Foods with (Fake) Health Benefits? It’s Been the Case for Years — Just Look at Breakfast Cereals.


The New York Times recently published an excellent story about how food companies are peddling so-called miracle foods that can cure every type of ailment and discomfort. Of course such food companies can’t claim that the foods actually cure diseases since that’s illegal, but they tout health-promoting properties. And the business of health is big business — sales of these foods and beverages totaled $37.3 billion. The problem, though, is that much of this is related to savvy marketing as opposed to any actual benefit. And companies have been doing this for years. Just look at breakfast cereal companies.

Many advertisements from the most prominent newspapers and magazines of the late 19th and early 20th centuries show how breakfast cereal manufacturers were able to manipulate the American public by exploiting health concerns of the era, most notably dyspepsia, or painful sensations in the abdominal area, including indigestion, constipation, and general stomach pain, caused by poor diets of the era. Americans were eating mounds of meat at nearly every meal along with other high-calorie foods. Additionally, most diets lacked fresh fruits and vegetables for reasons of sanitation. Consumers were then urged to buy cereal based on testimonials from sufferers of fictitious or real illnesses with the promise that cereal would quickly cure dyspepsia and other diseases, whereas other medicines would fail.

Post’s advertising even introduced completely fictionalized illnesses including “coffee neuralgia” and “coffee heart” while blaming coffee consumption for heart palpitations, lost eyesight, divorces, business failures, factory accidents, juvenile delinquency, traffic accidents, fires, and home foreclosures, the only cure for which was Postum cereal. Grape-Nuts, too, were later advertised as an alternative to surgery for an inflamed appendix and recommended as a cure for consumption, malaria, and loose teeth! Talk about a cure-all!

This Shredded Wheat ad, for example, promises that the cereal will help “overcome indigestion and constipation.”

This Grape-Nuts testimonial advertisement shows how nothing cured ailments like the nutty cereal.

Many advertisements used complex technical language to confound consumers into buying their cereals.

Granula helps nervous exhaustion and dyspepsia.

Postum makes the blood red!