Author Howard Markel on his book, The Kelloggs: The Battling Brothers of Battle Creek
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Illustrative image of the Kellogg's logo and famous branded corn flakes.
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I first read Howard Markel when I was in charge of the health and medicine book reviews at Library Journal and scouring my shelves for titles to nominate for the magazine’s annual Best Books list. Health and medicine was a section half diet and exercise manuals and half highly specific university press titles, so when I discovered An Anatomy of Addiction: Sigmund Freud, William Halsted, and the Miracle Drug Cocaine, I was doubled rewarded—not only to have found a marvelous book, but also a kind book—rich in narrative, deeply informative, broadly appealing—underrepresented on those shelves. Markel has given me another gift, six years later, in the breakfast category. The Kelloggs: The Battling Brothers of Battle Creek tells the origin story of the modern American breakfast. Who better to talk to about the most important meal of the day?

Extra Crispy: What did you have for breakfast this morning?
Howard Markel: I had a bowl of steel-cut oatmeal with a half-cup of cooked apple slices (sweetened with apple juice but not sugar) and a handful of walnuts. To wash it all down, I had a cup of freshly brewed coffee with a tablespoon of half and half.

Is that a normal breakfast for you?
On a good day, yes. It’s ironic that I skipped breakfast for much of my life, despite 30 years of medical practice and the countless occasions I have told children to eat a “good breakfast.” But because I get up very early to begin writing (about 5 AM), I find that a full belly of whole grains, sweetened in a manner approved by my cardiologist and bolstered by a caffeinated beverage, helps me to face the blank pages that await me.

How did the Kellogg brothers change breakfast? What about breakfast today can be traced back to them?
The short answer is: Read the book and all will be revealed to you!

A longer response must begin with the declarative sentence: Dr. John Harvey and Will Keith Kellogg were brothers from the Michigan hamlet of Battle Creek. Together, they introduced and mass-marketed the concept of “wellness” and in so doing, they transfigured breakfast.

Seeking to make a grain-based cereal that was nutritious and easy to digest, John and Will rolled out endless sheets of wheat, corn, and oat dough to find the precise configuration of ingredients, cookery, machinery, and toasting to make flaked cereals. They labored for over a decade before emerging with a bowl of corn flakes. Initially, the Kellogg brothers created their flaked cereals for invalids suffering from dyspepsia, flatulence, indigestion, and the “great American stomach ache.” Many of these poor souls came to be cured at the Battle Creek Sanitarium, the world renowned medical spa and grand hotel founded by John and administered by Will.

Will’s genius centered on adding a dash of salt and sugar to the mix and, in 1906, establishing what became the Kellogg cereal company. Will tirelessly convinced American grocers to carry his products and consumers to relish his tasty cereals. Echoing his brother by heralding breakfast as “the most important meal of the day,” Will made the hectic mornings of beleaguered mothers and dads so much easier by providing a quick, convenient, healthy, nutritious breakfast they could simply pour out of a box and into a bowl. He was an early adopter of the newly created field of mass advertising and invested millions of dollars in a never-ending barrage of colorful and attractive ads, slogans and jingles, cartoon characters, and—when radio, and later, television, took the nation by storm—entertaining shows and commercials on the airwaves. He was quick to recognize and target youngsters as the demographic group most likely to hunger for his products. Over the years, many billions of children gleefully hunted for the prized coloring books and toys he so cleverly placed in his cereal boxes. And, of course, he innovated countless ways to manufacture and process food.

This morning, more than 350 million people in more than 180 nations devoured a bowl of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes. Hundreds of millions more started their day with a cornucopia of Kellogg’s other crunchy, and frequently sugar-laden, flaked, popped, puffed grains.

How’s that for a lasting impact on the way we eat breakfast?

Why is breakfast—what, when, how we eat—important?
Breakfast is important for the obvious reason that our bodies need fuel to run. After fasting all night, your brain and other organs simply do not operate at their best levels. What my research on The Kelloggs taught me most clearly, however, is that it is important to eat the right type of breakfast, typically one comprised of whole grains and fruits.

In the 1880s, Dr. Kellogg hypothesized that the digestive process could be helped along if grains were pre-cooked and pre-digested before they even entered the patient’s mouth. In the process of baking dough, he discovered that intense heat broke down the starch content of grain into the simple sugar dextrose. The cereals he and Will created are, in fact, easier to digest. Ironically, today most nutritionists, obesity experts, and physicians argue that the easy digestibility Dr. Kellogg emphasized and worked so hard to achieve is not such a good thing.

Specifically, in most processed cereals, the bran and germ of the grain has been removed. These concoctions of broken-down grain and sugar do rapidly digest in the mouth, often before it gets to the stomach, and the result is a sudden spike in one’s blood sugar, followed by an increase in insulin (the hormone that enables cells to take up glucose) secreted by the pancreas into the blood. A few hours after consuming this breakfast, however, one experiences a “crash” in blood sugar (thanks to the over-secretion of insulin), which translates into a loss of energy and a ravenous hunger for an early lunch. High fiber cereals like oatmeal (and other whole grain preparations with a carbohydrate to fiber ratio of less than 10:1), on the other hand, are digested more slowly. Those who eat them report feeling “more full” for longer periods of time and, thus, have far better appetite control when compared to those who consume a bowl of Corn Flakes.

Do you have a favorite breakfast anecdote or fact you discovered while researching The Kelloggs?
My favorite breakfast anecdote from the book may well be one of the most important anecdotes in the history of breakfast. It concerns a dream John Harvey Kellogg had in the early 1880s and is best relayed in his own words:

“One night about three o’clock I was awakened by a phone call from a patient, and as I went back to bed I remembered that I had been having a most important dream. Before I went to sleep again I gathered up the threads of my dream, and found I had been dreaming of a way to make flaked foods. The next morning, I boiled some wheat, and, while it was soft, I ran it through a machine Mrs. Kellogg had for rolling out dough thin. This made the wheat into thin films, and I scraped it off with a case knife and baked it in the oven. That was the first of the modern breakfast foods.”

What surprised you the most over the course of your research?
It was less a sense of surprise than it was one of being astounded by the remarkable trajectory of John Harvey and Will Keith Kellogg’s careers. Their parents were pioneers in the Michigan territory, where even the smallest mistake or veering from the lines of behavior could result in serious illness or death. Not surprisingly, the Kellogg family adopted a religion, Seventh-day Adventism, filled with health reforms and social strictures that promoted good, healthy, and morally upstanding lives. From those beliefs, Dr. Kellogg created an empire of wellness he called biologic living, which was based on grain and vegetarian diets, exercise, spirituality, and the avoidance of over-eating, tobacco, caffeine, and alcohol.

Will took this medical philosophy one step further by creating a processed (and once thought to be entirely healthy) food kingdom. Will Kellogg proved to be as shrewd a philanthropist as he was an industrialist. Laboriously amassing his fortune as the years passed, he meticulously designed the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Indeed, when mentioning the name Kellogg, most of us immediately think of the cereal company and Will’s bountiful foundation.

Too few people, on the other hand, recall the name John Harvey Kellogg and the reverse ought to be true. Those who glibly deride him as a quack have entirely missed the point of his life and work. Although the science, or evidence, underpinning his ideas about biologic living have changed, many of his sounder concepts of wellness remain sage prescriptions written out millions of times each day. As narcissistic as he was, it is a safe bet to suggest that Dr. Kellogg would not have minded missing out on the credit for his ideas as long as they were rigorously taught and practiced to the benefit of all humankind.