portion of the world’s corn supply comes from the American heartland.
The harvest method depends on the type of grain involved, but includes the removal of the whole grain from the remainder of the plant. Once this is accomplished, the growers prepare the grain for storage and/or shipment, depending on how long a journey it’s going to take from the fields to the manufacturing plant and ultimately to the store shelves and your breakfast table.
How Is Cereal Manufactured?
Cereal manufacturing is a blend of cooking, mechanical know-how and industrial technology.
At the manufacturing plant, the grains undergo a process of inspection and cleaning before being subjected to a host of treatments that take the grain from its raw state to the form we find in our cereal bowls. These processes can include things like grinding, toasting, puffing, the introduction of vitamins and minerals and the addition of colors and flavors, just to name a few. The actual process will vary depending on the type of cereal, such as a flaked, puffed or some other form.
In some instances, the grain may be crushed between gigantic metal rollers to remove the outer layer. The grain may then be further ground into flour, or left in a whole or partial state, depending on the intended use.
The grains left whole or partial will be cooked in a massive pressure cooker, which rotates them as they are heated. If the grains have been converted into flour, they will be cooked in an extruder, which rotates the flour with a large, heated metal screw which blends and heats the mixture at the same time.
The cereal company introduces additives at this point in the cooking process, which can include flavorings, vitamins and minerals, spices, sweeteners and water. After the grains are cooked, they are moved through a drying oven which removes enough water to render the mixture into a shapeable dough. If a flour mixture has been used, it will be expelled from the extruder in ribbon form, which is then cut into pieces.
After the grains have been cooked, the production process depends on the type of cereal being made.
If the cereal being made is set into flakes, the cooked grains will be squeezed in between large metal rollers under a massive amount of pressure. The flakes that result from this process are transferred to ovens where they undergo blasts of superheated air to remove remaining moisture to give the product a pleasant toasted color and taste.
Puffed cereals can be made in a couple of different ways. One method used to make puffed rice only involves cooking, cooling and drying the grain before flattening it to a partial degree, then placing it in a high-temperature oven, causing the grain to puff up.
Another puffing method can be utilized with either wheat or rice. When wheat is going to be puffed, the outer layer must be removed, which can be done by soaking or using grindstones. The “gun” used to puff the cereal holds steam under extremely high pressure. The grain is loaded into the device, which is opened rapidly, thereby causing a steep drop in pressure, which puffs the grain.
The process of making shredded wheat starts off with boiling the grain, which is allowed to cool before being rolled out like the other cereals. However, in this case, one of the rollers has a metal comb, and as the grain is pushed through, it is shredded by the comb.
As you are aware from the plethora of choices at the supermarket, cereals can come in a wide variety of shapes. The process of making specially shaped cereals is similar to the process of making puffed cereal. The cooked grains are processed through an extruder, which has a specially shaped die at the end. As the material comes out, it is pushed through the die, giving it its shape, and a rotating blade cuts the shapes into pieces.
After the cereal is formed into the various shapes, it receives a coating of sweeteners, colorings, frostings, syrups and preservatives.
After the cereal is processed, it is off to be packaged.
Packaging Breakfast Cereal
Packaging materials, including the glue for cereal, should provide protection from humidity, spoilage, spillage, insect infestation and external odor, as well as be economical and easy to handle. Some breakfast cereals are packed directly in cardboard boxes, while others are packed in plastic bags inside the cardboard boxes. Some cereals, such as shredded wheat, are more resistant to damage from moisture, while others, specifically baby cereal, must be sealed in waterproof bags to protect them from humidity and keep them from spoiling.
Automated machinery can box breakfast cereal at rapid speeds of almost 50 each minute. The cereal box is created from a sheet of cardboard that’s been preprinted with the product’s imagery. The bottom and sides of the cereal package are sealed with an FDA approved hot melt adhesive. The hotmelt adhesives are thermoplastic polymer systems which are applied in a molten state.
The waterproof bag is inserted into the box, and then the cereal is loaded into the bag, which is heat sealed. The final step in the packaging process is the sealing of the top of the cereal box, which is done with a packaging hot melt adhesive that isn’t as strong as that used on the seams of the box, allowing it to be opened easily. Any adhesive used in food packaging must be FDA approved because it is considered an indirect food additive. Adhesives used in packaging must be separated from the food source, and for cereal it cannot exceed the limits of Good Manufacturing Practices.
After that is completed, the boxes are packed and shipped to retailers, where they eventually land in the breakfast cereal aisle, and ultimately in your cereal bowl.
Although we think of breakfast cereal as a sugary treat that takes us back to our childhood, cereal was originally the product of a national health craze. This fad was sparked by an epidemic of indigestion that was brought on by a diet that focused too much on meat consumption following the civil war. Cereal only became more popular as time went on thanks to periods such as World War II, in which people had to search for alternative foods for vitamins and minerals.
Breakfast cereal begins its journey from the field grain that undergoes an intensive production process made possible by technological innovation. Aided by clever marketing ideas, sweeteners and cartoon characters, it forever found its place on our breakfast tables.