Drop That Spoon

by Felicity Lawrence

Saturday, June 14, 2008 – The Guardian

How did it all begin? It was one of those things that crept up on us and we still can’t quite believe happened. Looking back, we’d been in denial for some time. Then a friend who hadn’t seen the family for a while blurted out the bald truth. “God, Dodi’s got rather fat. In fact, you know, I think that might count as obese.”

Once said, it had to be admitted. If you looked at Dodi from behind when he was sitting down, you could see a substantial spare tyre around his 13-year-old middle. It bulged out from his hips and flopped down like a muffin rising out over its baking case. He had become quite lazy, too, preferring to lounge in front of the fire rather than play in the garden as he used to. His excess weight was slowing him down. His joints seemed stiff as he climbed the stairs.

He had been hooked on a particular brand of instant meal for ages. Guaranteed real tuna, the packaging said. Enriched with omega-3 and 6 fats! What was inside, however, did not have much to do with tuna – 10% minimum, according to the small print.

It was largely rendered poultry meal mixed with corn gluten meal, ground rice, soya oil and dried beet pulp.

Dodi is our cat, and we know cats do not normally eat carbohydrates such as ground rice or sugar, nor corn, nor vegetable oils. Nevertheless, that’s what we had been feeding him. It said on the packet that it was “scientifically formulated”, after all.

The absurdity of feeding an animal something that it never evolved to eat and that actually makes it fat and sick ought to be easy enough to see.

But we had not been alone in our blindness, apparently — feline diabetes has risen dramatically in the past few years in the UK.

Where the human diet is concerned, a similar myopia seems to have descended upon the British. Instead of relying on a food culture developed over centuries, we have come to defer to the pseudo- scientific instructions of professionals.

Where did it all go wrong?

The rise of breakfast cereal makes a revealing case study of the evolutionary process behind the modern diet. One of the earliest convenience foods, processed cereals represent a triumph of marketing, packaging and US economic policy. They are the epitome of cheap commodity converted by manufacturing to higher-value goods; of agricultural surplus turned into profitable export. Somehow, they have wormed into our confused consciousness as intrinsically healthy, when, by and large, they are degraded foods that have to have any goodness artificially restored.

When the first National Food Survey was conducted in 1863, it questioned 370 families of the “labouring poor” and found that breakfast consisted variously of tea kettle broth (bread soaked in hot milk and salt), bread and butter, bread and cheese, milk gruel, bread and water, and oatmeal and milk porridge. Today, however, the British and the Irish are the largest eaters of puffed, flaked, flavoured, shaped, sugared, salted and extruded cereals in the world. We munch an average of 6.7kg of the dehydrated stuff per person per year in the UK, and 8.4kg each in Ireland.

The Mediterraneans, generally credited with a healthy diet, have so far kept this form of instant breakfast down to an average 1 kg per person per year. The eastern Europeans, deprived of marketing until the fall of communism, consume only a few grams each a year. Yet the British have succumbed almost entirely to this American invention, with the result that 97% of households today have at least one packet of cereal in their cupboards.

How can such a radical change have come about? Was there something peculiarly susceptible about the British that led to it? To find out, I went to the US, to the midwest states that are the heartland of industrial corn production and to the home of the first cornflakes.

Prepackaged and ready-to-eat breakfast cereals began with the American temperance movement in the 19th century. In the 1830s, the Reverend Sylvester Graham preached the virtues of a vegetarian diet to his congregation, and in particular the importance of wholemeal flour. Meat-eating, he said, excited the carnal passions. Granula, considered the first ready-to-eat breakfast cereal, was developed from his “Graham flour” by one of his followers, James Caleb Jackson. It was a baked lump of slow-cooked wheat and water that had to be soaked overnight to make it soft enough to be edible. It was sold at 10 times the cost of its ingredients. The business motive for proselytising by breakfast cereal was established.

After Jackson’s invention, the Seventh-Day Adventists took up the mission. A colony of them had set up in a small town called Battle Creek near the American Great Lakes in Michigan. There, in 1866, they established the Western Health Reform Institute to cure hog-guzzling Americans of their dyspepsia and vices. John Harvey Kellogg turned it into the famous Battle Creek Sanitarium, where he set about devising cures for what he believed were the common ills of the day, in particular constipation and masturbation. In Kellogg’s mind, the two were closely linked, the common cause being a lack of fibre, both dietary and moral.

