Saturday, March 10, 2012

Putting The Special In Special K

At the turn of the last century, the difference between the rich and poor could be seen first thing in the morning when one considered what they broke their fast with: while the well-to-do dined on protein (eggs and bacon), the rest of the populace ate a bowl of grain slurry — porridge or grits or gruel. Will Kellogg, a vegetarian, was not a fan of meat protein (preferring nuts), and thought that the benefits of vigorous outdoor life (and frequent enemas) were the key to health. His development of flaked grains created a new way to consume what the poor had consumed all along — but in a far more convenient package. Thus was breakfast cereal born.

He and his brother John argued over the addition of sugar to their cereals, and clearly the sweetener — and its appeal to the consumer — won out.

Special K, whose whole identity condenses the Kellogg’s brand and ideal most visibly, with its giant red K and health claims, hit the shelves in 1956. It is primarily a rice and wheat cereal with numerous ingredients added to boost both nutritional punch and add flavor.

Today you can find the familiar and reassuring Kelloggs packets on any supermarket shelf pretty much everywhere you go — but what’s inside differs greatly. The Special K sold in the US is not the same as the Special K sold in Canada or Great Britain or the rest of the world. They all have different formulas guided by the rules and tastes of their various food governing bodies.

Canadian Special K, for example, is not the same as American Special K. Only American Special K has high fructose corn syrup; all the rest use sugar. Denmark outlawed the addition of vitamins to breakfast cereals in 2004 after determining that the additional levels of B6, calcium, folic acid and iron found in them could reach toxic levels when eaten daily.

Additionally it was found that the iron added to Special K was metallic iron (which occurs in metals), rather than ionic iron (which occurs in plants), which rather put people off with images of Special K potentially being a delivery system for “shredded bikes.” Though it is possible to eat metallic iron powder (in reasonable amounts) without harm, when it comes to PR, you’re only as good as public opinion will allow. In other words, Special K can only contain so much “special” and still sell itself as a health aid.

It is ironic that Kelloggs found themselves having to add iron (usually found in those protein-rich foods) to their vegetarian cereals in order to make their health claims. Since those early days other weight-loss fads have come and gone, turning the tides for and against fats and carbs respectively.

This ad is from the back of the National Geographic issue of December 1969 featuring Neil Armstrong on the cover celebrating the success of man’s moon landing. For breakfast on the morning of their launch they ate steak, eggs, toast, juice and coffee. When it comes to watching your weight, it seems, you need a different kind of morning fuel to become weightless. 

The breakfast of champions.

National Geographic, December 1969

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