6 Controversial Moments in the World of Breakfast Cereal


1. “Fortified” Cereal Scandal Rocks Scandinavia

Scandinavia has long been home to some of Europe’s lowest obesity rates, but they certainly don’t have diet cereal Special K to thank. In 2004, Denmark embarked on a ban of Kellogg’s enriched cereals like Special K, which contain added vitamins. The Danes claimed that the high levels of vitamin B, calcium, folic acid, and iron added to such cereals could reach toxic levels if consumed on a daily basis. As a result of the toxins, young children could be at risk for liver and kidney damage. While a stand so seemingly anti-diet-food may seem shocking for a nation that once instituted a "fat tax" to considerably raise the prices of fatty foods, some company officials blamed Denmark’s persnickety reputation. Chris Wermann, former director of Kellogg’s corporate affairs in Europe, noted, “The Danish diet is pretty frugal or austere at the best of times. They’re protective of their diet.” Wermann went on to say that the cereal giant is, nevertheless, “incredulous” of the ban, adding that the extra minerals only accounted for less than 25 percent of the daily allowance.

The ban also garnered support among Denmark’s Dutch neighbors. In an episode that aired on October 15, 2009, the Dutch television show Keuringsdienst van Waarde examined Kellogg’s nutritional claims, specifically the addition of iron to “fortified” cereals like Special K. The show provided evidence that the claim of “iron” added to Special K was a bit deceptive; the scientists alleged that the cereal contained traces of metallic iron, rather than the compounds found naturally in spinach and red meat. When asked about it, a Kellogg’s telephone helpdesk employee claimed the ingredients in the cereal to be a company secret. Dutch food authorities later concluded that there is little danger in consuming the cereal, as long as Kellogg’s stays within legal limits. (And guess what? All iron-fortified cereals contain tiny metal pieces.)

2. Meet So-Hi

Today we may know Lucky the Leprechaun as our resident exaggeratedly ethnic cereal mascot, but 50 years ago, there was a different sheriff in town—or sensei, or head ninja, or some other ambiguously Asian title. Point is, in the 1950s and '60s, the popular Post cereal Sugar-Coated Rice Krinkles (think Rice Krispies crossed with Frosted Flakes) was touted by a squinty-eyed, quaintly “oriental” mascot named So-Hi.

So-Hi, essentially a younger, more chipper version of Mickey Rooney’s character in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, spouted charmingly pronoun-less phrases like, “Today, So-Hi have exciting story to tell about beautiful new Ford Mustang Car!” and, “You go ‘vroom, vroom’ when you get free car inside Post Rice Krinkles!” with a few “Ah-so’s” thrown in for good measure. For a time, he even came with his own rickshaw.

So-Hi ruled the airwaves and cereal aisles from the '50s to the early '60s, when he was replaced by a terrifying clown.

Rice Krinkles were taken off the market altogether in 1969 to make room for the fruity, gravelly versions we now know as Cocoa and Fruity Pebbles.

3. Not so “natural”

Scandinavians weren’t the only ones to ever scrutinize Kellogg’s cereal. In 2011, the Kellogg’s-owned health food titan Kashi came under fire for some allegedly dubious advertising. Specifically, the Cornucopia Institute—a farm policy watch-dog group—released a report [PDF] claiming that Kashi cereal wasn’t as natural as it seemed. Besides pointing out that using the label “natural” in food advertising is effectively meaningless (very few federal standards for such “naturalness” actually exist), the study found that “natural” cereals, like some under the Kashi brand, contained GMOs (genetically modified organisms) in their ingredients.

The New York Times reported this to widespread consumer outrage, prompting many angry health nuts to take to Kashi’s Facebook page and express their disgust: “All natural, yet genetically modified?”… “I've been a loyal Kashi consumer for years, but unless I see a USDA Certified Organic seal, I won't be buying any more of your products. After the Cornucopia Institute report, I just can't justify spending more money on Kashi when you use the same ingredients as any other company."

