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Popular Kids Cereals as Sugary as Desserts, Review Finds

Few parents make a habit of feeding their kids Twinkies for breakfast. But children who eat some of the leading brands of cereal are getting just as much or more sugar as is in one of those dessert snacks, according to a new study.

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The Environmental Working Group (EWG) reviewed 84 brands of children’s breakfast cereals and found that two thirds of them contain more added sugar by weight than is recommended by the federal government. 

In April, the Interagency Working Group (IWG) released a draft of optional guidelines to improve the nutritional quality of foods that are marketed to children. 

The EWG analysis found that only 1 in 4 children’s cereals meet all of the working group’s recommendations, which include caps on sugar, sodium, and saturated fat and a minimum for whole grains. 

These proposed standards have been met with wide criticism from the cereal industry. 

Jane Houlihan, EWG’s vice president for research, says this study could explain one reason industry is dragging its feet on accepting the recommendations.

“I’m not surprised that the cereal companies are fighting these federal guidelines,” she said. “Even though they’re voluntary, cereal companies are fighting them pretty hard, and it’s because they’re making products that don’t meet the guidelines. According to experts, they’re not nutritious enough to be marketed to kids.” 

Sugar was the biggest violator. While the guidelines say cereals should contain no more than 26 percent added sugar, 54 of the 84 cereals involved in the study exceeded this limit. 

Two cereals – Kellogg’s Honey Smacks and Post Golden Crisp – are more than 50 percent added sugar by weight.

“When you’re holding that box of cereal in your hand, more than half of that weight is sugar,” explains Houlihan.

The study examined 39 cereals from General Mills, 25 made by Kelloggs, 11 from Quaker Oats and 9 from Post. 

All 9 Post cereals failed to meet proposed federal standards, and 27 of General Mills’ cereals did not pass muster. 

“It really is like putting dessert in your bowl,” says Houlihan of the cereals that contained an excess of sugar. “It’s not breakfast food.”

Many kids are likely to eat more than the recommended ¾ cup-serving on the nutrition label, she told Food Safety News, meaning that they’re getting even more sugar than the label might suggest. 

“So if you’re reading the nutrition label, be sure to adjust it for what your child eats,” she recommends. She says her son, who is 12, eats about a cup and a half of cereal each morning. 

Even a smaller bowl of a cereal like Honey Smacks, which has 15 grams of sugar in 3/4 of a cup, exceeds the recommended daily allotment of 12 grams of sugar.

These findings carry significant weight given the large presence of cereal – especially kids’ cereals – in the American diet.

“It’s certainly substantial when you look at the shelf space that these cereals occupy in the stores. These are really very popular cereals,” says Houlihan.

Studies have shown that sugar-loaded breakfasts can be detrimental to a child’s performance in school, the report points out. 

And foods high in sugar have been linked to insulin obesity, hypertension, dyslipidemia and type 2 diabetes, according to a 2009 review

EWG hopes that its findings will alert parents to the importance of picking healthy breakfast options for their kids. Its report offers many recommendations of cereal choices low in added sugar and high in whole grains. On the list are many natural and organic cereals. 

Houlihan says that if parents get picky, there will be more demand for healthier cereals and manufacturers will adjust what’s in the unhealthy ones.

“I think that people are really waking up to nutrition labels and starting to pay attention, and we’ll start to see the market shift. I think even the big brands will start lowering their sugar content as they feel more and more pressure to make their foods healthier for kids.”  

In order to make this shift happen, The Interagency Working Group on Food Marketed to Children should not lower the standards of its guidelines to meet the requests of cereal makers, says Houlihan. 

“We hope, if anything, they’re strengthened, and that the guidelines are mandatory so that we really do have healthy foods being marketed to children.” 

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article stated, ”Two cereals – Kellogg’s Honey Smacks and Post Golden Crisp – are more than 50 percent added sugar by volume.” It should have read “…are more than 50 percent added sugar by weight,” and has been changed to reflect this correction.

© Food Safety News
  • http://www.foodsafetynews.com Dave Dzurec

    How can we read this article with credibility when the author doesn’t get her facts straight. In one sentence she states that: “Two cereals – Kellogg’s Honey Smacks and Post Golden Crisp – are more than 50 percent added sugar by volume.” And in the very next sentence she quotes the EWG spokesperson as saying:”When you’re holding that box of cereal in your hand, more than half of that weight is sugar…” Volume and weight are not synonymous and have very different meanings especially when it comes to food composition and nutritional values. The point of the article is well taken that there is too much sugar in breakfast cereals. But the article loses its punch and leads to misunderstandings among readers when inconsistencies, such as equating volume and weight,are present.

