“Fun facts” we learn online aren’t always the full story—and the full story is often a lot less fun. The widely shared tale of how Kellogg’s Corn Flakes were invented in the 1890s as a “chaste” cereal is undeniably fascinating, but it’s a bit more complicated than you might think. Some time ago, the internet latched onto a historical tidbit about Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, the brother of William Keith Kellogg (founder of the Kellogg Company), and though there is some truth to it, there is, like most things that catch fire online, more to the story.
Dr. John Harvey Kellogg’s views on health went beyond the foods that people should eat for breakfast. He was brought up in the Seventh-day Adventist Church, and to say his medical research and practice were shaped by his religious beliefs would be an understatement. Kellogg was so prominent in his church community that in 1876 he became the head of a church-founded health institute in Battle Creek, Michigan.
The Battle Creek Sanitarium became a very popular medical spa, and it was there that Corn Flakes began.
“A remedy which is almost always successful in small boys is circumcision… The operation should be performed by a surgeon without administering an anesthetic, as the brief pain attending the operation will have a salutary effect upon the mind, especially if it be connected with the idea of punishment, as it may well be in some cases.”
In addition to approaching circumcision into a punitive and purposefully painful “remedy” for young boys, the good doctor also suggested other painful devices be employed to prevent erections and that pure carbolic acid be applied to young girls to deter masturbatory urges.
With these practices in mind, Kellogg’s claim to the invention of bland-ass cereal seems just a bit insignificant, comparatively. In the 21st century, it might sound quaint that Corn Flakes were prescribed to curb masturbation, but it’s less funny to know that lots of other measures were being taken to forcibly achieve that goal, too.
The widely shared version of the story goes that Dr. Kellogg, co-inventor of Corn Flakes, created the cereal as a form of “mastubation prevention.” However, Snopes has clarified that while the doctor did recommend plain, bland diets as a method to discourage masturbation, he did not specifically name Corn Flakes as a staple of this diet, nor was it ever stated outright that Corn Flakes were created specifically for this purpose.
There’s a ton of debate over who officially invented Corn Flakes (a long legal battle included), but the general consensus on how it was invented is this: Wheat-based cereal dough was accidentally left sitting out for an extended period, causing it to ferment. The somewhat moldy dough was rolled out into thin sheets and baked. The combination of fermentation and high temps produced thin, crispy flakes.
From there, Will Kellogg continued tweaking the recipe and found that corn-based dough created a crispier, more appealing flake than wheat dough. Tweaks like this, plus the eventual addition of sugar, were completely against what J.H. Kellogg had in mind for his cereal creation, as he strongly believed that avoiding alcohol, sugar, and other indulgences was key to sexual abstinence and thus a healthy lifestyle. In fact, the precursor to Corn Flakes had been even more boring, as it was just a mixture of cornmeal, flour, and oats. Multiple versions of the cereal were served to patients in the sanitarium.
So, the degree to which Corn Flakes were invented as a million-dollar masturbation cure-all has been overstated throughout the last century, and especially in the age of the internet. Corn Flakes were simply one result of multiple efforts to create a warped sense of “clean living,” many of which were darker and more brutal than breakfast cereal. But one thing’s for sure: There’s absolutely nothing sexy about the cereal Kellogg’s laid claim to.