Field to Flake: How Breakfast Cereal is Made

ColumnHow processed is it?

While sleepily shaking your cereal flakes into a bowl, and absently pouring the milk over them, have you ever stopped to think, just before taking a big, slurpy bite, “How is this stuff made?”

If you went ahead and took the time to find out, you’d be surprised to learn that no matter how healthy and natural the advertising on the packages makes those crunchy bits of wheat, oats, and corn seem, they are actually a highly processed food whose nutrient value is questionable.

But that wasn’t how it was supposed to be at all.

First marketed in the late 1800s by Dr. John Harvey Kellogg and his brother Will Keith as a health food, the original breakfast cereal consisted of unsweetened flakes made from wheat that had been baked, ground and then mixed into a dough. The dough was then pressed between giant rollers and flaked off before being cooked again.

Kellogg was a Seventh Day Adventist who ran a church-affiliated sanitarium. His religion informed his rigid ideas about lifestyle and diet. He was an early advocate of vegetarianism, believing a high fiber, plant based diet was healthiest, and also that eating meat contributed to sexual desire—which was to be avoided at all costs. He’s well known for his cruel attempts to cure adolescents of their propensity to masturbate, and also for being an enthusiastic early advocate of enemas. But that’s another story.

Though early cereals didn’t contain the artificial colors, flavors, added vitamins, preservatives, sodium, and sugar of most of today’s cereals, the actual manufacturing process hasn’t changed that much. Cereals have always been highly processed. Maybe Dr. Kellogg’s ideas about health were as questionable as his ideas about sexuality.

From Field to Flake

Whole grains are crushed, ground, and put into a giant vat where they may or may not be mixed with flavorings and vitamins and then cooked for several hours over high heat. The resulting porridge can then take one of two journeys:

1. It may be dried slightly and then conveyed to giant rollers that flatten the grains into flakes that are then moved to a super-heated drum that sprays sugar, vitamins, and other additives onto the flakes and then dries them.

2. The slurry of cooked grains may be moved to a cooker-extruder where it is mixed with water, sugar, additives like food coloring, vitamins, minerals, preservatives, and salt, and cooked and agitated over high heat with a giant screw. It is then extruded out, and cut into any number of shapes, before being dried and packaged. For a narrated visual, check out this video showing how flakes are made.

Leaving aside the long list of added sugars and additives that appear in the ingredient list of your daily Froot Loops or Frosted Flakes, the actual process of making the cereal robs the grains of their inherent nutrients. With most of the outer layers of the grain removed during processing and with cooking temperatures as high as 250 to 300 degrees F, it’s hard to imagine that much nutrition remains in this food so many of us eat as “our most important meal of the day.”

What does the industry have to say?

In response to criticism that breakfast cereal is a highly processed food devoid of good nutrition, the Kellogg company produced this video to clear up “misunderstandings” about breakfast cereals. Chock full of meaningless statements like, “Consumption of sweetened cereal and other nutrient dense foods is positively associated with children’s and adolescent’s nutrient intake,” and “Sugar in ready to eat cereals is a small percentage of overall sugar consumption,” it’s a laughable piece of marketing. Speaking of marketing, to address criticisms that cereal companies irresponsibly market unhealthy foods to children, Kellogg assures us that the company is “an active participant in expanding and improving marketing self regulatory programs around the world.”

So what should you eat instead of breakfast cereal?

-Steel cut oats or whole grains cooked in a big batch overnight in the crock-pot and then portioned into individual, microwavable jars for the office. Stock your desk drawers with toppings of your choice.

-Spend 40 minutes on the weekend making a batch of your own granola and eat it throughout the week with unsweetened yogurt and honey.

-Hard-boil eggs the night before and eat with whole grain bread and avocado.

-Bake bran muffins ahead on the weekend and freeze individually to take on the go.

-Whole grain toast with nut butter and a side of seasonal fresh fruit.

This is the latest installment in Vanessa Barrington’s weekly column, The Green Plate on the environmental, social, and political issues related to what and how we eat.

Images: Sanbeiji, butkaj, the impulsive buy

Vanessa Barrington

Vanessa Barrington is a San Francisco based writer and communications consultant specializing in environmental, social, and political issues in the food system.