Travel back in time to 1897 and find a bowl of grape nuts. It probably tastes just like today.
That’s why it’s still there.
Grape-Nuts is celebrating 125 years on the shelves, making it one of the oldest ready-to-eat cereals still on the market. Only two other cold grains introduced in the 19th century are still sold: shredded wheat (1892) and cornflakes (1898).
Hundreds of grain brands and dozens of manufacturers have come and gone since then. But while many other age-old brands have evolved to survive, Grape-Nuts has stayed exactly the same.
“It’s really the same product it was 125 years ago,” said TD Dixon, chief growth officer of Lakeville-based Post Consumer Brands. “Apart from some modernization, the core formula and core process of how we make it – a really intense baking process using cast iron pans to get the ultimate crunch and texture – has pretty much stood the test of time.”
Dixon said consistency was at the heart of the grain’s longevity.
“It’s very compact and satisfying, and people who like it really like it,” he said.
The 2021 Grape-Nuts shortfall revealed just how widespread and devoted that fanbase is.
“They bring back childhood memories and can be shared with the new generation to make more memories,” wrote a member of the Grape-Nuts Secret Super Fans forum last year. “They’re essentially the perfect food.”
Grape-Nuts never contain grapes or nuts for good measure. Charles William Post’s process of converting wheat, barley, salt and yeast into crunchy bits would result in the creation of “grape sugars” and for a nutty texture.
While it doesn’t have the same high profile and revenue as Post’s best-selling breakfast cereals Honey Bunches of Oats and Fruity Pebbles, Grape-Nuts has kept its origins as a health-focused food.
More than half of Americans say they have been on a diet in the past year, a “significant increase from recent 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 now fits those needs.”
‘The Road to Wellville’
In 1891, Post, then a 37-year-old farm equipment salesman, was staying at John Harvey Kellogg’s sanatorium in Battle Creek, Michigan. The sanatorium was a heath and wellness resort, often frequented by the rich and famous who wanted to improve their lifestyle.
Not long after, Post opened a competing sanatorium in Battle Creek and a grain business — based on the health foods promoted downtown that changed the course of packaged food history.
Both of Mail’s first forays into food are still being sold: Postum, a coffee substitute grain drink 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 increasingly became a selling point during this period.”
Boxes of Grape-Nuts originally came with an informational package called “The Road to Wellville,” which was adapted into a 1993 TC Boyle novel and a 1994 film about the Kelloggs and the Battle Creek Sanitarium.
Over the years, posts have ranged from specific health claims — “Makes red blood” and “Brains are built by Grape-Nuts” — to the more general catchphrase, “There’s a reason.”
After World War I, an advertisement praised Grape-Nuts’ “wonderful blend of grains, its wonderful taste, complete nutrition and practical economy.”
To demonstrate its fortifying powers, during World War II, the grain was given as a ration to soldiers stationed in the jungle. It even accompanied the Edmund Hillary-Tenzing Norgay expedition to the summit of Mount Everest in 1953.
As the cereal aisles became increasingly crowded with colorful, sugary offerings, Grape-Nuts branched out into flakes, O’s, and raisins, but it stayed true to its “natural” low-sugar appeal.
“The naturally sweet taste reminds me of wild hickory nuts,” said Euell Gibbons, a health food and health food advocate, in a 1970s commercial. “I call Grape-Nuts my back-to-nature cornflakes.”
“Where are my grape nuts?”
It’s been years since Grape-Nuts had a TV commercial. And gone are the days of the illustrated magazine ad praising countless health benefits.
The brand is turning to social media these days to spread the Grape-Nuts gospel, especially since it got a big boost last year when it unexpectedly disappeared from store shelves.
The grain was one of the first high-profile victims of supply chain problems in the pandemic era in late 2020 and early 2021, as production issues kept the boxes off the shelf for months.
Third-party resellers in some cases sold boxes online for more than $100, as die-hards kept their pantry stocked. Post later offered refunds of “up to $115” for those who paid more than the suggested retail price.
“Our core audience said, ‘Where are 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 increased our household penetration by a full point when it came back.”
Connecting with consumers during the shortage also allowed Post to look beyond the cereal bowl to promote its use in berry bowls, parfaits and even savory recipes.
However it’s used, the future of Grape-Nuts looks a lot 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 make it stand out.”