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Food History Blogging: John Harvey Kellogg

26th May 2009

Food History Blogging: John Harvey Kellogg

Like many other veggies, I’m sure, I’m often asked why I’m vegetarian (more on the ubiquity of this question in a post to come) and then, in amazement, if I ever miss the taste of meat.  I come from a family of hearty steak-and-potato meat-eaters, the kind for whom meat IS the meal.  My grandpa lost all his teeth in middle-age to some kind of disease but continued to gum on steak and chicken well into his golden years.  Even today when I pass by KFC or Lee’s Chicken crematoriums, I can’t help but be reminded of Sunday dinners after church with my grandparents and a bucket of the colonel’s finest.  A love of a good steak dinner was one of the few things beyond DNA that my mother and I have ever shared.  It is no coincidence that the Atkin’s diet was the first diet I ever saw “success” with.

The fact that supermarket freezer shelves are lined with woefully inadequate meat substitutes speaks to the wide flavor appeal of meat.  While I admit to missing the taste of meat, chiefly tuna fish, crab legs and my grandma’s skillet-fried chicken, my ethics always trumps my taste buds.  I’ve heard of veggies doing amazing things with tofu and seiten, but as it so happens, both Brandon and I also happen to be tragically incompetent in the kitchen with no inclination in learning the complex mysteries of bean curd.  Fortunately for us, there’s Morningstar Farms, a Kellogg-owned brand of faux meat substitutes ranging from fake sausage, veggie burgers and hot dogs and stringy chicken.

Most of us know Kelloggs for its line of sugary-sweet cereals immortalized by iconic spokescartoons Snap, Crackle and Pop, but few of us know about one-half of Kellogg’s namesake, Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, a committed vegetarian and influential American physician and nutritionist in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  In the course of writing the Big Paper, I discovered that nearly two decades before the birth of the modern day Kellogg Co., J. H. Kellogg was already experimenting with meat-free substitutes.  The cynic in me thought, “Heh, wouldn’t it be ironic if the Kellogg Co. owned some kind of meat brand today,” but instead, I found it to be the owner of the largest vegetarian food producer in the United States (and to produce no apparent meat products).  For this, Kellogg is the first to be profiled in a new semi-regular series I’m oh, so creatively calling “Food History Blogging.“ 

Kellogg is an interesting figure and not just because he helped spawn a multi-billion industry still bearing his surname.  He’s considered by many to be the father of the health food industry we all know and love to hate, and one of the most influential crusaders of the early twentieth century vegetarianism movement (Vegetarianism in America had its first wave in the 1830s and 1840s, but enjoyed a “golden period” in the years 1900 – 1930).  After receiving his MD degree from Bellevue Hospital Medical Collegee 1875, then recognized as the nation’s leading medical school, Kellogg returned to his hometown of Battle Creek, Mich. and became physician-in-chief of what he later renamed the Battle Creek Sanitarium (sanitarium = a kind of wellness center).  Like many a moral purist of his day, the dour Kellogg was a teetotaler who promoted abstinence from smoking and masturbation — he recommended circumcision sans anethesia for dirty little masturbing boys and the application of pure carbolic acid on the clitorises of their equally filthy female peers (!!!).  Kellogg, a Seventh Day Adventist and all-around fun guy, also promoted a meat free diet both for health and for the popular medical notion that meat-eating caused sexual stimulation.  One of the prevailing reasons why iron-deficient, anemic girls in the Victorian era ate very little meat is ascribed to myths held by doctors and patients that meat stimulated sexual development and activity, and in girls, could even lead to nymphomania — the horrors!