Kashi quickly went on the defensive, owning up to some of the claims; a representative admitted that, “While it’s likely that some of our foods contain GMOs, the main reason for that is because in North America, well over 80 percent of many crops, including soybeans, are grown using GMOs. Factors outside our control ... have led to an environment where GMOs are not sufficiently controlled.” And so a vicious back-and-forth ensued between Kashi and the Cornucopia Institute, eventually ending with Kashi vowing to produce new cereals that are Non-GMO Project verified. With 11 different GMO-free cereals on the shelf to date, Kashi proved that one should never underestimate the power of an angry Facebook post.

4. Elijah’s Manna

Back in the late 1800s, the classic cereal we know as “cornflakes” was invented in the Battle Creek, Michigan sanitarium run by Seventh-Day Adventist Dr. John Harvey Kellogg and his brother, Will Keith Kellogg. In an effort to acclimate the patients to the church-recommended vegetarian lifestyle, the duo experimented with foodstuffs derived from grains such as wheat, oats, barley, and corn. After accidentally discovering a process that “flaked” wheat berries, the brothers landed on a palatable formula for flaked corn.

The Kelloggs created cornflakes in 1904 and served them to patients at the sanitarium, but didn't market the cereal commercially until 1906; this allowed a former patient named C.W. Post to create his own version and start shilling it to the masses. Shortly after inventing Grape Nuts cereal, Post decided to try his hand at cornflakes, which he debuted under the name Elijah’s Manna. This biblically-named cereal—its box depicting the prophet Elijah hand-feeding manna to a birdsparked controversy in religious communities across the nation, where it was denounced as sacrilegious. Across the pond, Elijah’s Manna was even barred from being imported into Britain. Post fervently defended his brand, saying, “Perhaps no one should eat angel food cake, enjoy Adam's ale, live in St. Paul, nor work for Bethlehem Steel ... one should have his Adam's apple removed and never again name a child for the good people of the bible.” But it was too late; Elijah’s Manna was already marked as heretic, and in 1908, Post begrudgingly changed the product’s name to the more recognizable, less incendiary Post Toasties. The prophet Elijah was ousted in favor of Mickey Mouse.

5. Berry Sneaky

Adding fruit to your cereal is a healthy choice, but what if that “fruit” is mostly other stuff? Other stuff like corn syrup, hydrogenated oil, artificial flavors, and food dye blue no. 2? A 2012 report by the nonprofit Consumer Wellness Center stated that such fruit imposters are alarmingly common in breakfast cereals. According to the report, the claim of “real fruit!” in many well-known brands may actually refer to fruit “bits” that are mostly sugar and dye, with a dash of fruit juice thrown in for flavoring. For example, the blueberry variety of Frosted Mini Wheats contains no actual blueberries—instead, the box lists an ingredient called “blueberry crunchlets” made from soybean oil, sugar, red no. 40 and blue no. 2.

If that seems like a lot of engineering to recreate something already found in nature, you’re probably right; as Mike Adams, author of the report, explained, “[…] real blueberries are expensive. And artificial blueberry bits, made with sugar, partially hydrogenated oils and artificial colors, are dirt cheap. If these companies can fool consumers into thinking they're buying real blueberries in their products, they can command a price premium that translates into increased profits.” However, the report did offer a simple solution for those wishing to avoid berry imposters: read the ingredients list. If it contains red or blue food dyes, those berries are probably fakes.

6. “Just Checking” keeps bigots in check

An ad for a popular cereal depicts a biracial couple, only to be received with widespread outrage. If that sounds familiar, it’s not because you read it in a history book. No, a 2013 Cheerios commercial featuring an interracial family spurred so many hateful comments, ranging from peeved to extreme (some included talk of Nazis and genocide), that its YouTube comments section had to be disabled. Some credit the amount of racist backlash to its exposure on YouTube, which many online commenters see as an anonymous soapbox from which to spout the most extreme views with little threat of accountability.

