I have long been sceptical of the importance of breakfast and one of my more infamous early posts, long before the current incarnation of the site, was that setting out The Breakfast Conspiracy. While intended solely as a humorous jab at those who (a) knocked my eating habits; or (b) subscribed to conspiracy theories, there has always been something unsettling about the way people mindlessly repeat the “most important meal” mantra with no explanation, yet a fervour bordering on the religious. I mean it practically screams conspiracy. The truth, I knew, was out there.
Recently, tumbling down one of those impossible-to-avoid Internet research rabbit-holes, I discovered some revealing information. Our story begins with Edward Bernays, whom those in advertising will know as “the father of public relations” and a pioneer in propaganda. Bernays was the nephew of Sigmund Freud and combined his uncle’s psychoanalytical ideas with the crowd psychology theories of Le Bon and Trotter.
Bernays’s belief was that the public democratic judgement was unreliable and had to be “guided from above”. Of course, this “guidance” was primarily in the interest of the corporations that hired him, like the American Tobacco Company. He viewed the public as a “herd that needed to be led” and, more worryingly, described his opinion-moulding techniques as the “engineering of consent”.
What does any of this have to do with breakfast, you may be wondering? Well, one of Bernays’s less prominent clients was the Beech-Nuttagum Packing Company, which was experiencing serious financial losses due to its relatively new food product, bacon, not selling particularly well to an American public used to eating very little in the morning.
And so Bernays, using the psychological techniques he had acquired, approached a medical doctor and asked a few innocuous, leading questions along the following lines:
- Does the human body expend energy in the night during sleep?
- Does the human body need energy during the day to complete day-to-day tasks, labour, etc.?
- Would it make sense to eat a hearty breakfast as opposed to a light breakfast in order to provide the body with energy?
Having secured one positive response, he circulated it around 5,000 doctors, of whom 4,500 were willing to support the opinion. This was then fed to the newspapers as health advice: 4,500 doctors agree a hearty breakfast provides the energy needed to sustain activity. Of course, bacon and eggs* were subtly suggested as a part of that meal, and his client’s financial woes were history. Meanwhile, this spurious but highly profitable medical advice morphed into the maxim that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Indeed, it is now so widely repeated that the corporations with a vested interest in our breakfasting barely need to “remind” us themselves.
*Do not misinterpret this as a knock against bacon and eggs: they are fantastic foods for brunch. Or as a hangover cure. But then it is medicine.