by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Cereals

Dec 21 2011

Keeping up with the cereal news

Sugary breakfast cereals are a hard cell these days, and marketers are getting increasingly creative.

Item: The Cornucopia Institute’s investigative report on “Natural” cereals warns consumers that “natural”—a term with no regulatory meaning—is marketing hype.  “Natural” is not the same as Organic.  “Natural” cereals have all kinds of things not allowed in Organic cereals.  It’s best not to confuse them.

Item: Researchers at the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity report in Public Health Nutrition that the households in their study tended to buy cereals advertised directly to children 13 times more frequently than non-advertised products, and that African-American and Hispanic families were most likely to buy cereals advertised directly to children. 

Item: The Public Health Advocacy Institute (PHAI) reports that General Mills is using claims about whole grains to distract consumers from the sugar content. 

The company’s claim of “More Whole Grain Than Any Other Ingredient*” comes with an asterisk.  This goes to the disclaimer “*as compared to any other single ingredient.”

PHAI suggests taking a look at the General Mills’ web page about sugar.  This says that “Ready-to-eat cereals account for a relatively small amount of a child’s daily sugar intake.”

General Mills compares plain Cheerios (1 gram of sugar per serving) to Trix (10 grams of sugar per serving ), and asks:

From a calorie and nutrient standpoint, are both products a good breakfast choice?

The answer:  “Yes, they are. In fact, all General Mills cereals are lower calorie, nutrient dense choices.

From a calorie and nutrient standpoint, are both products a good breakfast choice?

Yes, they are. In fact, all General Mills cereals are lower calorie, nutrient dense choices.

From the standpoint of nutritionism (judging a product by its nutrient content), Cheerios is a better-for-you choice.

But both are highly processed cereals, thereby raising that same old philosophical question: is a somewhat better-for-you processed food necessarily a good choice?

A good question to ponder as you wander down the cereal aisle.

Dec 9 2011

EWG says kids’ cereals have too much sugar

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) is getting interested in childhood obesity.  It released a report on sugars in kids’ breakfast cereals.

The report shows—no surprise—that kids’ cereals are really cookies in disguise, typically 40% -50% sugars by weight.   Kellogg’s Honey Smacks topped the list at 55%.

Michele Simon’s analysis of the report notes that these levels don’t even meet Kellogg’s commitment to responsible marketing, a pledge to “apply science-based Kellogg Global Nutrient Criteria to all products currently marketed to children.”

I’ve been reading reports like this since the 1970s when Center for Science in the Public Interest published them at regular intervals.  Not much has changed.

Courtesy of Kellogg, I have a collection of copies of Froot Loop boxes dating back to the year in which this cereal was first introduced.  I thought it would be interesting to check the sugar content.

Froot Loops, Sugar content, grams per ounce

YEAR GRAMS SUGARS PER OUNCE LABEL
1963-71 Lists calories: range 110-114
1972-75 Lists carbohydrate, not sugars
1976-78 14 Lists sucrose and other sugars
1979-92 13
1993-95 14 Nutrition Facts: sugars
1996-2006 15
2007 13
2008-11 12

In 2005, Kellogg tried a version with 1/3 the sugar—10 grams—but it didn’t sell and quickly disappeared.

Companies are trying to reduce the sugars by a little, but this seems to be the best they can do.  It’s not enough.

As the EWG press release explains, some cereals are better than others.   It notes that I recommend:

  • Cereals with a short ingredient list (of additives other than vitamins and minerals).
  • Cereals high in fiber.
  • Cereals with little or no added sugars (added sugars are ingredients such as honey, molasses, fruit juice concentrate, brown sugar, corn sweetener, sucrose, lactose, glucose, high-fructose corn syrup and malt syrup).
  • Even better, try fresh fruit and homemade oatmeal.
Mar 12 2011

Once again, kids prefer foods in packages with cartoons

Yet another study confirms the obvious: kids prefer foods with cartoons on the package. Why should this be obvious?  Why else would the cartoons be there if not to sell products to kids?

The latest study comes from the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine.

It says pretty much the same thing as the study published in Pediatrics last year by investigators from the Yale Rudd Center.

The newer study did something cute. It invented a cereal box and tested kids’ responses to it and variations with and without cartoons of the penguins Mumble and Gloria from the movie Happy Feet .


The results:

  • Kids preferred the taste of the cereals with cartoons
  • They preferred boxes labeled “Healthy Bits” more than “Sugar Bits”
  • They most preferred “Healthy Bits” with a cartoon
  • They least preferred “Sugar Bits” without a cartoon

This is why is would be a good idea to just say no to cartoons on food packages aimed at kids.

