Why We Pour Milk on our Cereal

If you’re eating breakfast, there’s a good chance you’re eating cereal and milk, particularly if you’re in the United States. Each year, the average American eats about ten pounds of cereal. And most of that cereal is served in a bowl, typically with some (if not equal parts) milk. Putting aside those with allergies to wheat and/or dairy, there are few of us who haven’t tried this experience and even fewer who haven’t taken the combination for granted. But many cereals are really good dry — Honey Nut Cheerios, Frosted Flakes, and the hard-to-find but underrated Raisin Nut Bran top many lists. So, why do we pour our milk over our cereal?

To keep the Devil away. Kind of.

Today, breakfast cereal is a go-to option in large part because it’s cheap and convenient. A box of name brand cereal runs about $4 or so, depending on size and where you live, and lasts at least a few servings. A carton of milk is typically a bit cheaper and similarly will get you more than one day’s worth of breakfast. Pouring both into a bowl takes almost no time investment and is so simple, a young child can do it. It’s a quick, easy, and inexpensive way to start your day. But originally, saving you time and money wasn’t the point. The primary goal of the first breakfast cereal to save your soul.

In the 1860s, James Caleb Jackson — who the New York Times later described as “a religiously conservative vegetarian who ran a medical sanitarium in western New York” — invented what is probably the first dry cereal. (Before we get there, though, “medical sanitariums” at the time akin to health spas, attracting clients from all stripes who were, ultimately, looking to do the equivalent of a green-juice and no-technology detox today.) Jackson wasn’t fond of the high protein breakfasts of the day, which featured eggs, sausage, and the like. Not only did he think that this diet was causing people all sorts of stomach problems (and it likely was contributing to some very constipated people), but, as Neatorama notes, that diet “was also blamed for fueling lust and laziness,” two of the seven deadly sins. It became a moral imperative to move America from a meat-based breakfast to a plant-based one. So Jackson got to work, hoping to save us all from eternal damnation.

The result: something called “granula,” our first-ever dry cereal. Granula was made from graham flour — the same, bland base that John Harvey Kellogg would later use in his efforts to use foods to, uh, decrease self-pleasure of a more carnal variety. (If you don’t know that story, don’t worry — it’s today’s From the Archives item.) Jackson took some graham flour, baked it dry, shaped it, and baked it again, ending with little nuggets. In theory, it was both filling and easy to digest, but there was a problem: it wasn’t so easy to eat. As Mental Floss notes, “eaten dry, the granula was like trying to swallow construction rubble.” So in telling people how to eat his product, Jackson (and his mom, who may have actually come up with the recipe) gave some advice: soak the granula overnight, using either water or milk.

Why milk ended up beating out water was likely a combination of a few factors: taste, the perceived nutritional benefit from the high-calcium milk, and the relative lack of sogginess. In 2012, researchers at Pontificia University Católica in Chile tested cereal and milk versus cereal and water, and determined that the former was better unless you want a bowl of slop; as Gizmodo summarized, the cereal held up okay in milk but water “will turn your Corn Flakes to mush, fast.” And while cereal eaters of the late 1800s probably didn’t run variable-controlled and peer-reviewed experiments, their persona experiences probably led them to the same result. Plus, it kept them on a path to Heaven, apparently.

Bonus fact: Grape-Nuts is the cereal, today, which is likely the closest you’ll get to the original granula. It’s also the reason we have the myth that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. In 1944, General Mills advertised that product by pushing the importance of the day’s first meal. According to the Atlantic, on General Mills’ urging, “grocery stores handed out pamphlets that promoted the importance of breakfast while radio advertisements announced that ‘Nutrition experts say breakfast is the most important meal of the day.'” There’s little basis for that claim, though — breakfast, most likely, is just as important as other meals.

From the Archives: The Curious History of Graham Crackers and Corn Flakes: As promised above. PG-13.