June 2, 2021

A Race for a Better Breakfast

by Not Past It

Background show artwork for Not Past It

How are cornflakes and eugenics connected? On May 31, 1895: the Kellogg brothers filed the patent for what would eventually become Corn Flakes. Simone digs in to the cereal’s bizarre, dark origins and examines its lasting impact on the wellness industry today.

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[iPhone recording, Simone: Hi, where do you keep your cereal

Store clerk: Say again?

Simone: Cereal? In the back … thanks.]

Simone: There are few constants in this world, but I know one thing’s for sure. If I walk down the cereal aisle in pretty much any grocery store. Or stumble around the Bodega down the block.

[iPhone recording, Simone: Oh second row I see this way]

Simone: The one thing I am bound to find are cornflakes.

[Cereal pours into bowl]

[iPhone recording, Simone: mmm, so crispy]

Simone: Cornflakes feel like one of those things that have always just been there. But they were invented in 1894 by two brothers. Their names were Will and John Kellogg. Will was the younger one and a businessman at heart. The older brother, John, was a doctor … with a particular interest in… what today we might call “gut health.” 


Howard Markel: The doctor wanted to create a food that was easily digested. A grain food.

Simone: That’s Dr. Howard Markel — he wrote a whole book on the Kellogg brothers. And he says -- that one fateful night in the Kellogg’s kitchen, after working late, the brothers left a batch of dough on the counter overnight. It might have been a mistake -- but this happy accident triggered a chemical process called tempering.

Howard Markel: And when you bake that in a certain way -- the way they did it -- it easily flakes off and makes these little golden flakes. And that was the moment.

Simone: Boom! Baked flakes of cereal. A whole new way to eat grains. A breakfast revolution! But bestie, sister girl, my dear cherished listener… believe me when I tell you... the Kellogg’s brought us so. Much. more. Than. That. 

From Gimlet Media, this is Not Past It, a show about the stories we can’t quite leave behind. Every Wednesday, we’ll take an event from that very same week in history -- and tell you the story of how it shaped our lives today...

Hi! I’m Simone Polanen -- I’m your host. I’m not a historian or a scholar. But I am a writer, a filmmaker, a -- how should I put it -- 

All-American-Girl-Next-Door-Maxim-Hometown-Hottie-type. I’m also a person with a microphone, an internet connection, and a lot of opinions. And I’m curious about why the world is the way it is, you know? Like, 1000s of years of humanity and this is the version of the world we came up with. This one? Okay… if you say so.

On today’s episode…. 126 yrs ago this week… on May 31st 1895: The Kellogg Brothers filed a patent for their Corn Flakes invention.

And while Corn Flakes would eventually launch one of the biggest brands in cereal -- the legacy the Kellogg brothers would leave behind would be much more sinister than just a wholesome breakfast… after the break: we’re talking desire… sin… righteousness… masturbation... EUGENICS… yeah, we’re gonna go there. 

[Take a bite of cornflakes]

Simone: So stick around!

[Archive clip, record: Exercise, one. Flying, standing with the feet one foot apart. Raise the arms to the level of the shoulder, palms down. Ready? Begin. One-two. One-two. One-two. One-two.]

Simone: This is a recording of some exercises Dr. John Harvey Kellogg would share with his patients. They traveled from around the country to visit him in Battle Creek, Michigan, where he ran the Battle Creek Sanitarium. That word — sanitarium — it sounds a little scary. At least it did to me. But it’s basically like a health and wellness, hospital-vacation experience. 

People would come to the Sanitarium — also called “The San”— to get cutting-edge wellness treatments in a first-class setting.


[Archive clip, record: Ready? Begin.]

Simone: The San sat on this sprawling campus with manicured lawns where people would gather and do their one-two,one-two, one-two exercises. Patients dined in a great hall beneath chandeliers and had the option to book lavish suites during their stay.     

