Grains of wrath.

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How Your Breakfast Cereal Became '100% Natural'

Stephen Mihm, an associate professor of history at the University of Georgia, is a contributor to the Bloomberg View. Follow him on Twitter at @smihm.
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Quaker Oats, a brand that claims to embody “wholesome goodness,” has been hit with a class-action lawsuit challenging its much-trumpeted claims that its products are “100% Natural.” The reason? Trace quantities of glyphosate, the active ingredient in the weed killer known as Roundup, have been found in breakfast cereal.

The outcome of this and other, similar lawsuits could depend on the answer to a pesky question: What does it mean for a food to be natural? There is an abundant historical record to provide clues.

QuickTake Safer U.S. Food, Slowly

Hard as it may be to believe, for most the country’s history, Americans didn’t wake up to a bowl of cereal. They ate other things: meat and eggs, most obviously, and sometimes bread.

Beginning in the middle of the 19th century, several unusual reformers began pushing for changes in the American diet. The first was Sylvester Graham, who believed reliance on meat and potatoes was overheating people’s libidos, encouraging masturbation and a host of other sexual excesses.

His solution was a tasteless diet heavy on whole grains, especially at breakfast. Some of his followers created a Graham-flower breakfast cereal called Granula. It was inedible unless soaked overnight, prompting some to dub it “wheat rocks.” It is widely considered the first “breakfast cereal,” but was most definitely not a commercial success.

The same cannot be said of Dr. Harvey Kellogg’s creation. Like Graham, Kellogg believed in the power of diet to regulate and restrain the worst passions (Kellogg hated masturbation, too). A vegetarian and Seventh-Day Adventist, the good doctor presided over the famous Battle Creek Sanitarium, where he dished out tasteless foods to his oversexed patients, hoping to bring their bodies back into balance.

He eventually developed a marginally more edible breakfast cereal called Granose. His patients embraced the concoction, so Kellogg began selling it via mail order, and found that he had a big business on his hands. In the 1890s, he added a corn flake cereal to the mix. 

Kellogg had competition. Quaker Oats, a company largely built by the evangelical Henry Parsons Crowell, had begun to capture American stomachs around the same time. Crowell, who had a knack for branding and advertising, built his breakfast cereal empire around the image of a pious Quaker carrying a sign that said “Pure.”

Other companies soon joined the gold rush. These cereals tended to boast about different benefits in their bid for American appetites, but they largely had one thing in common: They claimed to be natural. Quaker Oats, in an advertisement from 1917, claimed to be “Nature’s sovereign food in its most delightful form.” Another advertisement proclaimed that Quaker Oats was “the vim-food—Nature’s batteries with which she stores with energy.”   

All the new breakfast cereals introduced in the 1890s and early 1900s trumpeted their direct connection to nature. All preached that this newly invented processed food was in fact the most “natural” of foods. Ralston Purina -- “Where Purity is Paramount” -- claimed in 1901 that its cereals were “hygienically milled,” but retained “all the Nutritive elements that Nature intended.”

The historian Michael Kideckel has dubbed this formative link between processed foods and nature a kind of “breakfast cereal environmentalism.” In the increasingly urban, industrial society of the late 19th century, the notion that the body and mind could be set right by eating some processed wheat flakes captured the American imagination. 

This, Kideckel argues, marked the birth of the natural foods movement, which went hand in hand with claims that new and novel foodstuffs manufactured in modern factories were somehow “natural.”

The idea that an industrial product could be entirely “natural” was strange. Stranger still was the idea that shredded wheat or some other concoction could easily cure a range of illnesses. “No class of foods is more extensively or ingeniously advertised than the cereal breakfast foods,” the Department of Agriculture reported in 1906.

In time, the advertising campaigns shed the most outlandish claims. But many cereal makers, most notably Quaker Oats, continued to promote their purity and “all natural” qualities throughout the 20th century.

In a typical advertisement from 1945, Quaker declared that “ever since the Bronze Age, brawny races have favored oats.” These early adopters, it solemnly informed readers, had intuited a deeper truth. “Today, we know that nature favored oats over all natural cereals.” Mysteriously, the company said that “scientific measurement” backed up these assertions, evoking Bronze Age focus groups.

Quaker’s claim to a special connection with nature reached a kind of apotheosis in 2007 with the birth of its “100% all natural” campaign, which is now a target of a lawsuit.

Quaker Oats may not like getting sued for false advertising. But given that it has relied for so long on a questionable notion of entirely pure and natural foods, it was perhaps inevitable that it would eventually find itself hoist on its own petard.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Stephen Mihm at smihm1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net