A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

How can Grape-Nuts cereal contain no grapes or nuts?

February 26, 1982

Dear Cecil:

I was idly reading a Grape-Nuts package the other day and was struck by the fact that the ingredients seem to have nothing to do with either grapes or nuts. Reading the fine print, I see that it's really "grape nuts brand natural wheat & barley cereal," etc., but the type sizes jump around madly and any normally myopic person would just see the "grape nuts." So here are my questions: (1) Can I market my "100% Lean Beef brand desiccated corn husks" without getting in trouble with the consumer protection people, the FTC, et. al.? (I assume anything I do will get me in trouble with Ralph Nader.) (2) If I can't, how can the Post division of General Foods? (3) In any case, how did they come to call them Grape-Nuts?

Cecil replies:

Your corn husk scheme shows a certain evil ingenuity, Win--I have come to expect this from the Teeming Millions--but unfortunately you can't market it, because the Federal Trade Commission would promptly slap you with a cease-and-desist order for promulgating advertising with a "tendency to deceive." (Although you never know. The way things have been going lately, they might give you an award and appoint you commissioner.) In the early years of the FTC, an equally ingenious predecessor of yours tried to sell Ice Cream brand bars that did not, in fact, contain any ice cream, but he was shot down forthwith.

So how does Post get away with it? Here we must delve into the mysteries of history (rhymes, doesn't it?). Grape-Nuts was introduced in 1898 by Charles W. Post, founder of the company that was later to become a division of General Foods and inventor of such other gustatory delights as Post Toasties. C.W., as he was known, was given to devising extravagant names for his products, with advertising claims to match.

Post Toasties, for instance, was originally known as Elijah's Manna, although Elijah had not actually endorsed it, having expired several thousand years earlier. In touting the advantages of Postum Cereal Food Coffee over conventional coffee, Post accused the latter of containing "poisonous alkaloids" that caused rheumatism, "coffee heart" (true enough, I guess), and other disabilities. A diet of Postum and Grape-Nuts, coupled with abstention from coffee and "poor foods," presumably meaning those made by Post's competitors, would cure "any known disease." The brand name Grape-Nuts was conceived in a similar spirit.

Nonetheless, there was a rationale, however thin, for the name. The product contained maltose, known at the time as "grape sugar," and it did have a nutty flavor. Moreover, bearing in mind that the name is properly spelled "Grape-Nuts" and not "Grape Nuts," one might argue that while there were generic commodities known as grapes and nuts, there was nothing called grape-nuts, in the sense that there were cashew nuts, and thus the name could have no tendency to deceive. A fine distinction, I suppose, but that is what we have lawyers for.

Anyway, the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act specifically excluded "fanciful" (as opposed to deceitful) trade names from prosecution, and when the FTC set up shop in 1914 it showed no inclination to get persnickety about things. We might finally note, Winfield, that while you and I are insignificant insects (well, you are, anyway), General Foods is a multinational megacorporation. But of course that has no bearing on the matter at all.

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