The commercial, titled “Just Checking,” currently has over 4 million views—fortunately, for every commenter who claimed the commercial “made [them] want to vomit,” there were many more who were grateful for the bi-racial representation in the ad. Said one viewer, “Having been mixed in the '70s, I'd like to thank everyone at Cheerios for making a commercial with an interracial couple! Going to buy boxes today! Many thanks for reflecting what my family looked like.” Cheerios stayed calm amidst the backlash; as vice president of marketing for General Mills Camille Gibson told Gawker, “Consumers have responded positively to our new Cheerios ad. At Cheerios, we know there are many kinds of families and we celebrate them all." In final response to the outcry, another YouTube video was made, showing the reactions of children after watching the commercial. They didn't see what all the fuss was about.

9 Curses for Book Thieves From the Middle Ages and Beyond

It may seem extreme to threaten the gallows for the theft of a book, but that's just one example in the long, respected tradition of book curses. Before the invention of moveable type in the West, the cost of a single book could be tremendous. As medievalist Eric Kwakkel explains, stealing a book then was more like stealing someone’s car today. Now, we have car alarms; then, they had chains, chests … and curses. And since the heyday of the book curse occurred during the Middle Ages in Europe, it was often spiced with Dante-quality torments of hell.

The earliest such curses go back to the 7th century BCE. They appear in Latin, vernacular European languages, Arabic, Greek, and more. And they continued, in some cases, into the era of print, gradually fading as books became less expensive. Here are nine that capture the flavor of this bizarre custom.


A book curse from the Arnstein Bible, circa 1172
A curse in the Arnstein Bible
British Library // Public Domain

The Arnstein Bible at the British Library, written in Germany circa 1172, has a particularly vivid torture in mind for the book thief: “If anyone steals it: may he die, may he be roasted in a frying pan, may the falling sickness [i.e. epilepsy] and fever attack him, and may he be rotated [on the breaking wheel] and hanged. Amen.”


A 15th-century French curse featured by Marc Drogin in his book Anathema! Medieval Scribes and the History of Book Curses has a familiar "House That Jack Built"-type structure:

“Whoever steals this book
Will hang on a gallows in Paris,
And, if he isn’t hung, he’ll drown,
And, if he doesn’t drown, he’ll roast,
And, if he doesn’t roast, a worse end will befall him.”


A book curse excerpted from the 13th-century Historia scholastica
A book curse from the Historia scholastica
Yale Beinecke Library // Public Domain

In The Medieval Book, Barbara A. Shailor records a curse from Northeastern France found in the 12th-century Historia scholastica: “Peter, of all the monks the least significant, gave this book to the most blessed martyr, Saint Quentin. If anyone should steal it, let him know that on the Day of Judgment the most sainted martyr himself will be the accuser against him before the face of our Lord Jesus Christ.”


Drogin also records this 13th-century curse from a manuscript at the Vatican Library, as notes. It escalates rapidly.

"The finished book before you lies;
This humble scribe don’t criticize.
Whoever takes away this book
May he never on Christ look.
Whoever to steal this volume durst
May he be killed as one accursed.
Whoever to steal this volume tries
Out with his eyes, out with his eyes!"


A book curse from an 11th century lectionary
A book curse from an 11th century lectionary
Beinecke Library // Public Domain

An 11th-century book curse from a church in Italy, spotted by Kwakkel, offers potential thieves the chance to make good: “Whoever takes this book or steals it or in some evil way removes it from the Church of St Caecilia, may he be damned and cursed forever, unless he returns it or atones for his act.”


This book curse was written in a combination of Latin and German, as Drogin records:

"To steal this book, if you should try,
It’s by the throat you’ll hang high.
And ravens then will gather ’bout
To find your eyes and pull them out.
And when you’re screaming 'oh, oh, oh!'
Remember, you deserved this woe."


