by Marion Nestle
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.

  • We have a “10 gram limit” at our house for sugar in cereal. Now I also have to stipulate that there can’t be any sugar substitutes , because some of the sneaky cereals are low sugar by adding sugar alcohols.

    A better method for encouraging healthy choices has been to agree to buy frozen blueberries, fresh strawberries or whatever fruit the kids want to be used on “Mom’s” cereals, which contain less than 5 grams.

    Now at least one of my kids has come to prefer good ol’ cheerios, kix and rice krispies to Cap’n Crunch.

  • From a public health perspective yes…people are going to buy these cereals, at least they’ll take a lesser hit when they consume their breakfast.

    From an individual nutrition perspective, it really doesn’t do anything, but I’m not going to sit here and criticize General Mills for doing it. If anything I think it presents an opportunity for doctors, bloggers and educators (doctor does mean teacher after all) to have conversations about these products and build awareness about the things we are putting in our bodies.

  • Anthro

    It’s marketing–nothing more.

    It’s obvious how successful they have been when you see that even Sara, in the above comment, although very concerned and watchful about her kids’ cereal, is convinced that the cereal is necessary at all. I’m from a bit earlier generation and fed my kids (cooked) oatmeal, french toast (ww bread), scrambled eggs, and such, all with fruit, for breakfast. Pancakes too–made with buttermilk, ww flour and no sugar w/ pure maple syrup in small quantities. Processed cereal in a box is nonsense. It’s a market created by television advertising. My kids didn’t have tv and they didn’t ask for boxed cereal. They are now in their 30’s. Even when I worked away from home (not much of the time), we had real breakfast–you just get up 15 minutes earlier.

  • Mark Douglas

    “But why do I think this is more about marketing than about kids’ health?”… as a marketer, I would say the first sign that it is marketing is that it is an Ad in NYT and not a researched piece of reporting (rare as that is these days. ;). But seriously, if they were serious, they would stop selling things like Lucky Charms and instantly cut 100% of sugars for some… not going to happen, but would be almost better that the kids ate nothing then some of these cereals. Sad, eh?

  • W

    But has anyone noticed that the serving size has shrunk, too? When the sugar in Lucky Charms was at 13 grams the serving size was 1 cup (30g). Now that it’s at 11g the serving size is 3/4 cup (27g). Is this how they’re lowering the sugar content? Just making the “serving size” smaller? Seems like there is some deception here…

  • Subvert

    More likely a cost savings initiative, with a healthy marketing halo. Sugar is a volatile market and a reduction would mean potential cost savings. The whole health spin on it is the marketing polish applied to make it seem like they care…

    Isn’t this just like their “Whole Grains” campaign launched a few years ago. They did nothing to change the nutritional make up on the product, just said they were using whole grains…woopitty-doopitty-doo!

    As far as the serving size reduction, I would even look to the net weight on the box, and servings per container. If they reduced the serving, and the servings per container are the same, then they reduced the amount of product in the box, most likely without reducing the price. Which means same cost, less cereal for you – suckas!

  • DennisP

    Of course the take-home message I get from Marion (and alluded to by Mark D.) is that these companies should just stop selling these sugar-loaded products. And referring to an earlier post, that Coca Cola should just stop selling its sugary soft drinks (and water). Now I happen to know that Coca Cola is making some strenuous efforts to become more environmentally sensitive in their business. I had a middle-level manager in the course that I taught last spring and he was really enthused about all the things that the company was doing.

    But what is really wanted by many folks is for these companies to stop producing and selling their products, the things that many consumers like to buy. That’s asking these companies to commit suicide and put 10s of 1000s of people out of work. Obviously they ain’t a goin’ to do it.

    I support stronger regulation of the companies to make them behave more responsibly (maybe, if the regulations are drawn up well – but that’s always crap shoot). But criticizing them for not committing suicide seems to me to be rather misplaced.

  • Great point, “W”!

    I also wonder – do they mean “sugar” as in added sucrose/fructose?

  • At about minute 9:00 of this interview with Michael Pollan:
    Pollan notes how clever the food industry is at taking the latest scientific critcism and turning it right around into a marketing message.

    Honestly, why not just accept we’re being gamed and lied to, it’s just marketing – it’s not cynical to understand that General Mills truly doesn’t care about our children, it’s just wisdom.

  • How do we get people to eat “real food” for breakfast? These highly-processed/highly advertised items should not even be considered an option. Same question/issue re: soda.
    Also – does USDA publish any data on the $ spent on sugar cereal/soda via SNAP/food stamps? I suspect not, but the info must be available somehow – would love to make it public if anyone has any ideas how/where to find it!

  • Helen

    It would be instructive to find out the sugar content of the original formulations of many popular sugared cereal. Fruit Loops and Lucky Charms started out with plenty of sugar; 20 or 30 years ago when our kids were small, Fruit Loops held a whopping 23 grams of sugar, before you even added the milk. There was probably even more added to the cereal in the 1950s when I wanted them and our mother, a public health nurse, refused to buy them.

    I actively ridiculed the sugared cereal whenever we were in the grocery isle. I explained to the kids that this was the “part of your good breakfast” that you could omit entirely and be better off. The big deal was to have little boxes of sugared cereal as treats at Christmas, and maybe at Easter. I’m thinking that the companies have a long way to go.

  • kari Sullivan

    In my opinion the only reason there was a full page add in the NY Times was for marketing. Unfortunately that one page is going to spark the interests of parents across the country who aren’t well educated in the area of nutrition.

  • Anthro


    You and I must have gone to the same “mommy school”. I, too, spent a fair amount of time ridiculing the marketing practices of the cereal companies in the grocery store for my children’s consciousness- raising education. I explained how the big brands were right at the eye-level of children and how the companies paid for that spot–all to lure innocent, unknowing children into nagging their parents for little bits of smushed grain in a colorful box. They do thank me for this and pass it on to their own children.

  • Emily

    I grew up in the ’70s, and sugary cereals and soft drinks were strictly verboten in our household. In fact, my mother made all our bread (which is really something, since she worked full-time) and cooked at least 80% of our meals. (Dad pitched in with another 10% or so.) End result? I loathe sweetened cereal. I also can’t eat Wonder Bread, and soft drinks made me gag. So maybe I’m a bit of a Pollyanna here, but I really believe that if we give our kids real food, they’ll grow up appreciating it.

  • Reducing sugar level in children is essential and the effort of General Mills to achieve it is a good move.Lets see how much it’s implementing its plan in doing so.

  • To be a skeptic about what is claimed in the product especially in the matter of kid’s cereals is good and advisable. And moreover, raising such issues in public forums like blogs etc is welcome one as these moves will prompt the producers to keep their word for better business and good will. Reducing sugar in baby cereals would be an easy one. Thanks for public utility reporting.

  • e amount of sugar we use can determine our life span.
    it is a sweet thg to have in life.
    but it should be in moderate quantity.

  • I’ve always been skeptical about cereals. They taste too good to be as healthy as they claim it to be. But if you really can’t get your kids to eat anything, cereal is the only default. Better than eating nothing I say

  • rian

    Hope this impromptu action by the General Mills set an example for other baby food producing companies to take similar vigilance in maintaining the standard. Nice post. keep posting. isabel de rios

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  • kamal verma

    I’m confused why there isn’t a blanket ban. If American and/or Canadian cattle are suspected of having mad cow, there is an ban on health reasons. I remember a recent ban on American beef by Japan. This ban, although painful to beef producers did not upset the globalization process. Why do we not have a ban on melamine or any other ingredient from any country where safety is a genuine concern.yacht transport