Nov 23 2010

Kellogg settles class-action health-claims suit

Kellogg has had a bad year on the truth-in-advertising front.

First, It took the brunt of the furor over the late and unlamented Smart Choices fiasco, when the program’s first logo turned up on Froot Loops of all things and was attacked by the Connecticut attorney general.

Next, the IMMUNITY banner on Cocoa Krispies drew fire from the San Francisco city attorney’s office.

Both boxes are now collectors’ items.

Now, FoodNavigator-USA reports that Kellogg has taken another expensive beating, this time on its health claim for Mini-Wheats.

In 2009, Frosted Mini-Wheat boxes sported this health claim:  “Clinically shown to improve children’s attentiveness by nearly 20%.”

Of course this cereal can do that, especially when kids eating it are compared to kids who don’t eat any breakfast at all—which is what this study did.

But that’s not what the adorable television advertisements imply, as shown in exhibits A and B in the summary of the class-action decision.

Last April, Kellogg settled a dispute with the FTC over this claim.  The FTC did not argue that the claim was inherently absurd because of the lack of an appropriate control group for the study.  Instead, it took the study at face value and charged Kellogg with exaggerating the results because hardly any children—only 11%—improved attentiveness by 20% or more.

Kellogg has just settled a class-action suit over this claim that will cost the company $2.75 million in order to pay customers between $5 and $15 each in compensation.  The company also will give $5.5 million to charities.

Because of city and state attorneys and the FTC, the most egregious health claims are slowly disappearing from cereal boxes.     But lawsuits do not constitute policy.  What goes on the front of food packages is FDA territory.

FDA: Get to work!

Feb 19 2010

General Mills’ creative marketing plan

For reasons that make no sense to me at all, corporations are not allowed to simply make a profit.  Their profits must constantly increase.  They must report growth in profits to Wall Street every 90 days.

For food companies, this is not so easy.  We already have twice as many calories available in the food supply as needed by our population –  nearly 4,000 calories per capita per day.  How to deal with this?  Find new buyers.

General Mills says its “recipe for profitable growth” will target three specific groups: Hispanics, aging baby boomers (those aged 55 and over), and millennials (baby boomers’ kids aged 16-33).  General Mills owns cereals and fruit roll-ups, among other such products.

According to MinnPost.com, General Mills is now the leading advertiser in U.S. Hispanic media.

But General Mills expects most of its growth to come from emerging markets like China.  Sales in China tripled from 2005 to 2009 and are expect to reach $900 million by 2015. Sales of General Mills’ Häagen-Dazs* ice cream are booming in China.

Isn’t it fun to be a target of General Mills’ growth strategies?  I assume all major food companies have their eyes on the same target.

*Factoid footnote: Nestlé owns Häagen-Dazs in the U.S. and Canada.  General Mills owns the brand everywhere else, including in China.

Jan 19 2010

Cascadian Purely O’s: betrayal or business as usual?

Thanks to my NYU Medical Center colleague, Dr. Melissa Bender for the alert about the blogosphere fuss over Cascadian Farm Purely O’s cereals.  Apparently, Cascadian Farm, now owned by Big Food General Mills:

quietly changed the recipe for its “Purely O’s” cereal — previously an unsweetened favorite among children/toddlers – to include three times the sugar, as well as new fillers/sweeteners such as corn meal and tapioca syrup. They did this with no announcement on the label, taking advantage of those who trusted the brand for its previous simplicity. Loyal customers, particularly parents who had chosen this product because it was one of the few unsweetened options available, are outraged by this secretive yet major reformulation. Many discovered the change when their children spat out the cereal (myself included).

Her note sent me right to the largest of the three Whole Foods stores within walking distance of my Manhattan apartment.  Purely O’s: 3 grams of sugars, 3 grams of fiber, and 160 mg sodium per serving.

Oops: low-sugar, yes, but only medium-fiber and high in sodium.  Even with 0 grams of sugar, it’s not all that great.  Neither, for that matter, is its non-organic analog Cheerios (1 gram sugar, 3 grams fiber, 190 mg sodium).

At 3 grams of sugar per serving, Purely O’s is still lower in sugar than practically every other cereal in Whole Foods.  Whole Foods does not sell Big Food non-organics, so it does not carry Cheerios.  I had to look hard to find the only cereal lower in sugar than the reformulated Purely O’s: Arrowhead Mills Shredded Wheat, Bite Size (2 grams of sugar, 6 grams of fiber, and only 5 mg sodium).  That one, it seems to me, is a much better choice to begin with, pretty much in the same category as oatmeal (1 gram of sugar, 4 of fiber, and 0 mg sodium).  When it comes to cereal, more fiber the better.  Fiber is the point of breakfast cereal.

