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Jerry Seinfeld’s new
Netflix movie ‘Unfrosted’ imagines
how the Pop-Tart came to be.
Here’s the real story

There really was a rivalry between companies that led to the creation of the breakfast pastry, Northeastern food historian Malcolm Purinton says.

Pop tarts laid out on a dark grey surface.
The new Netflix movie “Unfrosted” imagines how Pop-Tarts were invented. But what’s the true story? Getty Images

Today, breakfast is a smorgasbord: People kick off their days with bagels, granola bars and other grab-and-go options.

Among these is the Pop-Tart. The origin of these toaster pastries was reimagined in Jerry Seinfeld’s new Netflix movie, “Unfrosted.” The comedy, starring Seinfeld, Melissa McCarthy and Amy Schumer, fictionalized the rivalry between the Post and Kellogg companies to create a breakfast pastry. 

But is this really how Pop-tarts came to be?

There was a competition between companies, says Malcolm Purinton, a food historian and assistant teaching professor of history at Northeastern University. But there’s more to the real story of Pop-Tarts and their role in breakfast as we know it today.

Before people thought of sugary pastries as breakfast food, they usually started their day with grain mush. This was meant to fuel people up for a day of working on the farm, Purinton says.

At the end of the 19th century, there was a shift when it came to breakfast food. Between the Industrial Revolution and the urbanization happening in the United States, people began to think differently about food and how it correlates with health, Purinton says. 

John Harvey Kellogg was one of the people exploring this. He ran the Battle Creek Sanitarium in industrial Battle Creek, Michigan, and believed in the importance of healthy eating. He even published a book on gut health, according to Purinton. He developed many of his own foods to give to patients at the sanitarium, which is how corn flakes came to be, presenting them as a breakfast food for the first time.

“He’s tying the idea of physical and mental health with new ideas about bacteria with germ theory,” Purinton says. “All this tied into how to treat patients at the sanitarium. Part of that is coming up with a type of food that would be easy to digest.” 

Headshot of Malcolm Purinton.
Malcolm Purinton explains Pop-Tarts really did come about from a rivalry between two breakfast food companies. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

One of the patients at the sanitarium was C.W. Post. He was impressed with cornflakes, according to Purinton, and came up with his own ready-to-eat breakfast cereal, Grape-Nuts, leading to Post Consumer Brands, the company behind cereals like Raisin Bran and Honey Bunches of Oats today.

“There’s this rivalry that comes through,” Purinton says of Post and the Kelloggs.

Kellogg’s brother, Will, who was one of the many family members who worked at the sanitarium, sees this and thinks the Kelloggs need to add sugar to make them taste better, Purinton says. John Harvey Kellogg was against this idea. 

The brothers parted ways over their different takes on sugar and Will Kellogg started making corn flakes with sugar, shifting the flavor palette for breakfast foods and serving as the foundation for Kellogg’s company (now Kellanova) which eventually created the Pop-Tart.

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Fast-forward to post-World War II: Purinton says the idea of ready-to-eat breakfast cereals are more common since many families now had two working parents who didn’t have time to prepare a meal each morning. 

“The idea of the long drawn-out breakfast has already gone by the wayside,” Purinton says. “Cereal has already become well-established and that’s part of the ease of the morning breakfast.”

Around the same time, Purinton says, the food pyramid came out and breakfast cereal is promoted as part of a healthy diet, even with added sugar. In 1952, Kellogg’s introduced Frosted Flakes, taking sugary breakfast foods (and the company’s success) to new heights.

“This addition of sugar makes corn flakes much more palatable and much more enjoyable,” Purinton says. “They’re not just responding to the consumer desire for something sweet while also creating markets of especially sweet foods. That’s happening at the same time. It’s just an ongoing trend of just more and more sugar because that’s what they’re able to sell.” 

Since cereal had a longer shelf life, it was preferable as a breakfast option to pastries, which expired quickly. This left a gap in the market for a ready-to-go breakfast pastry with a longer shelf life.

At the time, Purinton says, Post was experimenting with food packaging that could increase the shelf life of products and wanted to create a breakfast pastry with a soft fruity filling that could be wrapped in foil and kept for longer. They announced they were going to introduce this product to the market, but needed more time.

Kellogg’s, looking to compete, hired new talent and came up with their own version of this before Post could. The Pop-Tart was released in 1964 in four flavors: strawberry, blueberry, brown sugar cinnamon and apple-currant.

“It’s just sugar layered within sugar on top of sugar,” Purinton says. “It’s kind of amazing and it’s something that’s going to last. You don’t have to go to the bakery and pick up your fresh pastries. … The Pop-Tart is something you can have in your home. … You don’t have to leave the house and it’s marketed as a breakfast food.”

Purinton says Pop-Tarts were heavily marketed toward kids who were considered a sort-of “new frontier” when it came to marketing. Up until the early 20th century, Purinton says children were viewed “as small adults.” Many went to work as soon as they were teens. But post-baby boom, children began to stay in school and started consuming TV programming. As such, they were seen as a new market to whom companies could appeal.

“The marketing that goes into that, like the invention of all these different cartoon characters that you can put on cereal boxes, that’s part of what helps promote Pop-Tarts going forward” Purinton says. “You have the idea of adolescence coming out through (this) marketing where kids are going to be the ones wanting to have some of these things. That’s why they’re marketing breakfast cereal and Pop-Tarts through television shows kids are going to be watching.”

Now, 60 years later, Kellanova has released over 100 flavors of Pop-Tarts, as well spin-off products including a Pop-Tarts inspired cereal and Pop-Tart bites. There are dozens of flavors in stores today, sealing Kellogg’s legacy of sugary breakfast foods.