There seems to be a debate about the expertise of Kellogg and if he was, perhaps, just as flaky as the food he’d later co-invent with brother Will.  In his exhaustive food histories, Harvey Levenstein dimisses Kellogg’s “zany sanitarium” and calls his vegetarian prescriptions “hokum.”  But others, such as social historians Michael and Karen Iacobbo, testify to his fame as a skilled surgeon and reputable physician.  Keep in mind that history is often written by dominant groups.  I know a professor and historian of Ulysses S. Grant who says that the reason Grant has such a bad rap today is because racist historians in the early 1900s painted him as a corrupt, inefficient hack of a president.  The fact that 1.5 million people turned out for the funeral of the same drunken, scandal-ridden past president suggests he might be on to something, just as the fact that Kellogg counted among patients William Howard Taft, William Jennings Bryan, John D. Rockefeller, J.C. Penny, Montgomery Ward, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford and George Bernard Shaw suggest that he couldn’t have been considered that much of a quack.  At its height, the sanitarium received more than 7,000 guests a year and employed more than 1,000.  Kellogg also performed more than 22,000 operations in his 67-year career with a very low fatality rate — he never took a fee for these services and instead invested it all back into the sanitarium, which, as you’ll read, probably wasn’t the brightest of ideas.

Kellogg founded the Battle Creek Sanitarium Health Food Company in the 1870s to produce granola, whole-grain cereals, coffee substitutes (coffee was also bad, by purist standards) and graham and other types of crackers.  Between 1895 and 1905, more than 100 meat-free health foods had been produced by the company, including an early meat substitute called Protose.  In 1889, Kellogg formed the Sanitas Nut Food Company, whose product line boasted several nut-based meat substitutes:  Nuttose was largely made from nuts and had the consistency of cream cheese, while Nuttelene, another nut-based food, was billed as a “delicate white meat as dainty and juicy as the breast of a spring chicken.”  Despite their decidedly unappetizing names, demand for the products grew through the 1890s and Kellogg began shipping them to restaurants and health food stores.

John Harvey and Will Keith Kellogg

John Harvey, left, and Will Keith Kellogg

It wasn’t until a patient showed Kellogg little wheat biscuits she had been sent for digestive trouble that Battle Creek took its first step to becoming the “Breakfast Food Capital of the World.”  The wheat biscuits were being peddled by Henry Perky, a Denver man who called his concoction “Shredded Wheat.”  Although Kellogg said they were “like eating a whisk broom,” he saw potential for a ready-to-eat breakfast food and set about creating his own version. It was in 1894 while ripping off experimenting with shredded wheat cereal that Kellogg developed and patented America’s first flaked cereal he called Granose Flakes. Younger brother Will Keith Kellogg did much of the work in developing, producing and marketing this and the first corn flakes cereal they created three years later.   A bitter feud soon developed between the two brothers: W.K. knew what would really make cereals sell is to add sugar to them; J.H. refused to sully his pure whole-grain, but tasteless creation, so W.K. formed his own plant in 1906 calling it the Battle Creek Toasted Corn Flake Company and using the word “Kellogg’s” as a brand name. Many unsuccessful court battles over the use of the name later, J.H. changed the name of his company to the Battle Creek Food Company.

Coincidentally, the sanitarium at the time had a patient by the name of C. W. Post, an overworked inventor who came to the sanitarium to restore his health.  Although he stayed nine month and absorbed the good doctor’s theories, Post did not get well — in fact, he claimed the staff had given him up to die.  Post suggested to Kellogg that they collaborate together on a health coffee similar to that served at the sanitarium.  When Kellogg flatly refused, the miffed Post went on to set up his own shop in Battle Creek, developing Postum coffee substitute, Grape Nuts breakfast cereal, and later Post Toasties.  By 1900, he had become a multi-millionaire.  Oops.Kellogg's Corn Flakes vintage

Kellogg’s luck didn’t get any better from there.  The sanitarium burned down and lost its money.  The Adventists, who funded the hospital, excommunicated Kellogg and severed ties with the facility.   The Great Depression marked the deathknell of the business and it went into receivership in 1933.  And in the final insult to injury: When it was incorporated in 1906, the Battle Creek Toasted Corn Flake Company had been placed under W.K.’s management, but J.H. was the major shareholder.  The doctor, however, had foolishly distributed part of his stock among doctors at the sanitarium.  When J.H. went away to Europe to visit Pavlov, W.K. bought up the stock until he owned the majority.  He promptly replaced the box’s picture of the sanitarium with a stamp of his signature, renamed the business, and went on to become rich leaving J.H. to die in obscurity.