A typical day might include a rigorous calisthenics session, a cold bath, maybe some light wood-chopping. And, more likely than not, you were also getting prescribed a series of daily enemas, including, maybe a yogurt enema — and yes, that is exactly what it sounds like. I’m just saying, if I were at The San with my 19th century money in my 19th century hole? No, thank you.

The San definitely catered to a wealthier crowd. And Dr. Markel, the guy who wrote the book on the Kellogg Brothers, he says it wasn't uncommon to spot some real turn-of-the-twentieth century celebrities there.

Howard Markel: Amelia Earhart and Booker T. Washington, uh, was a frequent guest and Eddie Cantor, the radio comedian. And all kinds of movie stars that you wouldn't recognize today, but from the tens and twenties, like silent movie stars and such.

Simone: All this work that the Kellogg brothers were doing — everything at The San, really — was designed to support John’s vision of a perfect and healthy life. He called it “biologic living.”

Simone: How did John Kellogg define biologic living?

Howard Markel: Primarily through diet, which avoided flesh -- meat -- of all kinds. You ate only grain and vegetables. You followed your carbohydrates, your fats, and your proteins very carefully, as well, and your calories.

Simone: A controlled diet... a controlled lifestyle... a controlled body. That really seems like what John was going for. Fine tuning the body into its optimized form and achieving perfect health. And John believed that healing the bowels was essential in his crusade. 

And this brings us back to cornflakes. Because when he had invented them with his brother, he thought he found his perfect first defense against bowel disease and improved digestion… the first step in becoming an improved version of oneself. So he served cornflakes regularly to his patients at The San. And they were quite the hit.

Howard Markel: The patients at the San loved them. They tasted very good. They would mix them with yogurt, which was a very common product at the Sanitarium. He had all kinds of milk substitutes, even then. Like soy milk and people just loved them.

Simone: But it wasn’t just their popularity that kept cornflakes on the menu. For John, his commitment to eradicating bowel disease was less about health versus sickness, and more about righteousness versus sin. 

Because in treating the body, he believed he was also treating the soul… you know, a healthy body is a healthy mind is a healthy vessel for God.  

See, John’s theory on biologic living was heavily influenced by his faith — with the vegetarian diet and maintaining physical purity. 

The Seventh Day Adventist church had a significant presence in Battle Creek at the time, and John was very involved. 


Howard Markel: And he was a very spiritual, religious man. He was raised in this very strict, insular, Christian sect, you know, and he was raised with the founders of it. Part of their faith had a lot to do with healing and nutrition and vegetarian or grain-based diets and so on. The notion that your body was a temple and things like that.


Simone: John’s medical writings definitely have a religious bent to them. He writes about sin and virtue a lot. He believed that “neglect of the colon was one of the major sins of civilization” and he describes sex as "the sewer drain of a healthy body." He married, but never consummated — he kept separate bedrooms with his wife and they never had biological kids. 

And this all sparked an interesting theory that I came across. Which is that cornflakes weren’t just invented to improve digestion. They had a more...intimate utility.  

Howard Markel: The rumor on the internet that I tracked down for years was it was created to prevent masturbation in young men. Is that what you were thinking? Or you have in your notes?

Simone: We’ve come across that, yeah.

Howard Markel: OK. There were foods that both the Seventh Day Adventist and John Harvey, Kellogg thought were excitatory. Whether it means you're just nervous or you want to masturbate too much or whatever it is. Those foods were like meats, spicy condiments, mustards. And grains were more calming for both the young man and the young woman. That's the closest I could find. 

Simone: Ok, so Markel couldn’t prove that cornflakes were invented to make you stop jerking off — sorry to disappoint. Back at The San, the demand for cornflakes was growing. Patients didn’t just want to eat them in the dining hall — they wanted to take them home too.

Howard Markel In the gift shop of the Sanitarium, there's a little shop where you could buy a whole host of Sanitarium-based foods that you ate at The San, but that was the most popular one. And that’s when Will Kellogg said, “Hey, we gotta go public with this.”

Simone: Will, the younger brother, had a vision for a business but John wanted to keep his focus on The San.