So I can’t get too upset about the reformulation of Purely O’s.  It’s simply a business decision, entirely to be expected from Big Food.  Cascadian Farms started out with “humble beginnings” as a maker of organic products, none of them cereals.  It was successful enough to be bought first by Small Planet Foods, and later by General Mills, which wanted to get in on the organic market.  Hence: organic Purely O’s.

General Mills is in business to sell cereal, and Purely O’s just didn’t make it past focus groups, as reported in the Boston Globe earlier this year.  General Mills must think there are too few of its deeply loyal customers to matter.  According to a business school case study, it has a history along these lines.  So chalk this one up to corporate imperatives.

Dr. Bender wrote to General Mills and received a reply that said as much:

Our goal is to give consumers quality products at a good value. Prior to introducing any product, extensive consumer testing is done. We conduct market research and product testing continuously to obtain consumer reaction to existing products and to changes being considered. Only when we feel confident that a product change will broaden its appeal will we alter a product’s formulation. We are sorry that you do not agree that the recent change in Cascadian Farm organic Purely O’s cereal was for the better.

If the bloggers are looking for a replacement, try oatmeal or those cute little bite-sized shredded wheat things.

Dec 11 2009

General Mills’ big news: less sugar!

My copy of Thursday’s New York Times business section has a full page ad from General Mills on page B3:

People are talking about sugar in kids’ cereals. General Mills is doing something about it. General Mills commits to reduce the sugar levels in advertised children’s cereals to single digit levels…Today our commitment to further lower sugar levels is among the most aggressive goals in the food industry.  It’s a commitment we’re making in 130 countries around the world.

So that sounds good, no?  But I wondered about two things: WHEN was this going to happen, and WHAT ELSE is in those cereals.

I went to the General Mills website and took a look at its gorgeous pages on “The Benefits of Cereal.” The site is beautifully illustrated with charts showing the changes in sugars per serving during the last couple of years.  Take Lucky Charms, for example.  In 2007, its sugar dropped from 12 to 11 grams per serving, and is now headed for “single digits.”  By when?  It doesn’t say.

General Mills’ press release boasts about all the whole grain its cereals contain:

General Mills’ 2005 whole grain initiative has been called one of the biggest health initiatives in the food industry. The company committed to ensuring that every Big G cereal would help deliver the benefits of whole grain. As a result, every Big G cereal now provides at least 8 grams of whole grain per serving, with many cereals providing 16 grams of whole grain or more.

Maybe, but what about the non-Big G kids cereals?  Lucky Charms, for example again, has only one gram of fiber per serving, making it a low-fiber choice.  It also has 190 mg sodium (half a gram of salt) per serving.sugar_21

As for the banner on calcium and vitamin D: the cereal contains 10% of the Daily Value per serving, which goes up to 25% if you put milk on the cereal.    As the cereal makers are always assuring me, the point of kids’ cereals (sweet, salty, low-fiber) is to get kids to drink milk.

All of this leads again to that philosophical question: does a reduction of one or two grams of sugars per serving make these cereals a GOOD choice for your kid?   Does a little less sugar turn Lucky Charms into a health food? Is a time-insensitive commitment to reduce sugars a real commitment?

Is this action worth a full-page ad in the New York Times?  General Mills must thing so. But why do I think this is more about marketing than about kids’ health?

You decide.

Oct 28 2009

San Francisco takes on Cocoa Krispies!

Now that the Smart Choices program is on hold, it’s time to take a look at what else is on food packages these days.  My current favorite example is the huge IMMUNITY banner across Kellogg’s Cocoa Krispies.

ImmunityI don’t know how you interpret this but my mind boggles at the very idea that eating Cocoa Krispies might protect kids against swine flu.

Apparently, the minds of the San Francisco attorney general’s staff are equally boggled.  They just sent a warning letter to Kellog:

“Specifically, the Immunity Claims may falsely suggest to parents that cereals like Cocoa Krispies are more healthy for their children than other breakfast foods that are not high in sugar and not highly processed.  The Immunity Claims  may also mislead parents into believing that serving this sugary cereal will actually boost their child’s immunity, leaving parents less likely to take more productive steps to protect their children’s health.”

The city attorneys are asking Kellogg to provide copies of all of the consumer and scientific research the company used to establish this claim, or else.  If they don’t get these documents, they will “seek an immediate termination or modification of the advertising claim….”

Good idea.  I can’t wait to see how Kellogg’s – ever at the leading edge of advertising claims – will respond.

But wait!  Shouldn’t the FDA be taking this on?

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