In 2011, a report by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) found many popular brands of cereal marketed to children to be “sugar bombs.” Three years later, researchers say the picture is not much better.
When the researchers took a second look at the list of 84 popular children’s cereals they reviewed in 2011, they found that manufacturers had lowered the sugar content in only 11 cereals and one cereal now has even more sugar than it did three years ago. None of the 10 most sweetened cereals on EWG’s 2011 list lowered its sugar content.
The new report, “Children’s Cereals: Sugar by the Pound,” also examined a wider sample of 181 cereals marketed to children—and found that most of them have so much added sugar that a person who ate an average serving size of cereal on a regular basis would end up consuming an extra 10 pounds of sugar a year from that source alone. Another problem researchers found is that that average serving size bears little resemblance to the recommendations printed on nutrition labels; the FDA itself, as the report noted, has found that people actually eat an average of about 30 percent more cereal than the labeled serving size.
On average, the report found a serving of children’s cereal has more than 2.5 teaspoons of sugar. That’s comparable to two or three name-brand cookies. Some of the most sweetened cereals are more than 50 percent sugar by weight.
“There has been some progress reducing sugar in children’s cereals over the past three years, but the overwhelming majority of children’s cereals are still too high in sugar, even though research has shown that children will happily eat low-sugar cereals,” the report stated.
The researchers encouraged the Food and Drug Administration to move forward with plans to include added sugar as a category on nutrition labels. However, they noted, those proposals “are still insufficient to adequately protect children’s health from consuming too much sugar. The FDA must also update serving sizes for cereal to accurately reflect how Americans actually eat and create limits on added sugar for products that use nutritional claims.” They suggested that the federal agency should bar manufacturers from labeling cereals “healthy” unless they are low in added sugar.
And they called on the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, which self-regulates the food industry, to set a limit of 6 grams of added sugar per serving—the limit above which foods are not eligible for the WIC program—in products advertised to children.
As for what parents can do, the report suggests keeping a close eye on nutrition labels and following the same guideline, choosing cereals with less than 6 grams of added sugar or even less. (A “low-sugar” cereal is defined as one with 4 grams or less of added sugar per serving; some classic cold cereals, including Rice Krispies, Corn Flakes and Cheerios, do fall within this limit and were cited on the report’s list of least sugary options.) EWG also offers a list of healthy breakfast tips and ideas on its website, including quick recipes for oatmeal, smoothies and breakfast wraps.
Donna Brutkoski authored this report.