Illustrations by Hannah Robinson
We all grow up absorbing the idioms and slogans circulating around us. We’re constantly told that an apple a day keeps the doctor away, encouraged to believe that carrots make you see in the dark and reminded that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Despite not being exactly true, their repetition attaches credibility to these commonplace aphorisms. They infiltrate our folk-scientific knowledge and influence our habits from a young age. But where do these sayings come from?
Even though carrots sadly don’t make you see in the dark and eating an apple a day unfortunately won’t keep the doctor at bay, these proverbs promote the consumption of fruit and vegetables: a pillar of a healthy diet. However, the claim that breakfast is the most important meal of the day seems to be a bit more dubious.
The habitual custom of eating a meal before starting your day, going off to work or leaving for school, is actually a fairly recent phenomenon. It wasn’t until rigid work schedules were established around the time of the Industrial Revolution that eating a meal to start the day became widespread. It was also around this time that breakfast, unlike lunch or dinner, came to be associated with a restricted set of foods such as eggs, cereals, bacon and bread.
Before the 1800s, breakfast was a meal like any other: made of up of whatever food or leftovers were in your kitchen, but with the increase in set schedules and the focus on healthy living came the need for quick and healthy breakfast foods. In 1890, the staunch Seventh-day Adventist Dr John Harvey Kellogg developed corn flakes: a bland, sugar-free and wholegrain cereal intent on bringing quick, healthy and moral breakfasts to America. Kellogg believed that a natural diet would put an end to sinful sexual urges and masturbation.
Given the intensely habitual nature of morning routines and with many people eating the same breakfast every day, businesses started to cotton on to the vast sums of money to be made by convincing consumers to buy their products and eat them every morning.With breakfast becoming such a lucrative industry, the marketing of products grew more and more extreme until we became convinced that breakfast is the most important meal of the day.
To this day breakfast remains the most marketed meal; what was originally an advert by the large cereal manufacturer Postum Cereals to sell more cereal is now engrained in our collective folk-scientific knowledge. Successful advertising campaigns become absorbed in our psyches: we grow up believing that eating breakfast has a significant impact on our health and productivity despite largely being a ‘fact’ invented by breakfast companies. And, as breakfast foods have become more sugary and processed, there is little evidence that there is any benefit to munching down a bowl of cereal every morning.
Brands market their products with long lists of nutritional benefits: fortified with vitamins, high in protein, low in salt. However, there is almost no correlation between the health claims found on packaging and the actual nutritional content. There is very little evidence that supports the claims companies make about the necessity, and benefits, of their breakfast products.
What was simply an incredibly successful marketing strategy, now has infiltrated the eating and spending habits of generations and established a statement with no strong scientific support into our collective understanding of a healthy lifestyle. In recent years we can become more alert to the ubiquity of fake news: is it time we became more aware of the prevalence of fake advertising?
Consumers aren’t stupid. We know we’re surrounded by marketing wherever we look, just as we’re surrounded by eye-catching click-bait headlines. However, given that only 4% of Brits can effectively identify fake news, this surely calls into question the ability of consumers to identify fake, or exaggerated, advertising. We cannot underestimate the power advertising has over our lives: a marketing campaign of today can very easily become the ‘science’ of tomorrow.