Let me take you back—long before the concept of s’mores around a campfire; before the delicate crust of a Key lime pie, there lived a man named Sylvester Graham. In the 19th century US, that man invented one of the most influential and recognisable snacks of modern US culture. I’m talking, of course, about the Graham cracker. However, the origins of the cracker may be slightly more extreme than you might first imagine—they were actually invented as a form of relief from coffee, alcohol and masturbation. Yes, you read that right… Let me explain.
Graham ran health retreats in the 1830s, promoting a bland diet that banned sugar and meat. His views were somewhat revolutionary at the time: a report by Refinery29 stated that Graham’s views planted the seed of veganism in America. But it went further than sugar, he actively refrained himself from life’s simple pleasures: caffeine, tea, spices, seasoning, butter—you name it, he wasn’t having it.
In fact, he even went as far to say that coffee and tea were just as bad as tobacco, opium and alcohol because they created a “demand for stimulation.” To be honest, he’s true to some degree; especially when reflecting on my crippling caffeine addiction. Above all, however, the vice Graham had which really took the biscuit was overeating. He once wrote, “a drunkard sometimes reaches old age; a glutton never,” which isn’t exactly true but even if it was, I’d rather die young eating cake than die old eating crackers…
Graham’s austere philosophy was moulded by his underlying belief that eating habits can influence behaviour, and behaviour can influence eating habits. He believed certain foods were “overstimulating” and led to impure thoughts and passions—including masturbation (or as he called it, “self-pollution”), which he believed caused blindness and insanity. I bet he was fun at parties.
Regardless of his questionable views on masturbation, we can thank Graham for his profound influence on victorian-era food: an age known for its bright and colourful cuisine—and not at all the exploitation of child labour, imperialism and low life expectancy. That was sarcasm.
His philosophy inspired John Harvey Kellogg, who was born just a year after Graham died; does his name ring a bell? Kellogg could’ve practically been a reincarnation of Graham himself—sharing the same miserable outlook on life: believing meat and flavourful foods led to sexual impulses. Ah, now the cornflake—possibly the blandest cereal of them all—makes much more sense.
In one lecture, Graham told young men they could stop their minds from wandering to “forbidden places” (god forbid…) if they “undue excitement of the brain and stomach and intestines.” So what exactly could his loyal followers eat? Why the core components of the graham cracker, of course.
Graham’s diet was bread made of coarsely ground wheat or rye, a stark contrast to the white flour loaves sold at the local bakeries. Emerging from the same flour came crackers and muffins, commonly served as breakfast foods. And just like that, the infamous Graham cracker was born.
It’s said that Kellogg’s idea of the breakfast cereal came from these same breakfast foods, only to avoid major dry mouth akin to a bong-rip in the desert, he combined the cracker with milk… Genius. Little did he know at the time, Kellogg had just laid the bedrock to the concept of breakfast cereal. Kellogg was one of the few remaining fans of Graham’s diet, a trend that fizzled out in the 1840s just as fast as millennials’ beloved skinny jeans did last year. In the 1880s, The National Biscuit Company adapted the Graham cracker—adding sugar and other ingredients Graham himself believed caused “self-pollution”—and forming the loveable, staple (and edible) cracker we know today. Graham would be rolling in his grave.
So next time you tuck into your next s’more, remember the rich and absurd story of how the Graham cracker came to be… Just food for thought.
Every couple of years, the internet comes to a screeching halt and asks itself: why were corn flakes invented? Be it Google’s 2019 ‘Year in Search’ or 72,900 views and counting on TikTok, the internet has always been fascinated with the origins of various inventions including the one behind chainsaws, and more recently, vanilla flavouring. So, why were corn flakes invented? Is the internet riddled with myths or actual facts regarding the crunchy breakfast treat? We’re here to set the record straight once and for all.
According to a large chunk of the internet, corn flakes were originally invented to discourage American consumers from masturbating. In short, the crunchy treat was a “healthy, ready-to-eat anti-masturbatory morning meal.”
Now let’s backtrack to the 18th century, when Westerners perceived masturbation as a moral, physical and mental ailment which required treatment. Enter Doctor John Harvey Kellogg, “one of the loudest anti-masturbation voices” in the young United States. The Michigan-based physician was a devout Seventh-day Adventist who advocated “biological living.” He believed sex was a detriment to physical, emotional and spiritual well-being—thereby encouraging strict abstention from almost all forms of sexual activity and contact, even among married couples.
