If you think processed food companies make some outrageous claims about the health effects of their products, you should see some of the crazy shenanigans that they used to get up to. Probably, one of the first, if not the very first, type of products that were touted as “health food” were cereals, and especially ready-to-eat cold cereals. You can find out about the first ready to eat cereal, which was Kellog’s granola (the second granola..click the link for that story).
After John Harvey Kellog became successful, a guy that was a former patient in Kellog’s Battle Creek sanitarium, Charles Post, ended up starting his own company which we know today as Post Foods Company.
Actually, to say Charles Post was a patient at Kellog’s sanitarium is putting it lightly. The man was reportedly in such ill health, he was an invalid. He and his wife lived in a small cottage nearby the sanitarium and Post had to be pushed in a wheelchair every day to get to the place. Kellog’s treatment regimen didn’t really help Post (gee, I wonder why?), and Post left and got help from a “Christian Science” lady named Elizabeth Gregory who cooked meals for him everyday and told him he had the power to heal himself.
Since Post’s illness had come about after he had a number of very rough financial setbacks, and basically seems to have amounted to a bigtime nervous breakdown, I can see how a little stress-free living, home-cooking, and reading an encouraging text called Science and Health (Christian Science textbook), could help turn him around.
So, Post got all better and decided that he would use his new knowledge of healing to open his own clinic. Boy, the stuff people got up to in those days. Isn’t that like opening a headache clinic because your headache goes away? Anyway, it was all based on the power of positive thinking and what was called natural suggestion. He called his place La Vita Inn and undersold Kellog, the scamp.
Now, to get to the point, the first product Post developed was a coffee substitute. First, he tried to get a Swiss chemist to make one for him but he wasn’t happy with the results. He played around with his own and, in 1894, he came up with a cereal-based coffee substitute with wheat berries, glutenous bran, and molasses, which he called Postum. You can still get that today, and you know what, it’s not really all that bad. He did some clever marketing like offering free samples (pioneer!), and Postum started selling very well at the local grocery stores. He made a lot of money.
After the initial success of Postum, Post incorporated the Postum Cereal Company and set his site on other products. The first new thing he came up with was a cereal we all know (and love?), Grape-Nuts. It was based on wheat and malted barley, which sweetened the cereal a bit. Malted barley is barley that has been allowed to ferment, whereupon the starches start to turn into simple sugars. It certainly was not the same as refined sugar from sugar cane, but, since they thought it to be similar to sugar found in grapes, they called it grape sugar. So, that is how Post got the name for Grape-Nuts. He made the cereal by a similar method to granola. Some have also speculated that the name had something to do with the little nuggets of cereal looking like grape seeds.
And here is where it gets interesting. He proceeded to make some absolutely outrageous health claims about the product, even for those days when you could get away with saying whatever you wanted, at least legally. He called Grape-Nuts a scientific health food containing vitalizing elements. He sent out advertisements claiming the cereal cured all sorts of diseases and conditions: rickets, rheumatism, malaria, heart disease, consumption, appendicitis, and brain problems. He even claimed that it strengthened the teeth, which is like saying that chewing on rocks will strengthen the teeth, in my opinion. Here is a sample of some advertising copy concerning the benefits Grape Nuts afforded the teeth, which uses the premise that bad teeth are due to eating too much mushy, soft food:
The crisp, nourishing granules of Grape-Nuts afford the teeth and gums the proper, normal exercise that they require, if the teeth are to remain sound and healthy.
Because of it’s vital mineral salts, and because of the way it stimulates proper mastication, Grape-Nuts is one of the best of all foods for developing and preserving the teeth.
But, of course, this is only a sampling of the many claims made about the product and, by and large, Grape-Nuts advertising was extremely successful.
One magazine, however, wasn’t having any of it. Collier’s Weekly refused to run any Grape-Nuts advertisements because of the over-the-top outrageous claims he was making. Post spent $150,000 to run his own campaign against Collier’s Weekly, claiming that the publishers were smearing his name because he had refused to advertise with them. Collier’s countered that Post was a faker and that he was telling lies. They sued post for libel and won a judgement of $50,000 dollars against him. This was the heaviest reward for a libel case ever given in New York, at that time.
Collier’s said that the evidence proved not only that he had libeled them, but that the advertising campaigns were built on frauds, false claims, false and dangerous insinuations, and purchased testimonials. They also said it proved that Grape-Nuts was a plain breakfast food without any medicinal effect and that postum, marketed at “the food drink” was only a very weak and harmless coffee substitute, containing no more nourishment to the cup than a teaspoonful of skim milk.
Post, apparently, never got discouraged when it came to advertising. It is reported, in magazine articles of the time, that he immediately begain a series of half-page ads that were carefully worded in such a way to make the casual reader believe that he had won the suit! For instance, the ads said that Post had claimed, through “other famous experts” that eating undigested food was largely responsible for appendicitis, so eat Grape-Nuts, the predigested food. Basically, he was saying that undigested starchy food in the intestines caused appendicitis, and playing on the idea that the malted barley was “predigested” by the fermentation and thus, breakdown of it’s starches into simpler sugars. He ignored the fact that it also contained “undigested” wheat.
John Harvey Kellogg wasn’t too impressed with Post’s promotions, either, and since Post products, and other products coming out of the Battle Creek area, were easily confused and associated with his Battle Creek Sanitarium, he was very active in disavowing any connection between himself and Post. Grape-Nuts never had any nuts, but the product sure was nutty.