Time-travel back to 1897 and track down a bowl of Grape-Nuts. It probably tastes just like it does today.
That’s why it’s still around.
Grape-Nuts is celebrating 125 years on shelves, making it one of the oldest ready-to-eat cereals still on the market. Only two other cold cereals introduced in the 19th century are still being sold: shredded wheat (1892) and cornflakes (1898).
Hundreds of cereal brands and dozens of manufacturers have come and gone since that time. But while many other century-old brands evolved to survive, Grape-Nuts has stayed exactly the same.
“It truly is the same product it was 125 years ago,” said TD Dixon, chief growth officer of Lakeville-based Post Consumer Brands. “Outside of some modernization, the core formula and the core process of how we make it — really intense an baking process using cast iron pans to get the ultimate crunch and texture — has pretty much stood the test of time.”
Dixon said consistency has been at the core of the cereal’s long tenure.
“It’s very dense and satisfying, and people who like it really like it,” he said.
The Grape-Nuts shortage of 2021 revealed just how widespread and dedicated that fan base is.
“They bring back childhood memories and can be shared with the new generation to make more memories,” wrote one member of the Grape-Nuts Secret Super Fans forum last year. “They are essentially the perfect food.”
Grape-Nuts have never contained grapes or nuts, for the record. Charles William Post’s process for turning wheat, barley, salt and yeast into crunchy morsels was said to result in the creation of “grape sugars” and provided a nutty texture.
Though it doesn’t have the same high profile and revenue as Post’s best-selling Honey Bunches of Oats and Fruity Pebbles cereals, Grape-Nuts has held on to its origins as a health-focused food.
More than half of Americans say they have followed a diet in the past year, a “significant increase from the past few years,” according to a survey by the International Food Information Council. That means more potential Grape-Nuts consumers.
“People are taking more proactive measures for their health,” Dixon said. “The same recipe from 125 years ago fits those needs right now.”
‘The Road to Wellville’
In 1891, Post, then a 37-year-old farm equipment salesman, stayed at John Harvey Kellogg’s sanitarium in Battle Creek, Mich. The sanitarium was a heath and wellness resort, often visited by the rich and famous looking to improve their lifestyle.
Not long after, Post opened a competing sanitarium in Battle Creek and a cereal company — based on the health foods promoted at the center that changed the course of packaged-food history.
Both of Post’s first forays into food are still being sold today: Postum, a coffee replacement cereal beverage released in 1895, and Grape-Nuts in 1897.
“Post, an innovative advertiser, used national ad campaigns, coupons, premiums and samples to make Grape-Nuts a success,” according to the Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America. Post, Kellogg and those who followed “advertised their wares as nutritious, a claim that was becoming more of a selling point during this period.”
Boxes of Grape-Nuts originally came with an informational packet called “The Road to Wellville,” which was adapted into a 1993 TC Boyle novel and a 1994 movie about the Kelloggs and the Battle Creek Sanitarium.
Over the years, the messaging ranged from specific health claims — “Makes red blood” and “Brains are built by Grape-Nuts” — to the more general tagline, “There’s a reason.”
After World War I, an advertisement lauded Grape-Nuts’ “superb blend of cereals, its wonderful flavor, fullest nourishment and practical economy.”
In a show of its fortifying powers, the cereal was given to jungle-stationed soldiers as rations in World War II. It even accompanied the Edmund Hillary-Tenzing Norgay expedition to the top of Mount Everest in 1953.
As cereal aisles became increasingly crowded with colorful, sugary offerings, Grape-Nuts branched out into flakes, O’s and raisin varieties, but it kept true to its low-sugar, “natural” appeal.
“Its naturally sweet taste reminds me of wild hickory nuts,” naturalist and health food advocate Euell Gibbons said in a 1970s commercial. “I call Grape-Nuts my back-to-nature cereal.”
‘Where’s my Grape-Nuts?’
It has been years since Grape-Nuts had a TV commercial. And gone are the days of the illustrated magazine ad extolling numerous health benefits.
The brand today turns to social media to spread the Grape-Nuts gospel, especially since it got a major boost when it unexpectedly disappeared from store shelves last year.
The cereal was one of the first high-profile victims of the pandemic-era supply chain snags in late 2020 and early 2021, as production issues kept boxes off the shelf for months.
Third-party resellers sold boxes online for more than $100 in some cases as die-hards kept their panties stocked. Post later offered refunds of “up to $115” for those who paid more than the suggested retail price.
“Our core audience said, ‘Where’s my Grape-Nuts?’ and that buzz created a new group of consumers who tried it for the first time, and they stuck with us,” Dixon said. “We grew our household penetration to full point when it came back.”
Connecting with consumers during the shortage also helped Post look beyond the cereal bowl to promote uses in berry bowls, parfaits and even savory recipes.
However it is used, the future of Grape-Nuts looks much like the past 125 years: finding health-conscious consumers and getting them hooked on that extreme crunch.
“Grape-Nuts was a pioneer,” Dixon said. “Consistency and versatility will continue to make it stand out.”