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.
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.