Kellogg experimented in the sanitarium kitchen to produce an easily digested form of cereal. Together with his wife and his younger brother, William Keith, he came up with his own highly profitable Granula, but was promptly sued by Jackson, the original maker of Granula, and had to change the name to Granola.

Around the same time, an entrepreneur called Henry Perky had also invented a way of passing steamed wheat through rollers to form strands that could be pressed into biscuits to make the first shredded wheat. JH Kellogg experimented further with his team, and eventually they found a way of rolling cooked wheat to make flakes that could then be baked. Cornflakes followed when the Kelloggs worked out how to use cheap American corn instead of wheat, although initially they had problems keeping them crisp and preventing them from going rancid. This great leap forward is of a piece with other major developments in the industrialisation of our diets: it is usually the combination of technological advances and the right economic conditions that lead to major changes in what we eat.

It was a chronically dyspeptic businessman and former patient of Kellogg’s at the sanitarium who unleashed the power of marketing on breakfast. Charles Post set up the rival La Vita Inn in Battle Creek and developed his own versions of precooked cereals. “The sunshine that makes a business plant grow is advertising,” he declared, promoting his cereals with paid-for testimonials from apparently genuine happy eaters. He also cheerfully invented diseases that his products could cure. Grape Nuts were miraculously marketed at the time both as “brain food” and also as a cure for consumption and malaria. They were even, despite their enamel-cracking hardness, said to be an antidote to loose teeth.

By 1903, Battle Creek had turned into a cereal Klondike. At one point there were more than 100 cereal factories operating in the town, many making fabulously exaggerated claims about the health benefits of their products. The symbiotic relationship between sales, health claims and the promotion of packaged breakfast cereals has continued ever since.

The Kelloggs had tried unsuccessfully to protect their flaking process with patents. When William Keith saw how much others were making from the new foods, he launched his own advertising campaign, giving away free samples and putting ads in newspapers.

Global expansion quickly followed. Britain saw its first cornflakes in 1924, when the company set up offices in London and used unemployed men and Scouts to act as a sales force for the imported cereal. By 1936 UK sales topped £ 1m, and Kellogg’s was ready to open its first British manufacturing plant in Manchester in 1938.

The technology used to make industrial quantities of breakfast cereal today is essentially the same as that developed from the kitchen experiments of those fundamentalist healers, although new ways have been found to add the sugar, salt and flavourings. Flavour and vitamins lost in processing may be put back during processing or sprayed on to the finished cereal product.

Worries about the nutritional value of such highly processed grains surfaced early. Post’s company was one of the first to begin the heavy- duty presweetening of cereals with sugar coating in the late 40s. The sales were enviable. The Kellogg company, however, held back. The charitable Kellogg Foundation, which by then had been set up to promote children’s health and education, was a major shareholder and was, it is said, concerned that flogging sugar coatings to the young may not be compatible with its purpose.

Many of the health benefits claimed for breakfast cereals depended on fortification rather than on micronutrients from the raw ingredients, most of which were either destroyed by the process or stripped away before it. The earliest fortification was with vitamin D, the so- called sunshine vitamin, and acted as a marketing tool. Today, a new wave of fortification is coming.

Inulin, a form of fibre from plants, known to the food industry until recently as a cheap bulking agent, thanks to its ability to retain water and mimic the “mouthfeel” of fats, is now added as a “prebiotic”. What this means is that it resists digestion in the upper gastrointestinal tract and reaches the large intestine almost intact, where it is fermented by bacteria, encouraging the production of friendly microflora. The inulin, in other words, does what the fibre naturally occurring in wholegrains would do if it hadn’t been stripped out by overprocessing.

Companies are also looking at adding omega-3 fatty acids such as DHA. There are technical difficulties with this, however, not least that since the DHA tends to come from fish, it makes things taste fishy.

All the technology at their disposal has not helped the manufacturers deal with one serious problem, though.

