Food & Culture

These Everyday Foods and Drinks Have Surprising Medical Origins

Why pay for a museum ticket when you can just walk down the aisle of your local grocery store? Your favorite snacks often have a rich history, from soda (or "pop," as we say in the Midwest) to the breakfast cereal you wake up to every morning. And whether by accident or on purpose, marketing and medicine were sometimes one and the same in some of the less science-centric stretches of history. Here are the surprising medical origins of some of the foods and beverages you'll find on supermarket shelves.

Graham Crackers and Corn Flakes

Graham crackers used to be no s'more than a bland snack. Far from the honey- and sugar-coated confection we know today, the original was invented by Sylvester Graham, a Presbyterian minister. Why? To combat immorality. He created the cracker in 1829 to help people follow the Graham Diet, a bland food regimen that supposedly stopped people from having sexual thoughts. Thousands of "Grahamites" adhered to this diet as part of one of the first vegetarian movements in the country, but the fad's popularity waned after Graham's death in 1851.

However, one Grahamite remained vigilant: Dr. John Harvey Kellogg. In 1876, he was the superintendent of the Seventh-day Adventist Western Health Reform Institute, later named the Battle Creek Sanitarium. He and his brother, Will Keith Kellogg, the sanitarium's bookkeeper, accidentally invented corn flakes — wheat flakes, really — when they overcooked wheat for bread dough and decided to process it anyway. The individual wheat berries rolled easily into flat, wide flakes, which baked into a crispy final product. Dr. Kellogg prescribed it as part of the Graham diet, claiming it would reduce dyspepsia and "morally destructive" behaviors. His younger brother Will had more of an entrepreneurial spirit and decided to try his recipe with corn, add some sugar, and put it on the market. The rest is history.

Salisbury Steak

Could you imagine eating just one type of food for several days straight? Beginning in 1854, Dr. James Henry Salisbury did this multiple times in experiments — for about 30 years. He felt that certain foods could cure illness and lead to lasting health, so why not live on one food at a time to better measure its full effects? One of his first experiments was living solely on baked beans for three days. Just let that one sink in for a minute. Another time, he and some volunteers lived on oatmeal and porridge for 30 days.

Salisbury referred to this research when he published The Relation of Alimentation and Disease in 1888. In it, he prescribed what is now known as Salisbury steak as a remedy for patients suffering from conditions like anemia, colitis, gout, rheumatism, and tuberculosis. He believed that his recipe, which was to be eaten three times a day along with plenty of hot water to rinse out the digestive system, was the most easily digested food — and it was an instant sensation. Who would have thought that your TV dinner started out as a popular diet fad?

Soft Drinks

Believe it or not, 7-Up, Dr Pepper, and Coca-Cola were all originally formulated to serve a medical purpose. 7-Up was the most legit of the bunch, as it literally was a mood-stabilizing drink. That's because it contained lithium citrate, the same compound used to treat psychiatric conditions. It was introduced in 1929 with the extremely catchy name "Bib-Label Lithiated Lemon-Lime Soda," and the lithium wasn't removed until 1950. Dr Pepper, the oldest major soft drink in the U.S., had fewer legitimate medical applications (see: none), but was nonetheless originally marketed as an energy drink and a "brain tonic." Dr Pepper was developed by pharmacist Charles Alderton in 1885 and was first available for purchase at a drug store in Waco, Texas.

Just a year later in 1886, Coca-Cola was invented by another pharmacist, John Pemberton. He had previously developed a drink called "Pemberton's French Wine Coca," a fortified wine that contained caffeine-rich kola nuts and, oh yeah, cocaine. He claimed it could cure everything from nerve trouble to exhaustion to impotence. The drink became illegal due to local prohibition laws outlawing alcohol (the cocaine was perfectly acceptable, of course), so he used sugar syrup to develop a non-alcoholic version and called it Coca-Cola.

The drink exploded in popularity only after Pemberton's death in 1888, at which point Coca-Cola Company founder Asa Griggs Candler bought the rights and marketed it as a "tonic and headache remedy." Today, the secret recipe lives in a vault at The World of Coke in Atlanta.

If you want to learn more about the food you put into your own body, then check out "Why You Eat What You Eat: The Science Behind Our Relationship with Food" by Dr. Rachel Herz. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

24 Food Origins

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Key Facts In This Video

  1. Taquitos were developed in southern California, not Mexico. 00:35

  2. Pasta primavera is not Italian; it was invented in 1975 by a New York chef. 03:11

  3. The Caesar salad originated in Mexico. 04:05

Written by Cody Gough June 11, 2018

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