Why were Corn Flakes invented? The origins of the Kellogg’s breakfast cereal explained - and the viral myth debunked

Corn Flakes were invented by Dr John Harvey Kellogg – but not for the reasons an internet joke would have you think

Tuesday, 6th October 2020, 3:11 pm
Have you heard the bizarre fake story behind the history of Corn Flakes?  (Photo: Andreas Rentz/Getty Images)
Have you heard the bizarre fake story behind the history of Corn Flakes? (Photo: Andreas Rentz/Getty Images)

It’s a well known fact that rumours and jokes can run unchecked and unchallenged on the internet, leading to misinformation being shared far and wide.

Popular breakfast cereal Corn Flakes has been subject to much internet speculation, with a viral myth about its origins now better known than its real history.

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So why were Corn Flakes invented - and is there any truth in the bizarre rumour?

Who invented Corn Flakes?

Corn Flakes were invented by Dr John Harvey Kellogg, an American doctor, nutritionist, inventor and health activist.

He was the director of the Battle Creek Sanitarium in Michigan, a world-renowned health resort which was founded by the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

The Sanitarium combined aspects of a spa, a hydrotherapy institution, a hospital and a high class hotel.

Kellogg treated both the wealthy and the poor who could not afford other hospitals.

He also dedicated the last 30 years of his life to promoting eugenics, the practices aimed at improving the genetic makeup of the human race by excluding people and groups who have been judged to be inferior.

Kellogg discouraged the mixing of races and was in favour of sterilising people with mental handicaps.

What does the myth say?

The online myth states that Corn Flakes were originally created in an effort to encourage people to stop masturbating.

The rumour explains that Dr John Harvey Kellogg thought that sex was harmful to people’s physical, emotional and spiritual wellbeing. He personally abstained from sex and all of his children were adopted.

Kellogg said that masturbation could lead to mood swings, stiff joints, acne and epilepsy, and his solution to remedy this was to follow a healthy diet.

He thought that foods with certain flavours or seasoning actually increased sex drive, and believed that plain foods like cereals and nuts could help decrease it.

Therefore Kellogg supposedly developed Corn Flakes as a healthy, anti-masturbatory breakfast cereal.

What’s the real story of Corn Flakes?

Internet fact-checking service Snopes rated this viral rumour as “mostly false”.

Snopes explains that while Corn Flakes were a “part of Kellogg’s broader advocacy for a plain, bland diet”, they were never advertised as “an anti-masturbatory morning meal”.

Kellogg did advocate for clean living and practised sexual abstinence as well as recommending a bland diet as one of several methods to discourage masturbation - however, he never specifically referred to Corn Flakes.

Snopes says: “According to the available evidence, corn flakes were primarily created as an easy-to-digest, pre-prepared and healthy breakfast food, in particular for patients at the Kellogg sanitarium in Michigan.”

According to Howard Markel, a professor of the history of medicine at the University of Michigan, and author of a book on the Kellogg family, the initial idea for the invention of Corn Flakes came from the need to create a breakfast food which could counter indigestion.

Indigestion was a common health complaint in later 19th century America.

“It’s no wonder Dr. Kellogg saw a need for a palatable, grain-based “health food” that was “easy on the digestion” and also easy to prepare,” Markel says.