  • Red the Fed

    May I suggest a new title for your blog? A change from “Food Safety News” to “Food Quackery News”. Lately there has been an abundance of biased foodie blurbs like this one with no relevance to food safety. If you intend to forfeit your food safety journalism credentials in support of foodie ‘freak-out-of-the-day’ alarmist blogging at least be up-front about it. Too bad,you once had a useful newsworthy blog. Must you cave in to vapid sensationalism?

  • What are the good choices

    I think it would be helpful to actually talk about the cereals that did meet the requirements, so we know what good choices are. Nowhere in the article does it mention the “winners”

  • Yummy

    The ’50 percent by volume’ appears to be a typo. Just try to visualize a cereal that was over 50% by volume.
    Those two puffed-wheat cereals could easily be 50% cereal by weight, though; Even as a 8 year-old eating ‘Sugar’ Smacks, I could have told you that…

  • Sweet Tooth

    I would argue that this article IS about food safefty, when you consider that most chronic diseases in this country are diet-related.
    In addition, I’m not sure why the writer above insists this is a “foodie blurb.” Surely it is not only latte drinking, sushi-eating liberals who care about serving their kids pure sugar for breakfast.

  • ggoetz

    Dave – Thank you for pointing out that typo. It should have indeed read “50 percent added sugar by weight,” not volume. The article has been edited to correct this.

  • mrothschild

    Thanks for the feedback, “Red.” Given that about one-third of U.S. adults (33.8%) are obese and that approximately 17% (or 12.5 million) of children and adolescents aged 2—19 years are obese (http://www.cdc.gov/obesity/data/trends.html), a fact that has profound implications for public health, we’ve always considered nutrition to be a relevant food safety issue. There’s been no change in our interest in this topic.

  • Concerned Mom

    I think this study is an important heads-up for all concerned parents trying to give their kids the healthiest options. I buy sweetened cereal for my children almost every week under the guise of being “all natural” or “mommy approved” when in reality I might as well be giving my kids cookies for breakfast. I always knew sugary cereals were bad, but I was shocked to find that Golden Crisp and others like it are more than 50% added sugar by weight. I am grateful Food Safety News pointed out these dramatic facts- I will no longer be buying sugar cereals for my kids. Thank you!!!

  • Ellyanah

    I find it interesting that people are so divided on whether this topic should be on this website. It is shocking to me as well that people feed their kids sweetened cereals. These types of cereals were always a treat for my son. He only ever ate cereals with little or no added sugar and we never added any sugar to them. Oatmeal is one of his favourite cereals, and not the quick instant packages. And the anger over a simple typo is weird for me, aren’t there more important things to save your anger for? Like the ignorance of parents who don’t read food labels or lead active lifestyles with their children?

  • Gretchen Goetz

    Dave – Thank you for pointing out that typo. It should have indeed read “50 percent added sugar by weight,” not volume. The article has been edited to correct this.

  • Mary Rothschild

    Thanks for the feedback, “Red.” Given that about one-third of U.S. adults (33.8%) are obese and that approximately 17% (or 12.5 million) of children and adolescents aged 2—19 years are obese (http://www.cdc.gov/obesity/data/trends.html), a fact that has profound implications for public health, we’ve always considered nutrition to be a relevant food safety issue. There’s been no change in our interest in this topic.

  • Erica

    Something to keep in mind as well, cereals should have 6 gm of sugar or less per serving of cereal. If you buy sugar cereal then buy a cereal without or with minimal sugar ( ie rice crispier, brown rice crisps, Cheerios, joes o’s, crispier, chex….) and mix mainly those with a little of the sugary cereal. A little will go a long way when mixing because they are so sweet.

  • Stephanie

    So it’s no wonder that most kids exceed the “maximum discretionary caloric allowance,” which is already ridiculous (a quarter of our diet can be cotton candy, according to federal guidelines–see 1:40 at http://nutritionfacts.org/videos/nations-diet-in-crisis/).

  • http://www.evidencebasedmommy.blogspot.com/ EBMMommy

    There are worse things in cereal than sugar. Larvae, anyone? http://evidencebasedmommy.blogspot.com/2011/12/now-with-more-protein.html

  • Sharp

    There at least needs to be informed consent. If a parent chooses to feed their child sugar saturated junk food that is well & good but the label should include a large disclaimer informing the consumer that the food is saturated with sugar. This should be a large front panel label, not a small hidden side panel in small print. The danger of excess sugar to the future health of children is too important for business asa usual.