Porridge was a traditional food in much of Northern Europe and Russia back to antiquity. Barley was a common grain used, though other grains and yellow peas could be used. In many modern cultures, porridge is still eaten as a breakfast dish.
North American natives had found a way to make ground corn palatable, later called "grits" (from the Old English word "grytt", meaning coarse meal) and "hominy". While this became a staple in the southern U.S., grits never gained a hold in the northern states. Food reformers in the 19th century called for cutting back on excessive meat consumption at breakfast. They explored numerous vegetarian alternatives. Late in the century, the Seventh-day Adventists based in Michigan made these food reforms part of their religion, and indeed non-meat breakfasts were featured in their sanitariums and led to new breakfast cereals.
Ferdinand Schumacher, a German immigrant, began the cereals revolution in 1854 with a hand oats grinder in the back room of a small store in, Akron, Ohio. His German Mills American Oatmeal Company was the nation's first commercial oatmeal manufacturer. He marketed the product locally as a substitute for breakfast pork. Improved production technology (steel cutters, porcelain rollers, improved hullers), combined with an influx of German and Irish immigrants, quickly boosted sales and profits. In 1877, Schumacher adopted the Quaker symbol, the first registered trademark for a breakfast cereal. The acceptance of "horse food" for human consumption encouraged other entrepreneurs to enter the industry. Henry Parsons Crowell started operations in 1882, and John Robert Stuart in 1885. Crowell cut costs by consolidating every step of the processing—grading, cleaning, hulling, cutting, rolling, packaging, and shipping—in one factory operating at Ravenna, Ohio. Stuart operated mills in Chicago and Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Stuart and Crowell combined in 1885 and initiated a price war. After a fire at his mill in Akron, Schumacher joined Stuart and Crowell to form the Consolidated Oatmeal Company.
The American Cereal Company (Quaker Oats, but see below) created a cereal made from oats in 1877, manufacturing the product in Akron, Ohio. Separately, in 1888, a trust or holding company combined the nation's seven largest mills into the American Cereal Company using the Quaker Oats brand name. By 1900 technology, entrepreneurship, and the "Man in Quaker Garb"—a symbol of plain honesty and reliability—gave Quaker Oats a national market and annual sales of $10 million.
Early in the 20th century, the Quaker Oats Company (formed in 1901 to replace the American Cereal Company) jumped into the world market. Schumacher, the innovator; Stuart, the manager and financial leader and Crowell, the creative merchandiser, advertiser, and promoter, doubled sales every decade. Alexander Anderson's steam-pressure method of shooting rice from guns created Puffed rice and puffed wheat. Crowell's intensive advertising campaign in the 1920s and 1930s featured promotions with such celebrities as Babe Ruth, Max Baer, and Shirley Temple. Sponsorship of the popular Rin-Tin-Tin and Sergeant Preston of the Yukon radio shows aided the company's expansion during the depression. Meat rationing during World War II boosted annual sales to $90 million, and by 1956 sales topped $277 million. By 1964 the firm sold over 200 products, grossed over $500 million, and claimed that 8 million people ate Quaker Oats each day. Expansion included acquisition of Aunt Jemima Mills Company in 1926, which continues as a leading brand of pancake mixes and syrup, the sport drink Gatorade in 1983, and in 1986, the Golden Grain Company, producers of Rice-A-Roni canned lunch food. In 2001 Quaker Oats was itself bought out by PepsiCo.
The first cold breakfast cereal, Granula, was invented in the United States in 1866 by James Caleb Jackson, operator of Our Home on the Hillside which was later replaced by the Jackson Sanatorium in Dansville, New York. The cereal never became popular as the heavy bran and graham nuggets needed soaking overnight before they were tender enough to eat and were considered inconvenient.
George H. Hoyt created Wheatena circa 1879, during an era when retailers would typically buy cereal (the most popular being cracked wheat, oatmeal, and cerealine) in barrel lots, and scoop it out to sell by the pound to customers. Hoyt, who had found a distinctive process of preparing wheat for cereal, sold his cereal in boxes, offering consumers a more sanitary and consumer-friendly option.
