Children shouldn’t drink coffee because it stunts their growth. It can also cause sallow skin, depress kidney function, and cause nerve damage. Feeling nervous or cranky first thing in the morning? It’s likely a case of dreaded “coffee nerves.” These often-repeated warnings about the dangers of coffee aren’t the result of scientific studies but rather the scare-tactic marketing of a beverage called Postum. “Remember, you can recover from any ordinary disease by discontinuing coffee and poor food and using Postum Food Coffee,” a 1906 book published by the Postum company admonished.
Their ads, which were a regular full-page feature in major magazines like Life, proclaimed the dangers of coffee drinking. “Held back by coffee, this boy never had a chance,” warned one ad before describing a young boy who was called a “sluggard” and a “dunce” in class. A regular radio program featured a devilish character named “Mr. Coffee Nerves” who could “wreck business careers and turn success into failure” unless—of course—one switched to wholesome, healthful Postum.
Developed by C.W. Post (who later invented Grape Nuts) to cure the world of the ills of caffeine, Postum was a mixture of wheat, bran, and molasses—a beverage that mimicked the earthy flavor of coffee with none of the supposedly dangerous side effects. It took Post two years of experimentation to perfect the formula. Finally, in 1895 the first batch of Postum was brewed using a peanut roaster and a two-burner stove in Post’s barn.
To get grocers to agree to carry this new beverage, Post sold it on consignment in the stores of Grand Rapids, Michigan, just a short drive from Battle Creek, Michigan where John Harvey Kellogg started his sanitarium and eventual cereal empire. Kellogg had invented his own coffee substitute, “caramel coffee,” some years before. It was a whopping failure. According to American Empress, a biography of Post’s daughter Marjorie, the biggest grocer in town told Post that coffee substitutes were useless. “You’ll see, there is absolutely no demand and you’d better go home and get into something there is some reason for.” When people began clamoring for Postum just a short time later, Post recycled the grocer’s rebuff into the brand’s main slogan—“Postum: There’s a reason.”
One group who quickly took to Postum—a hot drink with no caffeine—were the people of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints. The association is so strong that Postum even gets a mention in Mormonism for Dummies. In 1833, Mormon prophet Joseph Smith received a revelation that came to be known as the “Word of Wisdom.” The Word is a health code of sorts, a mandate to avoid alcohol, coffee, tobacco, and tea while emphasizing grains, fruit, and vegetables as dietary pillars.
Though Postum was never explicitly called a “coffee substitute” (the roasted, sweet molasses flavor has little in common with the bitter beverage) being a brown, hot drink that could be made up first thing in the morning seemed to be enough of a comparison for most people. During World War II when coffee was rationed, the already popular drink saw an enormous bump in popularity.
Postum was eventually sold to Kraft Foods who continued making it until 2007. Dwindling sales and a failed attempt to market it to a younger generation were the end for the toasted drink. The following year, Utah’s oldest newspaper, The Deseret Morning News, published an article headlined “Fans in withdrawal from coffee substitute Postum.” For many drinkers, the loss was deeply personal. Some described their grandparents introducing them to the beverage while another woman said it had been a pantry staple for her and her husband since they started dating 20 years ago. “It's been such a routine for so many years, it's like pulling penicillin off the market," one local grocer told The Deseret. "With any habitual pattern...people like it, and want to keep it that way."
On Ebay, $3.50 jars of discontinued Postum sold for over $20 each. Recipes for homemade Postum flooded the internet. To fans’ delight, a company called Eliza’s Quest Food resurrected the brand in 2012 after purchasing the rights from Kraft. “I grew up drinking Postum and my mother and father grew up drinking it too,” said the company’s founder June Rust. She and her husband are both members of the Mormon Church and the loss of Postum was felt strongly among their friends and family. “There wasn’t a coffee table in my husband’s home; it was the Postum table.”
At first all their beverage sales took place online, but now Postum is branching out into grocery stores again. “The ‘Mountain-West’ region is where most of the sales are,” Rust says. “But because it was off the market for a while, it’s difficult to reset demand in these large grocery store chains.”
Rust describes seeing petitions to Kraft asking them to resurrect the brand and the many blog posts that sprung up detailing people’s memories of the drink. Today, a section of the Postum website is dedicated to sharing stories of the beverage.. “We loved [Postum] so much and couldn’t believe there were millions of people who loved it as much as us,” Rust says. C.W. Post would be proud that his multi-year project to create a caffeine-free alternative has been foiling Mr. Coffee Nerves for nearly 125 years.