For more on the John Harvey Kellogg, read here.  For more on the Kellogg brothers and cereal company, check out this well-researched story by the Detroit News.

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This entry was posted on Tuesday, May 26th, 2009 at 4:00 pm and is filed under Food History, Vegetarianism. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

There are currently 19 responses to “Food History Blogging: John Harvey Kellogg”

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  1. 1 On May 26th, 2009, Loaf said:

    This is fascinating! I’m a vegetarian too (though I recently had a big lapse…) and it is great to know about Kellogg.

    Interested to know why meat analogues are “woefully inadequate” though.

  2. 2 On May 26th, 2009, Rachel said:

    Interested to know why meat analogues are “woefully inadequate” though.

    Some are actually quite good and convincing, but they’re pretty limited in scope. Morningstar, for example, only offers veggie hot dogs, burgers, crumbles and chicken and steak strips. I don’t know of any commercially available seafood substitutes. The faux meat market is growing, blessedly, but it still pales in comparison with options available to meat-eaters.

  3. 3 On May 26th, 2009, G said:

    I’ve been vegan for several years now and while I don’t eat a ton of faux meat I do love Litelife sandwich slices, Celebration loaf and Smart dogs. Whole foods has a line of faux meats that includes shrimp.

  4. 4 On May 26th, 2009, Nan said:

    Have you seen “The Road to Wellville”?

    As for meat substitutes — to be honest, to me they’ve always just seemed weird. If a person doesn’t want to eat real meat, why eat the pretend kind?

  5. 5 On May 26th, 2009, Rachel said:

    Whole foods has a line of faux meats that includes shrimp.

    Really? I shop at Whole Foods a couple times a month and have never seen them. What section are they in?

    As for meat substitutes — to be honest, to me they’ve always just seemed weird. If a person doesn’t want to eat real meat, why eat the pretend kind?

    Several reasons, actually. For me, the taste isn’t the reason I went vegetarian, plus, it’s a little awkward being the only one at a barbecue or picnic not eating a hot dog or burger.

  6. 6 On May 26th, 2009, meerkat said:

    They have some fake fish (I don’t think I like fish) and incredibly good fake chicken here in Japan.

    Kelloggs makes Frosted Flakes, right? Ironic that they are not vegetarian.

  7. 7 On May 26th, 2009, Rachel said:

    Wait — Frosted Flakes aren’t vegetarian? How so? I don’t see anything in the ingredients that would disqualify them as vegetarian. Heck, it seems as if they’re even vegan.

  8. 8 On May 26th, 2009, Anna said:

    >As for meat substitutes — to be honest, to me they’ve always just seemed weird. If a person doesn’t want to eat real meat, why eat the pretend kind?

    ‘Cause it’s for ethics, not taste :) I also buy fair trade chocolate that looks just like slavery trade (I just made that term up) chocolate, and organic apples that look like high-input (pesticides etc) apples, etc. I don’t personally like fake meat, but lots of people do.

    As a vegan, I would eat Frosted Flakes if I had the munchies ;) Maybe you meant something else?

    Very interesting post!

  9. 9 On May 26th, 2009, La di Da said:

    I’ve sometimes found faux seafood in health food stores, mostly produced by Redwood – http://www.redwoodfoods.co.uk/products/ – A UK company. They have vegan cheese that actually melts, too!

  10. 10 On May 26th, 2009, G said:

    Really? I shop at Whole Foods a couple times a month and have never seen them. What section are they in?

    In my ‘burb they are in the frozen food section near the veggie burgers. They are the Whole Food brand (Whole Kitchen). You can also get mock shrimp,duck or beef at most asian markets.

  11. 11 On May 27th, 2009, DaniFae said:

    Just another note of meat substitutes, a lot of veggie burgers don’t even try to be meat, Morningstar Farms (yeah, I’m a fan too) has black bean, and tomato basil burgers, they’re both very good. My meat eating husband likes them, because since they aren’t trying to taste like beef, they can’t fail at it, and they taste good in their own right. Things like veggie crumbles work great for recreation of childhood favorites, like tacos or sloppy joes, where substituting vegetables just won’t come close to what you’re craving.