Packaged breakfast cereals were considerably more convenient than a product that had to be cooked and as a result of this convenience (and clever marketing), they became popular. Battle Creek, Michigan was a center both of the Seventh-day Adventist Church and of innovation in the ready-to-eat cereal industry. And indeed, the church had a substantial impact on the development of cereal goods through the person of John Harvey Kellogg (1851-1943). Son of an Adventist factory owner in Battle Creek, Kellogg was encouraged by his church to train in medicine at Bellevue Hospital Medical College in New York City in 1875. After graduating, he became medical superintendent at the Western Health Reform Institute in Battle Creek, established in 1866 by the Adventists to offer their natural remedies for illness. Many wealthy industrialists came to Kellogg's sanitarium for recuperation and rejuvenation. They were accustomed to breakfasts of ham, eggs, sausages, fried potatoes, hot biscuits, hotcakes, and coffee.
In Battle Creek they found fresh air, exercise, rest, "hydrotherapy", a strict vegetarian diet, and abstinence from alcohol, tobacco, coffee, and tea. To supplement the center's vegetarian regimen, Kellogg experimented with granola. Soon afterwards he began to experiment with wheat, resulting in a lighter, flakier product. In 1891 he acquired a patent and then in 1895 he launched the Cornflakes brand, which overnight captured a national market. Soon there were forty rival manufacturers in the Battle Creek area. His brother William K. Kellogg (1860-1951) worked for him for many years until, in 1906, he broke away, bought the rights to Cornflakes, and set up the Kellogg Toasted Corn Flake Company. William Kellogg discarded the health food concept, opting for heavy advertising and commercial taste appeal. Later, his signature on every package became the company trademark.
The second major innovator in the cereal industry was Charles W. Post, a salesman who was admitted to Kellogg's sanitarium as a patient in the late 1800s. While there, he grew deeply impressed with their all-grain diet. Upon his release, he began experimenting with grain products, beginning with an all-grain coffee substitute called Postum. In 1898 he introduced Grape-nuts, the concentrated cereal with a nutty flavor (containing neither grapes nor nuts). Good business sense, determination, and powerful advertising produced a multimillion-dollar fortune for Post in a few years. After his death, his company acquired the Jell-O company in 1925, Baker's chocolate in 1927, Maxwell House coffee in 1928, and Birdseye frozen foods in 1929. In 1929, the company changed its name to General Foods. In 1985, Philip Morris Tobacco Company bought General Foods for $5.6 billion and merged it with its Kraft division. Because of Kellogg and Post, the city of Battle Creek, Michigan is nicknamed the "Cereal Capital of the World".
In 1902 Force wheat flakes became the first ready-to-eat breakfast cereal introduced into the United Kingdom. The cereal, and the Sunny Jim character, achieved wide success in Britain, at its peak in 1930 selling 12.5 million packages in one year. In the 1930s, the first puffed cereal, Kix, went on the market. After World War II, the big breakfast cereal companies – now including General Mills, who entered the market in 1924 with Wheaties – increasingly started to target children. The flour was refined to remove fiber, which at the time was considered to undermine digestion and absorption of nutrients, and sugar was added to improve the flavor for children. The new breakfast cereals began to look starkly different from their ancestors. As one example, Kellogg's Sugar Smacks, created in 1953, had 56% sugar by weight. Different mascots were introduced, such as the Rice Krispies elves and later pop icons like Tony the Tiger and the Trix Rabbit.