Industrial cereal processing produces acrylamide, a chemical compound that is known to cause cancer in animals and was classified as a probable human carcinogen in 1994. The trade magazine Food Manufacture wrote nervously in 2006 that acrylamide could be “the next food scare round the corner”. Since then, further research has confirmed a link between acrylamide intake from food and cancer.

Those eating 40 micrograms of acrylamide a day were twice as likely to get cancer of the ovary or womb as those who had low intakes. Some other processed foods contain much higher doses of acrylamide, but even so, tests by the UK’s Food Standards Agency a few years ago suggested that a serving of breakfast cereal could contribute about nine micrograms.

The FSA’s advice to consumers on processed foods was blandly reassuring — no need to change their diet, the industry would be working to reduce the formation of acrylamide. The European food and drink industry association, the CIAA, has compiled a toolbox on acrylamide for manufacturers, and from it you get a sense of the huge effort that is going into industrial pilots to see how acrylamide levels could be reduced. But there are no easy answers, and sometimes the toolbox makes clear that the ways of lowering acrylamide may just be incompatible with making these types of products.

That processed cereals had become little more than sugary junk with milk and vitamins added was an accusation made as long ago as 1970, when Robert Choate, an adviser to President Nixon on nutrition, told a congressional hearing into breakfast cereals that the majority “fatten but do little to prevent malnutrition”. Choate was outraged at the aggressive targeting of children in breakfast cereal advertising. He analysed 60 well-known cereal brands and concluded that two-thirds offered “empty calories, a term thus far applied to alcohol and sugar”.

Rats fed a diet of ground-up cereal boxes with sugar, milk and raisins were healthier than rats fed the cereals themselves, he testified to senators.

Battle Creek today is a backwater in Michigan, three hours’ drive from Chicago. There is not much sign now of the cereal gold rush that changed the British palate, and the flake factories have mostly gone. But the legacy lives on. In their place alongside Kellogg airport and the Kellogg Foundation is Kellogg’s Cereal City. Built in the shape of an old grain store, the museum is a testament to the power of marketing that so maddened Choate. Walking through the collection, I was struck by how much our breakfast today is the child of advertising.

One of my favourite sections was the cabinet of boxes and pamphlets recording the original health claims that anticipate today’s persuasive messages. “Keeps the blood cool!” “Makes red blood redder!” Then there were the cereals that echoed today’s claims for prebiotics: “Will correct stomach troubles!” or indeed mirrored claims made on my cat food: “The most scientific food in the world!”

Getting children hooked, making them associate breakfast cereal with fun and entertainment, were among the main aims of competing manufacturers from the early days. Kellogg’s sponsored a children’s programme called The Singing Lady. In 1931, the artist Vernon Grant heard the programme and was inspired to draw the Kellogg’s Rice Krispies ad characters Snap, Crackle and Pop. His cartoon characters were used in ad campaigns that catapulted Rice Krispies sales up into the league of the more established cornflakes brands.

Cereal advertising likewise helped shape early television. Using “motivational research” to work out how to appeal to women and children with different kinds of packaging, Kellogg’s broadcast the first colour TV programmes and commercials for children. The result was that by the mid-50s the company had captured nearly half the US processed cereal market and was in a prime position to build its empire in Europe.

The UK market for cereal was worth more than £ 1.27 bn in 2005. It, too, has been created and maintained by advertising. Kellogg’s has consistently been the largest advertiser of cereal in this country, spending roughly £ 50 m a year in recent years, about twice as much as its rival, Cereal Partners (a joint venture with Nestlé). Without advertising, we might never know we needed processed cereal and revert to porridge or bread instead. Or, as Kellogg’s European president Tim Mobsby put it to MPs conducting an inquiry into obesity in 2004, “If we were not to have that capability [of TV advertising], there is a probability that the consumption of cereals would actually drop.”

The following spring I was one of a handful of reporters flown in a private jet by Kellogg’s to its Old Trafford cornflakes factory, as part of its campaign to protect its portfolio and its ability to market it, particularly to children. The ostensible reason for the trip was that Kellogg’s was launching a new product in the UK — Kashi, a brand of mixed-grain puffed cereal free of all additives. But criticism of the food industry for selling products high in fat, salt and sugar had reached a head, and the cereal manufacturers were the subject of unwelcome attention.