This 18th-century curse from a manuscript found in Saint Mark’s Monastery, Jerusalem, is written in Arabic: “Property of the monastery of the Syrians in honorable Jerusalem. Anyone who steals or removes [it] from its place of donation will be cursed from the mouth of God! God (may he be exalted) will be angry with him! Amen.”


A book curse in a 17th century manuscript cookbook
A book curse in a 17th century cookbook

A 17th-century manuscript cookbook now at the New York Academy of Medicine contains this inscription: "Jean Gembel her book I wish she may be drouned yt steals it from her."


An ownership inscription on a 1632 book printed in London, via the Rochester Institute of Technology, contains a familiar motif:

“Steal not this Book my honest friend
For fear the gallows be yr end
For when you die the Lord will say
Where is the book you stole away.”


One of the most elaborate book curses found on the internet runs as follows: "For him that stealeth a Book from this Library, let it change to a Serpent in his hand and rend him. Let him be struck with Palsy, and all his Members blasted. Let him languish in Pain, crying aloud for Mercy and let there be no surcease to his Agony till he sink to Dissolution. Let Book-worms gnaw his Entrails in token of the Worm that dieth not, and when at last he goeth to his final Punishment let the Flames of Hell consume him for ever and aye.”

Alas, this curse—still often bandied about as real—was in fact part of a 1909 hoax by the librarian and mystery writer Edmund Pearson, who published it in his "rediscovered" Old Librarian's Almanack. The Almanack was supposed to be the creation of a notably curmudgeonly 18th-century librarian; in fact, it was a product of Pearson's fevered imagination.

Chemung County Historical Society, Elmira, NY
John W. Jones: The Runaway Slave Who Buried Nearly 3000 Confederate Soldiers
Chemung County Historical Society, Elmira, NY
Chemung County Historical Society, Elmira, NY

John W. Jones was as close to a sinless man as you could find—with the exception of the time he lied to his mother.

It was a late June evening in 1844 and the 26-year-old enslaved man, who lived on a plantation near Leesburg, Virginia, told his mother that he was leaving to attend a party. His real plans were much riskier. Jones slipped outside, grabbed a pistol, and rendezvoused with four other enslaved men. With starlight as their guide, they crept through the Virginia woods. Their destination: North.

The men hiked approximately 20 miles every day, dodging slave catchers in Maryland and crossing the Mason-Dixon Line into the free state of Pennsylvania. Following a major route along the Underground Railroad, they needled through Harrisburg and Williamsport and traced a path along what is now State Route 14. When the exhausted men snuck into a barn near the New York border to sleep, Jones kept guard as the others rested: He sat down, laid a shotgun on his lap, and kept his eyes peeled.

“He was serious about getting his freedom,” says Talima Aaron, President of the John W. Jones Museum Board of Trustees. “He understood the danger, and he constantly took responsibility for others. You’ll notice that was a thread for him—responsibility for others.”

Jones never had to use the gun. When the barn’s owner, Nathaniel Smith, discovered the five men on his property, he invited them into his home. His wife Sarah served the group hot biscuits and butter and cared for them until their strength returned. It was the first time many of them had ever been inside a white person’s home. According to an 1885 profile in The Elmira Telegram, the gesture brought the men to tears.

On July 5, 1844, Jones crossed a toll bridge into Elmira, New York, with less than $2 in his pocket. Unlike most runaways bound for Canada, Jones decided to stay in Elmira. It’s here that Jones would become one of the country's most successful Underground Railroad conductors, one of the richest black men in the state of New York, and the last earthly link for nearly 3000 dead Confederate soldiers.


Living in the north did not mean Jones had it easy. He could not vote. He still shared sidewalks with former slave-owners. When he asked to receive an education at the local schools, he was denied.

But Jones had a knack for cracking ceilings. After earning the admiration of a local judge, he was allowed to study at an all-women’s seminary, exchanging janitorial work for reading and writing lessons. He joined a church with abolitionist leanings and become its sexton, maintaining its cemetery. Then he became the sexton of a second cemetery, and then a third. The community quickly grew to respect his work ethic and, eventually, Jones had earned enough money to buy a small house—a house that he transformed into a vital hub for the Underground Railroad.