In the 1920s, national advertising in magazines and radio broadcasts played a key role in the emergence of the fourth big cereal manufacturer, General Mills. In 1921, James Ford Bell, president of a Minneapolis wheat milling firm, began experimenting with rolled wheat flakes. After tempering, steaming, cracking wheat, and processing it with syrup, sugar, and salt, it was prepared in a pressure cooker for rolling and then dried in an electric oven. By 1925, Wheaties had become the "Breakfast of Champions". In 1928, four milling companies consolidated as the General Mills Company in Minneapolis. The new firm expanded packaged food sales with heavy advertising, including sponsorship of radio programs such as "Skippy", "Jack Armstrong, The All-American Boy", and baseball games. Jack Dempsey, Johnny Weissmuller, and others verified the "Breakfast of Champions" slogan. By 1941 Wheaties had won 12% percent of the cereal market. Experiments with the puffing process produced Kix, a puffed corn cereal, and Cheerios, a puffed oats cereal. Further product innovation and diversification brought total General Mills sales to over $500 million annually (18% in packaged foods) by the early 1950s.
Processing is the modification of a grain or mixture of grains usually taking place in a facility remote from the location where the product is eaten. This distinguishes "breakfast cereals" from foods made from grains modified and cooked in the place where they are eaten.
Muesli is a breakfast cereal based on uncooked rolled oats, fruit, and nuts. It was developed around 1900 by the Swiss physician Maximilian Bircher-Benner for patients in his hospital. It is available in a packaged dry form such as Alpen, or it can be made fresh.
Most warm cereals can be classified as porridges, in that they consist of cereal grains which are soaked in hot water, cooked and/or boiled to soften them and make them palatable. Sweeteners, such as brown sugar, honey, or maple syrup, are often added either by the manufacturer, during cooking, or before eating.
Common hot cereals in parts of Canada include oatmeal, Cream of Wheat and Red River cereal. These hot cereals are typically served with maple syrup or brown sugar and milk or cream. Yogurt is also added to Red River cereal. Many Canadians also enjoy cereals similar to those in the United States market.
In China, porridges such as rice congee, or those made with other ingredients (including corn meal or millet) are often eaten for breakfast.
In Greece, cornmeal is poured into boiling milk to create a cereal of a thick consistency which is often served to young children.
Ireland is known for its oatmeal. The most famous variety of these is steel-cut oatmeal. Oatmeal is very popular in Ireland, and is a common breakfast there. It is one of Ireland's major culinary exports, and is widely available throughout the world. Major brands include McCann's.
In Russia, a breakfast is kasha, a porridge of buckwheat (Russian: гречка, grechka), farina (Russian: манка, manka), or other grains. Kasha is found throughout much of Eastern Europe, including Poland and Croatia.
Pap is a porridge used in a variety of meals eaten throughout the day. In the Afrikaans culture of descendants of Dutch farmers and French Huguenots, it is usually sprinkled with sugar and then eaten with milk; it can be made to a very stiff consistency so that it forms – what could be described as – a softish lumpy crumble (called krummel-pap) or a more creamy porridge consistency (called slap-pap). It is generally made from maize ("mielie") meal and is sold under various brand names. Taystee Wheat is made into a creamy wheat-based porridge. Porridge brands unique to South Africa include Jungle Oats and Bokomo Maltabella (made from malted sorghum). In other parts of Africa it is known as ugali, sadza, and banku or "makkau".
Scotland is famous for its consumption of oats. Scottish brands sold in the United Kingdom and elsewhere include Scott's Porage Oats and Stoats Porridge Bars. In Northern Ireland, the company White's has been milling oats in Tandragee since 1841.
Oatmeal is popular in the United States. Wheat-based cereals (Cream of Wheat, Malt-o-Meal, Wheatena, etc.) are widely available if less popular. Grits is a porridge of Native American origin made from corn (maize) which is popular in the South.
Breakfast cereal companies make gluten-free cereals which are free of any gluten-containing grains. These cereals are targeted for consumers who suffer from gluten-related disorders, as celiac disease, non-celiac gluten sensitivity and wheat allergy, among others. Some companies that produce gluten-free cereals include Kellogg's, General Mills, Nature's Path and Arrowhead Mills.