Why we eat the breakfast we do

“Breakfast is a corporate scam.”  That’s the message from author Anneli Rufus, writing in Alternet recently. She explains that nearly every breakfast staple (from cold cereal to bagels spread with cream cheese – and even orange juice) is considered a staple only because some marketers somewhere decided to convince us that these are good ways to start the morning. I was reading this as I was enjoying my own favourite breakfast: a bowl of Cheerios with half a banana sliced over it, and, of course, my French-pressed Saltspring Island coffee.

But did you know that cereal first became popular for breakfast in the Western world as a meatless anti-aphrodisiac food back in 1894?  That’s when John Kellogg (a Michigan Seventh-Day Adventist surgeon and anti-masturbation activist) developed the process of flaking cooked grains to feed to his sanitarium patients. 

Back then, breakfast was not sweetened. Or cold. It was hot and hearty, and the average breakfast had about 4,000 calories. Food historian Andrew F. Smith writes:

“Breakfast was the biggest meal of the day. Eaten before you headed out to do a whole day of chores, it had to keep you going until dinner. People loaded up on protein-rich eggs, sausages, smoked ham and belly-fat bacon along with ancient carb classics like pancakes or bread.”

“One hundred and fifty years ago, we consumed two to three times more calories per day than we do now – and mostly at breakfast. Yet obesity and diabetes weren’t at epidemic proportions then because half of North Americans still lived on farms or did manual labor in cities.”

Our immigrant ancestors to the ‘New World’ borrowed native breakfast traditions like cornmeal mush or cornbread, adding meat and eggs only as early farming efforts allowed. Later on, bread or coffee were added, and often a tot of rum or cider. But even farther back, people traditionally “broke their fast” upon wakening with a warm drink (soup, tea) and a simple grain product (rice, oats).

Coincidentally, my son Ben and his lovely bride Paula emailed me this week from Delhi, India where they described their hotel’s daily breakfast:

“…a curry dish, a rice dish, a bread (chapatti, puri or naan), porridge, eggs, chai, and over-the-top service. ‘Western’ options like toast, fruit, juice, coffee, corn flakes and strawberry milk (!) were also available.’

Even the time to eat this breakfast has evolved over generations, depending on who you were, where you lived, how much money you had, and what you did for a living.

Historically, the more money you had, the more you ate for breakfast, the later in the morning you ate it, and the more time you spent around the table.

Throughout history, it’s not unusual for many hard workers, in fact, to put in a couple of hours of work before breakfast. That was certainly still true when I was growing up on a fruit farm in the Niagara Peninsula – as soon as the sun rose, my parents would be out in the fields at dawn to get some work started before the heat of the day hit, returning to the kitchen for a big breakfast at around 8 o’clock.

But over time, the Great Cereal Shift, as Anneli Rufus writes, mirrored – and triggered – other shifts. Farm to factory. Manual to mechanical. Cowpuncher to consumer. Snake-oil superstition to science. Biggest of all was food’s transition from home-grown/home-butchered to store-bought.

“Cereal companies like Kellogg’s and Post realized early on that their customers like sugar, and kids really like sugar — so they shifted their sales target from adults concerned about health to kids who love sugar.”

But what about my modern-day bowl of whole grain Cheerios, containing only 1 gm of sugar per serving? Sounds harmless, but if I enjoy it alongside coffee (as I like to do each morning), I may be raising my blood sugar level by a whopping 250% compared to drinking decaf coffee with my cereal. So say researchers at Canada’s University of Guelph, who reported their 2008 findings in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Since about 65% of coffee consumption in North America occurs during breakfast hours, this involves a lot of us. The study’s authors reported:

“Caffeine interferes with our body’s response to insulin. It makes us resistant to insulin, which in turn makes our blood-sugar levels go higher.”

In fact, combining the caffeinated coffee and low-sugar cereal resulted in higher blood-sugar levels than when the subjects drank decaffeinated coffee before eating cereal with even more sugar.

Researchers’ recommendation?  Drink decaf in the morning when you’re eating cereal.

Let’s also consider the ubiquitous glass of morning orange juice, apparently just another breakfast contrivance marketed as healthy for kids. Media buzz about vitamin C and advances in pasteurization actually spawned the orange juice industry back in the 1930s.

This turned an obscure luxury into a household necessity, says agriculture expert Alissa Hamilton in her book Squeezed: What You Don’t Know About Orange Juice. She explains:

“Orange juice has come to symbolize purity in a glass. Marketers have succeeded in creating an aura of golden goodness around the product. The idea that orange juice is ‘an essential part of a balanced breakfast’ is familiar and for the most part unchallenged.

“Ask yourself why, like most people, you drink orange juice. You probably say the reason is that it is good for you, or that it is high in vitamin C, or that you grew up drinking it and like it. If so, then I must frankly tell you that, when it comes to orange juice, you are acting like a robot.”

The biggest commercial orange juice producers are owned by two of the most powerful marketing experts: Coca-Cola owns Minute Maid. PepsiCo owns Tropicana.

Consider also the breakfast practice of many who like to stop at their local donut shop on the way to work. Although popular on this continent since the early 19th century, Anneli Rufus reminds us that sweetened fried dough was a dessert not associated at all with breakfast at first. In fact, the “doughnut” was even popular as an evening snack in theatres back in the 1920s.  Then the U.S. chain Dunkin’ Donuts popularized the notion of breakfast donuts in the 1950s.  Here in Canada, Tim Hortons opened their first iconic 24-hour donut store in 1964.

Meanwhile, boiled-then-baked carbs called bagels were mostly an ethnic niche item until Connecticut-based Lender’s established the first fully-automated frozen bagel factory in 1965.  Critics, by the way, still argue that a bagel with cream cheese has over 450 calories, compared to 300 calories for your average donut.

By the 1970s, bagels spread with cream cheese evolved into an accepted part of a typical North American breakfast menu. But the cream cheese we now put on our breakfast bagel was not a breakfast cheese at all before Kraft began promoting its Philadelphia cream cheese (which was made in New York, not Philadelphia).

Did you eat yogurt for breakfast when you were a kid? Neither did I. Traditional elsewhere, yogurt was considered a bit freakish in North America when General Mills began promoting it heavily as a “health food” in the early 1970s. Health food? A single one-serving container of General Mills-owned Yoplait fruit yogurt contains 28 grams or seven teaspoons of sugar.  That’s about the same as a can of Coke – and would you serve that to your children for breakfast?

Read the rest of the Alternet essay by Anneli Rufus.

See also:

What do you like to eat for breakfast?

4 thoughts on “Why we eat the breakfast we do

  1. It isn’t a scam. It’s the right way to eat–what the scam is what the market dictates as the ‘right breakfast food’. Fruits, organic ones are the right breakfast.

    Like this

  2. Bowl of cereal with skim milk, a banana and a glass of orange juice.
    All of these foods quickly turn into sugar in your bloodstream.
    Guess how much sugar? 31 tsp of sugar!

    Even a second grader could tell you that people should not eat 31 tsp of sugar for breakfast. Guess who recommends this breakfast? The American Diabetes Association.

    Like this

  3. Loved this article, thx for this. My favorite breakfasts have always been unconventional ones – especially leftovers from last night’s dinner. Lasagna or any kind of pasta = fantastic for breakfast! Rice and beans from last night’s Mexican = also fantastic. Soup or stew = ditto. Our family often plans this in advance (“save some shepherd’s pie for tomorrow’s breakfast…”)

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