So the brothers split. Will convinced John to sell him the rights to manufacture cornflakes. And in 1906, with this new found independence, Will founded the Battle Creek Toasted Corn Flake company.

So Will went off and did his cereal business thang. And John stuck around The San to keep treating patients and pump yogurt up their holes. But some of the initial profits from the cereal business went directly to starting a foundation for a cause that was near and dear to John’s heart. He called it The Race Betterment Foundation.

I’m gonna repeat that: Dr. John Kellogg started the RACE BETTERMENT foundation. I do not like where this is going... 

Howard Markel: He was a player in the national eugenics movement.

Simone: Dammit! Well, after the break, we’ll get into the eugenics of it all… including what the heck that means… and how we’re still NOT PAST IT… (see what I did there?) 

Simone: Before the break, the Kellogg brothers had split up. Will went to build a cereal business. And John went into eugenics. Cool, all caught up?

VOICE ACTOR PLAYING JOHN HARVEY KELLOGG: “The questions which will be discussed here are the greatest problems which face the world today.”

Simone: This is an excerpt from Dr. John Harvey Kellogg's welcome address at the First National Conference on Race Betterment in 1914. We got an actor to recreate some of his speech. 

VOICE ACTOR PLAYING JOHN HARVEY KELLOGG: “They are not merely questions of sect or section, finance or politics. They are race questions. Biologic questions, whose roots run back to the very childhood of the race and whose branches cast their shadow over every phase of human life. If the race is degenerating, it is highly important that the world should know it.”

Simone: So, okay - what is he talking about exactly? Eugenics is the study of human traits for the purpose of improving the human species. Basically, eugenicists’ goal is to breed out so-called undesirable traits to produce “good stock” and eliminate “defective stock.” Defective meaning... people with physical or mental disabilities, people in poverty, criminals, and of course, people from certain racial, ethnic and religious minority groups. 

In the early 1900s, when eugenics was becoming popular, it was accepted as a real science. And it led to some very real policies in America. Like bans on interracial marriage and immigration restrictions. 

It led to forced sterilizations, like the ones carried out on Black women in the American South up until the 60s. And in the 30s and 40s, to the attempted extermination of Jewish people and other minorities by Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany. 

They’re ideas that seem awful to us now, but at the time, you'd be hard-pressed to find an American WASP who didn’t subscribe to eugenic ideals. John Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, even Teddy Roosevelt… they all dipped their toe into the eugenics pool.

And that race betterment conference that John Kellogg spoke at in 1914 -- it was attended by respected scientists, scholars and educators from schools like Yale, Northwestern, Oberlin, and the University of Chicago…

And oh, did I mention? The conference was held over 5 days at… where else BUT Dr. John Kellogg’s biologic haven... the Battle Creek Sanitarium.

When I put Dr. Kellogg's work at the San in the context of his eugenics beliefs... I couldn't help but be struck by how it seemed like EVERYTHING he was doing... from the diet stuff to the exercise to the colon-cleansing treatments -- it all seemed to be aimed at race betterment."

The san shut down operations in 1933, nearly 90 years ago. The building itself was acquired by the US army in 1942, and has been used as government offices since 1954. And the little company Will Kellogg founded? It grew into the Kellogg Company now and is worth over 22 billion dollars. 

And though John officially cut ties with that company when he sold his manufacturing rights, his influence very much remains. Those ideas he practiced at The San: around diet, around control, around eugenics… that stuff has stayed with us in ways you may not realize. 

[ARCHIVE, SPECIAL K AD: [song] Thanks to the K, you can’t pinch an inch. Thanks to the K, you can’t pinch an inch on me. If you can pinch an inch, the Kellogg’s Special K breakfast may help you lose weight.]

Simone: Pinch an inch!? Oof Big BIG Yikes. If you were conscious during the 2000s, you probably heard of the Special K diet. You know Special K -- they’re like cornflakes but… special-er. And the Special K diet was marketed pretty aggressively.