In fact, he never consummated his own marriage—with some even suspecting him to have spent his honeymoon working on his so-called ‘anti-sex’ books. Kellogg was therefore known to have adopted all of his children.
If Kellogg thought sex with your married partner was a cardinal sin, masturbation was even worse. In his 1887 book titled Plain Facts for Old and Young: Embracing the Natural History and Hygiene of Organic Life, the doctor devoted an entire section to masturbation, which he referred to as “self-pollution” and “solitary vice”—adding how it is “the most dangerous of all sexual abuses.” He also catalogued 39 symptoms of a person “plagued” by masturbation, including general infirmity, defective development, mood swings, fickleness, bashfulness, boldness, bad posture, stiff joints, fondness for spicy foods, acne, palpitations and even epilepsy. Among the causes listed were also “exciting and irritating food”—with stimulants such as tea, coffee, wine, beer and tobacco.
So what was the ultimate solution to all of this ‘suffering’? “A healthy diet,” the doctor preached. Kellogg linked the consumption of certain food and drinks to these so-called ‘undesirable’ thoughts and urges. In his book, he outlined how “the most simple, pure and unstimulating diet” could prevent and end masturbation. In short, the plainer the food, the plainer one’s libido and sex life.
This is also one of the reasons for the biggest fight the doctor had with his brother—and business partner—Will Keith Kellogg. According to the internet, Will had the (damn right) idea that sugar would vastly improve the taste of the cereal but Kellogg stood by his original vision that plain and boring cereal would help kill sexual desires. The flakes hence remained unsweetened.
Kellogg additionally laid out 5 recommendations for this diet in his book, urging readers to:
1. Avoid overeating since “gluttony is fatal to chastity and overeating will be certain to cause emissions, with other evils, in one whose organs are weakened by abuse”
2. Eat only twice a day since your “sleep will be disturbed, dreams will be more abundant, and emissions will be frequent” if the stomach contains undigested food
3. Avoid eating stimulating food including “spices, pepper, ginger, mustard, cinnamon, cloves, essences, all condiments, chocolates, pickles, etc.”
4. Avoid drinking stimulating drinks including wine, beer, tea and coffee since their influence “in stimulating the genital organs is notorious”
5. Eat and drink bland foods and drinks like fruits, grains, milk and vegetables since they are “wholesome and unstimulating.” Graham flour, oatmeal and ripe fruit are also “indispensables of a diet for those who are suffering from sexual excesses”
Now that we’ve peaked behind the scenes of Kellogg’s anti-sex work, it’s time to address the elephant in the room. Did Kellogg really invent corn flakes to dampen libidos across America? According to the fact-checking website Snopes, this claim is “mostly false.”
Although corn flakes were created as part of Kellogg’s broader advocacy for a plain and bland diet, early advertisements of the breakfast staple made no mention of masturbation or sexual activities of any kind—unlike what the internet has been conditioned to believe. Snopes found that several publications had presented the phrase “healthy, ready-to-eat anti-masturbatory morning meal” in quotation marks—giving readers the impression that those words originated from an actual advertisement for the cereal.
Corn flakes were instead promoted as “nutritious and healthful,” emphasising how easy they were to digest. “Corn flakes were primarily created as an easy-to-digest, pre-prepared and healthy breakfast food, in particular for patients at the Kellogg sanitarium in Michigan,” Snopes added. The supposed ‘anaphrodisiac’ purpose of corn flakes did not appear in Kellogg’s patent application in 1895 either. The doctor instead emphasised its health benefits—describing the breakfast as being “well adapted for sick and convalescent persons.”
According to Howard Markel, professor at the University of Michigan and author of The Kelloggs: The Battling Brothers of Battle Creek, corn flakes shot to fame as a ‘health food’ to counter indigestion, a common health complaint in late 19th century America. At the same time, it also conformed to the strict vegetarian diet of the Seventh-day Adventist church which both the Kellogg brothers were active members of.
What about the sugar addition, you ask? Well, Kellogg saw sugar as a corruption to the entire concept of ‘healthy’ food. However, by the 1940s all major cereal companies had pre-coated their cereals with sugar—urging the company to do the same. Kellogg’s even changed up its marketing to emphasise how the cereal also appeals to the “sweet tooth” and is “good for you no matter how much you eat.”
Corn flakes have undoubtedly left a huge mark on the food industry. While Kellogg’s idea of ‘biological living’ still echoes with health trends like paleo dieting every once in a while, the doctor’s views on sexual health—particularly masturbation—thankfully hasn’t witnessed the same revival.