Before touring the factory, we were ushered past a giant Tony the Tiger cutout and into the strategic planning department for a presentation on nutrition policy and labelling. Here, the company nutritionist explained how, in response to pressure from the FSA, the Association of Cereal Food Manufacturers had reduced salt by a quarter in five years. Cornflakes were even tastier than before because you could taste the corn more now. So why was there so much salt in the first place, we asked. The managing director of Kellogg’s Europe, Tony Palmer, confessed that “if we’d known you could take out 25 % of the salt and make cornflakes taste even better, we would have done it earlier. But it’s also about the interaction with the sugar — as you take the salt out, you’ve got to reduce the sugar because it starts to taste sweeter.”

But isn’t the target to reduce sugar consumption, too? Why not just cut down on salt and sugar, we wondered. Well, sugar helps keep the crispness and is part of the bulk, so that would be difficult, we were told. Palmer’s eyebrows started working furiously as he answered: “And the risk is, if you take the salt out, you might be better off eating the cardboard carton for taste.”

The public relations team moved us rapidly on from this unfortunate echo of Senator Choate’s observations about rats to a presentation on the Kashi Way. “We hold the spirit of health in all we do,” one of them explained, echoing this time the quasi-religious marketing babble of the founding cereal makers. Since this was a puffed cereal, what levels of acrylamide did it contain, I wondered. No one was sure, but they’d come back to me, they said. They never did. Perhaps they thought I had lost interest.

The industry is adamant that its products are a healthy way to start the day, and has recruited Professor Tom Sanders, head of the nutrition department at King’s College London, to defend “breakfast cereals served with semi-skimmed milk” as “low-energy meals that provide about one fifth of the micronutrients of children”.

However, Cereal Reoffenders, a survey published by the consumer watchdog Which?, took a rather different view. When it analysed 275 big-name breakfast cereals from leading manufacturers on sale in UK supermarkets in 2006, it found that 75% had high levels of sugar while almost a fifth had high levels of salt, according to criteria drawn up by the Food Standards Agency for its traffic-light nutritional labels.

Several cereals making claims to be good for you got a red light, too. All-Bran was high in salt; Special K got a red for sugar and salt. Some high-fibre bran cereals were giving you more salt per serving than a bag of crisps. Some products may have been reformulated since the report to reduce salt and sugar.

Back at Battle Creek’s museum, you can see Kellogg’s vision for the future. Before exiting the exhibition into the shop, where visitors enter into the spirit by sporting strings of Fruit Loops as headbands, I passed a section on “global expansion”. As well as advertising in new markets, it revealed, Kellogg’s has been sponsoring school nutrition programmes and health symposia for professionals. This activity is part of a “massive programme of nutrition education directed at improving the world’s eating habits”.

With 90 % of breakfast cereal consumed in just a handful of countries, the company that helped to transform the British diet “has rededicated itself to reaching 1.5 billion new cereal customers around the world in the next decade”.

Improving the world’s eating habits has the attraction, as the 19th-century American entrepreneurs discovered, of being what economic analysts call a “high-margin-to-cost business”. The raw materials of breakfast cereals, commodity grains, have been kept cheap for decades thanks to government subsidies (although biofuels, a new focus for support, has changed the equation recently).

US agricultural subsidies totalled $ 165 bn (£ 83.75 bn) in the years between 1995 and 2005. Just five crops accounted for 90 % of the money – corn, rice, wheat, soya beans and cotton. If you want to understand why all those commodities, cotton aside, make it in to most of the processed foods, this is where you have to start.

One of the biggest costs in cereal manufacture is not the value of the ingredients nor the cost of production, but the marketing.

About a quarter of the money you spend on breakfast cereal goes on the cost of persuading you to buy it.

That still leaves room for gross profit margins on processed cereals that are 40 % to 45 %.

Start selling this kind of processed diet to new consumers in China and India, and your profits — and those of the country that has dominated grain exports and trading, the US — will soar.

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