March 30

100 Years of Flaky Nutrition

7  comments

Today marks the 100th birthday of the corn flake, developed by the enterprising brother of famous vegetarian physician John Harvey Kellogg. Dr. Kellogg operated a health spa/sanitarium in Battle Creek, Michigan, to which place the rich and puny at the turn of the century could repair to restore their health and vigor. Dr. Kellogg employed a strict vegetarian diet and a number of other interesting therapies, such as radiation and near-electrocution as remedies for obesity.

Devising a convenient ‘health’ food (grain-based flakes, in this case) for disciples of Dr. Kellogg’s regimen became the entrepreneurial hot ticket franchise of the day. From among the many entrants vying to win market share two companies became giants and remain with us today: Kellogg’s of Battle Creek and C.W. Post.

Battle Creek (aptly named) served as something of a vegetarian command and control center in the war that raged between the propenents of vegetarianism and the carnivore/omnivore camp. On the one side was Dr. Kellogg, proclaiming that foul animal products rotted in the intestines of humans and caused no end of health maladies. At the san, the good doctor treated these ailments variously: milk fasting, enemas, and even surgically removing “kinks” in the bowel that interfered with proper digestion. And let’s not forget the aforementioned radiation, which did help weight loss by inducing nausea and destroying appetite, with the small side effect that if carried a bit too far, it would kill you. On the side of the angels (at least from our world view) stood the likes of Vilhjalmur Stefansson, Arctic explorer, friend of the Inuit, who espoused the health and safety of meat eating.

Although it’s fiction, if you’ve never read T.C. Boyle’s The Road to Wellville, take a look! It’s a fabulous read and offers an hilarious glimpse into the flake mania that gripped Battle Creek at this time. The book was made into a movie starring Anthony Hopkins and John Cusack, both of whom I love to watch. However, I didn’t bother to see the movie version, which reports claimed was a pale and unsatisfying shadow of the richness of the book. Perhaps if you’d not read the book, the movie would suffice. Take your pick if you’re interested in a funny look at the inception of a food fad that’s now turning 100 years old.

Yes, from these lofty origins sprang the corn flake, staple of America’s breakfast table for 100 years. And just look how healthy we’ve become for it! To be fair, I don’t think Dr. Kellogg would have countenanced coating flakes with high fructose corn syrup, but who knows. He may have been all about it, since it’s not meat and really no more harmful than, say, irradiating people.

Gee, thanks, Dr. Kellogg. Oh, and Happy Birthday to the corniest flakes anyone makes.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I think I’ll trot downstairs and whip up a plate of sausage and eggs.


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  1. A side benefit from a life spent breakfasting without corn flakes?

    From a 2002 Washington Post article:
    [Evelyn Stefansson Nef] … became reacquainted with a man she’d met at Romany Marie’s, arctic explorer Vilhjalmur “Stef” Stefansson. He helped get her a job designing exhibits for the Icelandic pavilion … They soon fell in love.

    “I was lucky to meet Stef. He was a genius,” says Nef. “When we married, I was 27, he was 62, and everyone thought it was awful. It was a neurotic choice,” she allows, “but it turned out to be wonderful — the equivalent of a college education. It was also the best sex I ever had.”

    COMMENT from MD Eades:
    Gotta have that cholesterol to make testosterone, you know.

  2. I loved The Road to Wellville, but I had a special interest in reading it: My grandmother trained as a nurse with Dr. Kellogg at the Battle Creek Sanatarium. I loved her very much, but she had an obsession with her grandchildren’s bowel movements that she must have learned there. One story I remember her telling is how they had to graduate her class earlier than scheduled, because everyone had gained so much weight they needed new uniforms.

    COMMENT from MD Eades:

    But they had well-oiled bowels, I’m sure. What a great story.

  3. “The Road to Wellsville” was a very entertaining movie. Guess I will have to read the book now!

    COMMENT from MD Eades:

    The book is fabulous, with much more about the flake business than was included in the movie (according to my husband, who saw the flick.)

  4. Do you think a modern day Stefansson all-meat diet is doable with modern day groceries (including health food stores)? What problems might one encounter (such as acid-base balance and calcium)?

    COMMENT from MD EADES: To follow an all meat diet would cause no short term problems for most people, but there would be some long term consequences occasioned by following the diet for many years, chief among them would be a need to offset the acid-forming nature of the protein with something alkaline or ultimately reap some bone loss. Drinking plenty of alkaline mineral water would help, but so would eating other sources of alkalinity, such as low-starch vegetables and greens and low-sugar fruits.

  5. If I wanted to experiment with a Stefansson all-meat diet, are there some tests I could take to indicate whether I’m losing bone?

    COMMENT from MD EADES: There’s nothing really simple to do, although testing the pH of the urine might help to indicate whether it’s acidic, alkaline, or neutral what that might mean to actual calcium balance and bone density would be open to interpretation. To assess short-term loss, tests exist (by phsician’s order through a laboratory) for urinary calcium excretion over, say, a 24 hour period. What this would give you is the relative change in the amount of calcium passing out in the urine; it would not, however, account for any increase in dieatry absorption of calcium, which, at least on a meat diet that included calcium, has been shown to occur in long-term (non-exclusive) high-meat diets in the work of Dr. Herta Spencer the Hines Veterans Hospital in Illinois.

    A baseline 24-hour urinary calcium excretion followed by a second assessment once stable on the diet, followed by periodic re-assessments over time would be relatively meaningful and not break-the-bank expensive. Over the long-haul, the DEXA (dual emmision x-ray absorptiometry) test can assess bone density and can be a tool to track changes, but wouldn’t be of any short term value.

    Remember, too, that the Inuit, on whom Stefansson based his philosophies, also ate whole fish, which they caught all summer, piled like cord wood, allowed to rot and freeze like popsicles, bones and all, which contributed to their calcium and essential fat intake. Sardines and anchovies could play that role for you–not rotten, of course.

  6. “Specific” diets don’t help most people. A diet is a very personal thing. People have different tastes, different medical problems, etc. If you’re obese, you probably have a health problem. Talk to your doctor and find out if you do. Then ask the doctor what kind of diet you need to go on. Start there. I was diabetic and since being diagnosed I’ve lost over 70 pounds doing my OWN diet. My diet might not work for you though. Mine is based off of being diabetic and therefore limits my carbs.

    COMMENT from MD EADES: Thanks for sharing your view. However, I would offer that eating a diet in sync with human biochemistry, shaped over many millennia of natural selection, stands the best chance of being an appropriate and healthy diet structure for virtually any human, regardless of their tastes (which can be accommodated) or their medical problems. Of course, anyone with a medical problem requiring medication ought to consult his/her own physician and ask for guidance in devising the specifics of a given basic dietary structure and in managing medication changes.

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