    Also such things are useful when balancing cooking for meat eaters and vegetarians, people will look at you like your crazy when you’re grilling up portobello mushroom caps as burgers (which actually tastes a lot more like beef than any veggie burger I’ve had) but won’t even notice if you serve up vegetarian hot dogs.

  12. 12 On May 27th, 2009, Rachel said:

    Things like veggie crumbles work great for recreation of childhood favorites, like tacos or sloppy joes, where substituting vegetables just won’t come close to what you’re craving.

    Oh, yeah… I’ve been able to make my great-aunt’s famous chicken n’ dumplings using the Morningstar Farms Chik’n Strips and beef stew using a combo of the Steak Strips and veggie crumbles. We use the sausage crumbles in everything from spaghetti sauce to omelettes to pizza toppings. I’ve yet to find a substitute that will make a good meatloaf, but luckily Whole Foods has a prepared vegan meatloaf that tastes like the real deal.

  13. 13 On May 27th, 2009, merri said:

    I am an omnivore and while I dislike the taste and concept of meat substitutes, I love stuff like veggie burgers. Veggie burgers aren’t pretending to be meat, they’re just veggies, and I LOVE veggies. Yum. What an interesting article. Besides meat and veggies, I also love history!

  14. 14 On May 27th, 2009, Bronwyn said:

    Great post- we did a small section on both of the Kelloggs in one of my classes at Cornell- The History of Agriculture- really fascinating stuff.

  15. 15 On May 29th, 2009, Alexandra Lynch said:

    The whole ethics thing is interesting, because mine take the form of ideally preferring to raise and kill any meat I eat personally. I can’t quite manage that, but I do eat locally raised meat. A lot of meat substitutes make my gut rise up and punish me for a few days, so while I admire the people who can cut out meat for all those good reasons, it’s just not going to happen for me. (sigh)

  16. 16 On May 29th, 2009, Anna said:

    Yeah, I don’t care for meat substitutes, personally. Beans or nuts or veggies are all fine forms of protein for me.

    I can see killing if it was necessary–but I personally don’t feel right killing a sentient being if I don’t have to. Of course, I have a lot of experience with a veg diet, so I know how to eat in a way that works for me.

  17. 17 On May 30th, 2009, South Carolina Girl said:

    Damn. I’m torn, because i love the products born of his “work”…but he was an ASSHOLE! and it ain’t like he gave a shit about animals anyway.

  18. 18 On June 1st, 2009, Valerie said:

    I shake my fist at Kellogg every time I crave cherry pop tarts. Why is it sooo hard to use agar agar or plant based gelatin??? Same to you jackasses over at Yoplait and Dannon. : p

    commercially available seafood substitutes: Our friends the Seventh Day Adventists have provided us with the famed Tuno product under the Worthington’s food label. You should be able to get it at your local Taj Ma Krogers, Rachel. It makes a decent fake tuna. I also recommend their product ‘Wham’ which is fake ham. Its tasty. Sometimes the Adventists have stores where you can buy wham.

    How does this southern girl go without meat-especially her beloved pork? I remember the suffering it takes to produce something that’s not necessary for my diet. And voila! No more craving.

  19. 19 On June 17th, 2009, Food History Blogging: Breakfasts of Champions » The-F-Word.org said:

    [...] Breakfast Cereals: Dr. John Harvey Kellogg developed and patented America’s first flaked cereal he called Granose Flakes in 1894.  He and brother Will Keith Kellogg joined him in creating the first corn flakes cereal three years later.  After a bitter feud left them divided, Will Keith started his own plant in 1906 that would come to be known as the modern day Kellogg Company.  He introduced Rice Krispies in 1929.  Inspired and rebuffed by J.H. Kellogg, an inventor by the name of C. W. Post went on to produce his own cereal he called Grape Nuts.  By 1900, he had become a multi-millionaire.  Read more about the Kellogg brothers here. [...]

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