In September 1964, Kellogg’s changed breakfast forever by introducing Pop-Tarts to the world. While it was one small bite for man, it was a giant leap for breakfast-kind.

What made Pop-Tarts so innovative wasn’t just the sweet filling in various flavors squished between two thin pastry crusts. Or that they could be eaten toasted or cold. It was the convenience with which adults and children alike could open and instantly devour them.

“In the 1950s, there was a specific messaging around the idea of spending less time in your kitchen. Efficiency was the real name of the game,” says Jessica Carbone, a former member of the food history team at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History and a contributing editor to Saveur. “The idea of eating breakfast outside of the kitchen was a completely modern innovation. You don’t have to be in a kitchen at all to enjoy a Pop-Tart. But what allowed people to be more efficient was science and innovation.”

Pop-Tarts’ ingredients mean that they don’t need to be refrigerated, and their foil packaging ensures they can be stored for months. But while Pop-Tarts and their packaging might look like something an astronaut would eat in space, the content inside is more closely linked to food innovations from World War II.

“After the end of World War II there was a massive effort within the United States to repurpose and mass market wartime food processes,” explains Carbone. “There were different preservative-orientated ingredients and formulas that had been in circulation that were spoil-proof, heat-proof, condition-proof. A lot of the industrialized food products of the mid-20th century come from wartime food processes being reconfigured to appeal to the mass markets.”

Pop-Tarts in silver wrapper
Pop-Tarts’ ingredients mean that they don’t need to be refrigerated, and their foil packaging ensures they can be stored for months. Hugh Threlfall/Alamy Stock Photo

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, hyper-sweetened food products that could be eaten on the go exploded in popularity, especially among children. “The Pop-Tart was marketed very clearly to children and teenagers,” says Carbone. “Because the idea is that it was extremely fun, sweet and a creative, delightful experience.”

But Carbone also points out that Pop-Tarts are “the antithesis of a balanced breakfast.” This sentiment is shared by Howard Markel, an American physician and medical historian who wrote 2017’s The Kelloggs: The Battling Brothers of Battle Creek. He jokes that he “objects” to eating Pop-Tarts on every level, adding, “As a pediatrician, I still have to say, even in 1964, what were they thinking?”

Here’s what happens when you eat a Pop-Tart, Frankel says: “It raises your blood glucose to astronomical highs, which then makes your pancreas squeeze out a ton of insulin. This bottoms you out so you’re hungry for another Pop-Tart, which you have, then you get fat, and you get diabetes.” This is all the more ironic because Will Keith Kellogg and John Harvey Kellogg, two brothers from Battle Creek, Michigan, were initially invested in providing healthy foods and cereals to improve digestion when launching their company in 1906.

Kellogg’s was able to make Pop-Tarts look even more irresistible and mouthwatering to younger viewers thanks to the emergence of color televisions, which were overtaking their black-and-white counterparts in the 1960s. “It really is a packaging story. An ingredient story. A marketing story. The moment it debuts is in this specific sweet spot between the wartime technologies and the birth of the U.S. food marketplace,” notes Carbone.

Pop-Tarts were an instant smash hit upon their release. When they were introduced for a test run in Cleveland in September 1964, the city’s stores sold out of Kellogg’s first 45,000 cases per flavor. When they debuted nationwide nationally in April 1965, Pop-Tarts shot off shelves just as quickly. The company’s savvy marketing team ran advertisements apologizing for this inconvenience, promising that they would soon be in stock again. This only helped to increase demand upon their eventual return.

Who invented the Pop-Tart?

A number of people deserve credit for the birth of the Pop-Tart.

Upon his death on February 10, 2024, William Post was widely identified as leading the team that created the Pop-Tart. Post told southwest Michigan’s Herald-Palladium back in 2003 that Kellogg’s approached him when he was the manager of a Keebler Foods plant in Grand Rapids, where they asked him to develop the revolutionary breakfast food.

On the official Pop-Tarts website there’s no mention of Post. Instead, it alleges that Kellogg’s chairman William E. LaMothe had the “vision of transforming a delicious breakfast into a toaster-ready rectangle that could go anywhere.” Then “Doc” Joe Thompson, as well as his kitchen crew, created the “ingenious hack on toast and jam.”

A Pop-Tarts legend visits the home of Crazy Good

But in a statement to Smithsonian magazine, Kellanova, the business made up of Kellogg’s snacking brands, does acknowledge that in late 1963 the company approached Post to help develop the pastry, and he said the factory would need 90 days to get the equipment ready. Together they created the original Pop-Tart, which “had docker holes for venting, rounded corners and a diagonal crimp through the middle,” says Kellanova.

Kellanova adds that while no reason was ever given for this particular design, except that it needed to fit in a toaster, the docker holes allowed “steam to escape from the fruit filling when toasted.”