Amanda Mull: Replace all your meals or two of them, I think maybe, um, with special K and it was a guaranteed way to lose weight. 

Simone: I asked Amanda Mull about this — she’s a staff writer for The Atlantic and writes about health, consumerism, and lifestyle trends. 

Amanda Mull: I remember it becoming a thing that was like very much associated with young women wanting to fit into a particular pair of jeans. I'm having this, this vision of like a woman in a dressing room in one of these commercials and, uh, maybe trying on jeans…

[ARCHIVE, SPECIAL K AD: I wonder if these still … fit?]

Simone: Amanda’s memory has not served her wrong. In this one commercial, a young woman is lying on her back with her legs in the air.

[ARCHIVE, SPECIAL K AD: So far so good.]

Simone: She’s yanking desperately at her sample-size leather pants to fit them over her sample-size hips. 

[ARCHIVE, SPECIAL K AD: The Kellogg’s Special K breakfast can help. They fit like a glove. It’s 99 percent fat-free.]

Simone: Ew. Ew. Ew. Sorry. 

[ARCHIVE, SPECIAL K AD- I look like a rockstar.]

Simone: But if I'm honest, I tried the Special K diet at the height of the craze. I did -- I wanted to look a certain way and I bought into the Special K promise. But, man, I have to tell you when dinner time rolls around, and you have to ask yourself “am I gonna eat a hot meal? Or another cold bowl of cereal?”... that’s a sad place.

But that’s the thing about these kinds of diets — you’re not eating for enjoyment, GOD no. No. You’re eating in a way that will fix your body. In this case, fixing it by fitting it into specifically smaller jeans. Fixing the body as a means to fixing the mind... or really, the whole self.

Amanda Mull: Thinness is culturally understood to indicate someone who is right thinking and in control and smart. And, and makes good decisions. So if you finally find the way to, to conquer all of your humanity, basically, all of your desire for, for pleasure and for stress relief, then you too can have this thin body that then demonstrates to everybody else how, exactly, how in control you are of, of yourself. 

Simone: And the pressure to meet these ideals — it starts young. I have been aware of my body since the age of 4. You know, is it too big? Is it beautiful enough? I started controlling what I ate at the age of 12. By the time I was 14, I kept a list of approved foods and their caloric values in the last few pages of my school notebooks. Thinking about food, thinking about my body, it consumed my every thought, every day. It shaped how I behaved in other parts of my life. It made me afraid of being seen because I couldn’t get the perfect body, no matter how hard I tried. 

But today when we talk about getting a “perfect body” or a “better body” — whatever that means — we’ve lost the thread of who these standards come from. 

Amanda Mull: We have sort of entirely, like taken The Men in Black zapper to our cultural memory of, of how dominant eugenic ideas were in culture for, for like decades. For generations. But, we still hold a lot of those ideas. We just don’t acknowledge them as eugenics. 

Simone: The way John Kellogg talked about the body -- eradicating bodily evils with a diet -- we still kind of talk that way. Except, with today’s trending diets, instead of sticking to grains, you’re asked to cut out an entire category of food, like all carbs or all dairy. Foods are labeled as good or bad — which changes depending on the diet you’re following. You ate a banana and you’re Paleo? Wow, you’re doing amazing, sweetie. You ate a banana and you’re Keto? Send her to the dungeon and throw away the key.

These types of diets are often referred to as “clean eating.” And these words -- clean foods, pure ingredients -- they come up in the diet and wellness industry all the time. It’s all about ridding the body of undesirable “dirtiness” so you can become your best self. Not gonna lie, that sounds a little eugenics-y to me. And “best” is subjective. And it’s homogenizing. And it’s exclusive to anyone who can’t fit the standard. But it’s an idea that’s alive and well in wellness today:

[ARCHIVE: GWYNETH PALTROW WORKOUT: You know when you’re 35 it’s either you starve yourself or you eat and you do serious cardio, but there’s no free ride -- you know what I mean?]