At the time, the Underground Railroad—an informal network of trails, hiding places, and guides that helped slaves escape northward—was under intense scrutiny. The 1850 Fugitive Slave Act had created financial incentives to report runaways living in free states. “Slave catchers from the south could come up to a place like Elmira and claim that a person of color was a runaway slave, and they could haul them back into slavery—even if that person had been born free,” says Bruce Whitmarsh, Director of the Chemung County Historical Society. There were steep penalties for aiding a person’s escape.

Jones didn’t care. Not only did he join the Underground Railroad, he was openly vocal about it, loudly pledging his opposition to the Fugitive Slave Act in a message that was published in abolitionist newspapers across the region: “Resolved, that we, the colored citizens of Elmira, do hereby form ourselves into a society for the purpose of protecting ourselves against those persons, (slave-catchers) prowling through different parts of this and other States.” Jones committed to resisting the law, even at the risk that “everyone of us be assassinated.”

The Underground Railroad in Elmira was unique: Since the town included the only train stop between Philadelphia and Ontario, it actually involved locomotives. Jones communicated regularly with William Still, the chief "conductor" of the Underground Railroad in Philadelphia, and built a cozy network of abolitionists who worked on trains passing through town. He provided runaways with housing, food, and even part-time jobs. “Runaways usually came in groups of four, six, or 10,” Aaron says. “But he had up to 30 at once in his little house.” Jones arranged hiding space for all of the escapees on the 4 a.m. “Freedom Baggage Car” to Canada, as it was unofficially known.

Over the course of nine years, Jones aided the escape of around 800 runaway slaves. Not one was captured.

During the last years of the Civil War, the same railroad tracks that had delivered hundreds of runaways to freedom began to carry thousands of captive Confederate soldiers to Elmira’s new prisoner of war camp. Once again, Jones would be there.


Of the 620,000 Civil War deaths, approximately 10 percent occurred at prison camps. The most notorious P.O.W. camp—in Andersonville, Georgia—saw 13,000 Union troops, or approximately 29 percent of the prison population, perish. After the war, Andersonville's commander was tried for war crimes. The camp is now a National Historic Site.

Meanwhile, the prison camp in Elmira has been largely forgotten. Today, the riverside site is little more than an unremarkable patch of dandelion-speckled grass; a small, easy-to-miss monument is the only marker. It belies the fact that while Elmira's camp was noticeably smaller than Andersonville's—only one-quarter its size—it was just as deadly: If you were a prisoner at “Hellmira,” there was a one-in-four chance you would die.

Elmira Prison Camp
Chemung County Historical Society, Elmira, NY

Elmira was never supposed to have a prison camp; it was a training depot for Union soldiers. But when the Confederacy began refusing to exchange African-American soldiers—who it considered captive slaves, not prisoners of war—the Union stopped participating in prisoner exchanges. “Both sides started scrambling for places to expand, and that’s how Elmira got caught up in the web,” says Terri Olszowy, a Board Member for the Friends of the Elmira Civil War Prison Camp.

The rollout was ill-planned, Olszowy explains. When it opened in July 1864, the camp had no hospital or medical staff. The first prisoners were already in rough shape and deteriorated quickly. Latrines were placed uphill from a small body of water called Foster’s Pond, which quickly became a cesspool. A shelter shortage meant that hundreds of soldiers were still living in tents by Christmas. During spring, the Chemung River flooded the grounds. Rats crawled everywhere. When authorities released a dog to catch them, the prisoners ate the dog.

The camp grew overcrowded. Designed to hold only 5000 prisoners, it saw approximately 7000 to 10,000 men confined there at its peak. Across the street, an observation tower allowed locals the opportunity to gawk at these prisoners through a pair of binoculars. It cost 10 cents.