The race to develop a toaster pastry

Accreditation is even more complicated because Kellogg’s wasn’t the only food manufacturing company battling to get a toaster pastry out in the early 1960s. Kellogg’s biggest rival, now known as Post Consumer Brands, was also in the race to create a portable breakfast item that could be eaten at any time. The two companies were both born in Battle Creek, Michigan, helping to earn it the nickname “Cereal City.” Over the years, Post (the Consumer Brands, not William, who wasn’t related to anyone at the company) was accused of stealing numerous recipes from Kellogg’s and turning them into its own products.

“As we know, depending on where it comes from and anything that flows between Kellogg’s and Post, it’s very hard to pinpoint an origin story,” says Carbone.

In 1963, Post Consumer Brands was definitely ahead of Kellogg’s in the Pop-Tarts race. Not just by a little bit, too. Using similar technology to that from its pet-food division, Post was able to create a pastry filled with fruit that didn’t need to be kept in a fridge and didn’t ruin. On February 16, 1964, Post even unveiled its new product, Country Squares, to the adoring press and hugely impressed food industry. But Post’s Country Squares weren’t ready to be released, and the company kept on tinkering with the recipe in its food laboratories.

During this time, Kellogg’s rushed to catch up and instead overtook its great rivals. William Post, LaMothe, “Doc”—or all three together—were able to make their own version, mass-produce it and market the Pop-Tart. But even Kellogg’s had its own gaffe. Initially naming the product Fruit Scones, it decided that didn’t have the right ring to it. Inspired by Andy Warhol’s Pop Art creations, it changed the name to the much catchier Pop-Tarts instead.

In order to spread the word of its creation, Kellogg’s used many television shows to introduce Pop-Tarts throughout the last months of 1964. Advertising appeared on “Beverly Hillbillies,” “My Favorite Martian,” “What’s My Line,” “Huckleberry Hound,” “Yogi Bear,” “Woody Woodpecker,” “Quick Draw McGraw,” “Mighty Mouse” and across daytime television.

Kellogg’s didn’t just take aim at television viewers. “Beginning on November 3, 1964, Kellogg’s Pop-Tarts had full page, four-color local newspaper ads, daily and Sunday supplements and included 8-cent coupons in all newspaper ads,” Kellanova says in its statement. “As Pop-Tarts gained popularity, Kellogg’s focused marketing on colorful packaging, fun flavors, and whimsical advertising campaigns including ads with Milton the Toaster,” who was introduced in commercials in 1971 and would intermittently appear on packages for the next ten years.

Fodder for a funny flick

The Post-versus-Kellogg’s battle to release Country Squares and the Pop-Tart has been a long-running inside joke between Jerry Seinfeld and television writer, screenwriter and comedian Spike Feresten. The pair would often quip about what a movie on this Pop-Tart race would look like. “It was just a joke that we’d make over cigars and coffee,” says Feresten, who first worked with Seinfeld when he joined the comedian’s eponymous show as a writer in 1995.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, Seinfeld, Feresten, writer Andy Robin, and comedian and actor Barry Marder decided to pass the time by expanding the idea into the script for Unfrosted, a feature-film comedy that’s being released onto Netflix on May 3 with a star-studded cast, including Seinfeld, Jim Gaffigan, Melissa McCarthy, Hugh Grant and Amy Schumer. While its premise might be based on a real event, Unfrosted is about as far from a biopic or true story as a movie can get.

Unfrosted | Official Trailer | Netflix

“We just loved the story of Post announcing a breakfast square that would revolutionize breakfast, but not having it out of the laboratory because it would catch fire or wouldn’t hold together,” says Feresten. “We essentially wrote it with what we knew of the story. We’d Google for information, but then pick and choose things that made us laugh and make up the rest. We could have cared less about what really happened.”

Pop-Tarts initially only came in four flavors—strawberry, blueberry, brown sugar cinnamon and apple currant. Then, in 1967, William Post turned up at the Kellogg offices in Battle Creek having created the breakthrough technology to cover them in a frosting that wouldn’t melt in the toaster. That year, the company introduced Frosted Pop-Tarts, launching with Frosted Raspberry with pink frosting, Frosted Dutch Apple with white frosting, Frosted Brown Sugar Cinnamon with maple frosting and Frosted Concord Grape with white frosting.

According to Kellanova’s statement, Post once said they “doubled the market share with that one decision made in one day. That’s how astute Kellogg is at detecting trends.” The Pop-Tart innovations didn’t stop there. In 1968, sprinkles were added. By 1973, the product came in 19 flavors. Now, Pop-Tarts are also available in bite-size and extra crunchy.

As the 60th anniversary of the Pop-Tart’s launch approaches, they’re just as popular as ever. In 2014, the Wall Street Journal reported that Pop-Tarts had recorded growth in sales for 32 straight years. In 2022, three billion Pop-Tarts were sold, according to CNBC.

“We don’t live in a culture that is conducive to slowing down,” says Carbone when asked about the continued popularity of the Pop-Tart. “We’ve created a culture in which many people can’t afford to sit down and make their meals from scratch. As long as we have an economy that is built on, ‘Go, go, go,’ there will always be a market for food that you can grab and go. Anything you can eat on the go is just part of American life.”

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