Simone: That’s Gwyneth Paltrow, actress and founder of GOOP — a popular wellness brand. They get a lot of flack for pushing harmful diet pseudoscience—Gwyneth recently described eating bread and pasta as an “off the rails” moment. But GOOP is part of an even larger $4 trillion dollar wellness industry made up of brands and influencers who populate the internet with dubious advice.

[ARCHIVE, YOUTUBE VIDEO: If you have good quality fruit it is so satisfying to have a mono-meal]

[ARCHIVE, YOUTUBE VIDEO: You can insert after each meal each ingredient and this way the app tracks if you’re balanced out]

[ARCHIVE, YOUTUBE VIDEO: If you’re got a really big appetite like me, start your day with this and I think you’ll see a difference, and like I said before, digestion, gets everything flowing and lubricates all your organs mhm.]

Simone: The wellness industry sells a promise very similar to Kellogg’s biologic living: your body is bad and I’m going to make it good. In the case of Kellogg, a bad body is a sinful one. In the case of modern wellness, a bad body is undisciplined with food and exercise. But in both cases, a good body is righteous, whether from conquering sin or conquering all-purpose flour.

And Amanda Mull says it’s about time we start to uproot these ideas from our lives. 

Amanda Mull: If we just dispensed with the idea that the default that everyone should be able to attain is this sort of idealized white body. All we would have to do is, is really jettison that idea from, from medicine and our understanding of health. And our understanding of, of beauty and thinness and whiteness as goodness, and as an indicator of good behavior and, and of righteousness.

Simone: I don’t know about you, but when I started making the connection between our diet and wellness culture and, you know, eugenics, I started to think back and go… huh, so those two weeks I stopped eating carbs leading up to a Miami trip only to show up more bloated than ever… or the high school birthday parties I skipped because I was so afraid of accidentally caving and eating a slice of cake… or that one time I promised myself -- from the real depths of food disorder brain -- that I’d, you know, end this series called life if I ever topped 130 lbs. All of that -- all of that guilt, that anguish, that stress -- that was all for what? Because I’m so desperate to be good stock?

I don’t like that. I don’t like that at all.

I’m officially opting out. I am not going to twist my body into shapes and damage my mind in the process so that some eugenicist gets to make the world in his image. I’m done.

but wait… what am I supposed to do with all these cornflakes now?

Simone: Not Past It is a Spotify Original, produced by Gimlet and ZSP Media. 

There’s another episode in your feed right now! It’s all about the AIDS vaccine trials of the 1990s. Yeah… there almost was an AIDS vaccine. Go listen!

This episode was produced by Jake Maia Arlow, Kinsey Clarke, and 

Sarah Craig.

Julie Carli is our associate producer. 

The supervising producer is Erica Morrison 

Ben Britton played Dr. Kellogg in our recreations

Editing by Andrea B. Scott, Zac Stuart Pontier and Lydia Polgreen

Sound design and mixing by Bobby Lord 

Original Music by SaxKixAve, Willie Green, and Bobby Lord. 

The theme song is Tokoliana by KOKOKO! 

With Music supervision by Liz Fulton. 

Technical direction by Zac Schmidt. 

Show art by Elise Harven and Talia Rochemann

The executive producer at ZSP Media is Zac Stuart Pontier. 

The executive producer from Gimlet is Abbie Ruzicka. 

A lot of people helped usher this series into the world. Special thanks to: 

Lydia Polgreen

Dan Behar and Clara Sankey

Liz Stiles

Nabeel Chollampat

Sam Walters 

Amanda Long

Rosie Guerin 

Reyhan Harmanci

Jessie Harte 

Renita Jablonksi 

Brenden Klinkenberg

Matt Nelson 

Annie-Rose Strasser 

Matt Shilts 

Jamescia Thomas

Nazanin Rafsanjani

Courtney Holt

and Daniela Casalino. 

I'm Simone Polanen. I’ll be back next week with more Not Past It. Thanks for listening. Follow the show on Spotify to get notified when new episodes come out.