It must have been a depressing sight, a scene of men stricken with dysentery, scurvy, typhoid, pneumonia, and smallpox. Many prisoners attempted to escape. One group successfully dug a 66-foot tunnel with spoons and knives. One man fled by hiding in a barrel of swill. Another hid inside a coffin, leaping out as he was being hauled to Woodlawn Cemetery.

It’s said that 2973 Confederate prisoners left the Elmira prison camp in coffins for real. The job to bury them belonged to the town’s sexton: John W. Jones.


The P.O.W. cemetery in Elmira is unique. The dead at many prison camps were buried in mass graves; Chicago’s Oak Woods Cemetery, for example, contains a plot filled with the remains of prisoners detained at Camp Douglas that is believed to be largest mass grave in the western hemisphere. All 2973 of the dead at Elmira, however, received an individual, marked grave in a special section of Woodlawn cemetery. Only seven are unknown. Jones's effort to give each soldier an individual grave, as well as his meticulous record-keeping, were a big part of why the federal government designated the P.O.W. portion of Woodlawn a "National Cemetery" in 1877—a status awarded to veterans' cemeteries deemed to be of national importance, and which has only been awarded to 135 cemeteries nationwide.

Jones treated each dead soldier with superhuman levels of grace. Overseeing a crew of 12, he managed the burial of about six soldiers every day, treating each body as if that person had been a member of his own church. He kept detailed records of each soldier’s identity by creating improvised dog tags: Around each person's neck or under their arm, Jones tucked a jar containing a paper detailing their name, rank, and regiment. That same information was neatly scrawled on each coffin. When the dirt settled, Jones marked each plot with a wooden headstone.

“No one told him how to do that job, he did it in the way that he thought was right—even though the people he buried were fighting a war to keep people like him enslaved,” Aaron says. “He even knew one of the young men who had died, and he reached back to the South and told the parents so they knew where their child was buried. That speaks to his compassion.”

According to Clayton W. Holmes’s 1912 book Elmira Prison Camp, “History does not record anything to challenge the assertion that at no prison, North or South, were the dead so reverently cared for, or a more perfect record kept.” In fact, when representatives of the Daughters of the Confederacy came to Elmira at the turn of the century to consider repatriating the remains, Jones’s handiwork convinced them to touch not a blade of grass. Instead, a monument in the cemetery commemorates the “honorable way in which they were laid to rest by a caring man.”

Aaron sees a second moral in the story. “People always talk about the tension between him being an escaped slave and burying with respect and dignity these Confederate soldiers fighting to keep people like him as slaves,” she says. “But to me there’s a subtext: Here is a grown man who escaped slavery, and the first thing he wanted to do when he reached freedom was get an education. Because of that, he was able to keep these meticulous records that later led to this national designation: It became a historical moment because this man, who was denied an education, got one.”

John W. Jones
Chemung County Historical Society, Elmira, NY

It also made a mark on Jones’s bank account. Jones earned $2.50 for each soldier he buried. It wasn’t much, but by the time he had finished burying nearly 3000 Confederate dead, he had become one of the 10 richest African-Americans in the state of New York. With that money, he bought a handsome farm of at least 12 acres.

It was a bittersweet purchase. Not only is it believed that parts of his home were built from wooden scraps of the disassembled Elmira prison camp, Jones had purchased the home when New York state law stipulated that black men must own $250 worth of property in order to vote. His home—today listed on the National Register of Historic Places [PDF]—earned Jones that right to vote.

For the remainder of his life, Jones continued working as a sexton and church usher. In 1900, he died and was buried in one of the cemeteries that had become his life’s work.

Incidentally, his death also marked the end of a local mystery: For nearly two decades, fresh flowers kept appearing on the freshly manicured grave of a woman named Sarah Smith. Nobody knew why the flowers appeared there or where they originated—until the decorations stopped appearing immediately after Jones’s death. Residents later realized that the grave belonged to the same Sarah Smith who, 56 years earlier, had invited John W. Jones and his friends into her home for butter, biscuits, and a good night’s rest.


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