by Marion Nestle
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

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.
  • Sad how little has changed despite continued efforts to reveal how bad these cereals are! And are natural/organic cereals so much better? Personally, I’m disappointed in most of the cereals on natural product store shelves, too.

  • Margeretrc

    Or don’t eat cereal at all. Full fat (plain) yogurt with a small handful of berries and some nuts is a nutritious, low sugar breakfast good for any child. Add a little cream to it and the kid will probably be set until lunch. Or a couple of hard boiled eggs (that’s what I used to eat for breakfast when I was a kid and it got me through until lunch easily. Cereal never did) or eggs cooked any way the kid likes. Fruit on the side and breakfast is done and full of nutrients a kid needs without sugar or grains, which he/she doesn’t. Banana with natural peanut butter is another delicious and filling option that will not have the kid hungry in an hour. There are lots of options for breakfast without resorting to sugar laden cereals.

  • Margeretrc

    And parents, if you do give your kid cereal/grains for breakfast, at least serve it with whole milk and even a little cream (like the French do) to lower the glycemic load and slow the entry of glucose into your kids’ bloodstream! The French aren’t afraid of fat (or at least didn’t used to be) and yet somehow don’t have the rates of obesity, T2 diabetes and heart disease we do. Maybe they know something we don’t? And believe me it’s not because they drink wine and it’s not a paradox.

  • Paulette

    When I was a kid & pre-sweetened cereals were entering the market, I remember my Mother saying she would not but them for us because there was too much sugar. (we would get a box 2-3 times a year as a sweet treat ) She preferred to have us add what we wanted as sweetening, rather than taking something that was pre-sweetened far more than we were accustomed to. Likewise there were few and far between cold cereals that I bought for my son as he was growing up mainly because I saw them as tasty candy rather than a breakfast food. Oatmeal was the reigning breakfast cereal king (and not instant either). It is sad that over the last ~ 40+ years, the issue is still the same – way too much sugar in commercial cereals (just far far more of them to choose from). .and BTW – natural or organic cereals are called such because consumers want to see it on the label – means nothing relative to sugar content in my experience. – Yay -nutrition facts tables that state how much sugar in a serving – so you know

  • Dennis Murray

    I was addicted to cereals for years. I would slam a couple of bowls at breakfast and had it for snacks before bedtime too.

    All kinds – sweetened, not, high fiber – ate it, loved it.

    It was low or fat free! What could be wrong with it? I just figured it was natural to get hungry mid-morning.

    Now I’m 3 months clean from it! Eat proteins and vegetables 7 days a week for breakfast and don’t get hungry until lunch.

    Don’t wait for the cereal companies to cut the sugar. It’s still nutritionally void otherwise.

  • The key is this line: “In 2005, Kellogg tried a version with 1/3 the sugar—10 grams—but it didn’t sell and quickly disappeared.”

    Companies produce what people buy.

    @Margaret: The French The French don’t have to be “afraid of fat”and “don’t have the rates of obesity” because they simply consume less calories. One of the staples of France’s diet, the baguette, is a bread usually made from white flour and a carbohydrate mothership.

    Asians, as another example, consume huge amounts of carbohydrates in the form of white rice, yet their obesity rates only started to rise when an emerging middle class was able to buy more food.

  • We analysed about 130 packages of ready to eat cereals in Germany. In our sample adult cereals were more appropriate for children nutrition than cereals that claim to be suitable for children. And we found a positive relationship between the sugar content and the size of the comic character: The bigger the comic character was frontside the more sugar the product contained.
    Refering to childrens´eating habits, there is an interesting study by Jennifer Harris and colleagues: They could demonstrate that children will eat low-sugar cereals when offered.

  • yes, i heard about this from the American Dietetic Association, I agree with your recommendations, they lead you to feel fuller for longer. Every time i ate a children’s cereal i end up hungry again an hour later, so something high in fiber and adding a fruit helps take care of that! thank you!
    Check out my blog written by a registered dietitian/model would love to get feedback 🙂

  • When I see overweight and obese kids, I just see kids drowning in soda and breakfast cereal.

    @Evilcyber The French have much lower consumption of sugar, trans fats and corn fed beef: 3 of 4 dietary drivers of metabolic syndrome. The 4th is alcohol which is significantly higher per capita than the US but presumably there is less abuse by individuals which would drive fatty liver.

    They eat less calories but the question is why? Presumably because they don’t damage their metabolisms the way Americans do. Chronic over-consumption of sugar causes insulin resistance which makes starchy carbs more fattening and drives overeating.

  • @Margeretrc is right. Step one is moving away from the cereal for breakfast paradigm.

    Bring back eggs!

  • Anyone else remember when cereals were called:

    – Sugar Frosted Flakes
    – Sugar Smacks and
    – Sugar Corn Pops

    Maybe calling them High Fructose Flakes isn’t appealing?

    Call me crazy but I thought Dr. Kellogg founded a company because he was concerned about the chemically laden, nutritionally void food being served to the masses? Nearly a hundred years ago…

  • Margeretrc

    @evilcyber–yes, the French eat fewer calories–precisely because they are not afraid of fat and eat it liberally with their meals. This does two things: a)they are satisfied with fewer calories because the fat signals satiety much better than carbohydrates, particularly sugar and starch and so they know when to stop eating and don’t over eat and b) the fat lowers the glycemic load of the meal so that, even though the meal includes carbs like a baguette, the carbohydrates break down more slowly and the resulting glucose enters the blood stream more slowly, preventing the damaging spikes of insulin that occur with a high carbohydrate, low fat meal and can lead to insulin resistance/obesity. Also, as @Marc pointed out, they don’t eat trans fats, corn fed beef, or much sugar, and also don’t eat vegetable oil. Their fats of choice are olive oil and butter, both much better for you than the frankenfats so many here use.

  • Joe

    Sugar Cereal the new strawman

  • I saw these recommendations in the American Dietetic Association and I agree completely. They help you feel better. Eating cereal always makes me hungry again after an hour or so and added fruit and fibers to it helps take care of it.

  • Jon

    Speaking of sugar, have you read Jeff O’Connell’s book Sugar Nation? It describes in detail how, by stopping the insanity and letting us eat whatever we want, so long as it didn’t contain the dreaded fat (or at least, natural fat), sugar and white flour, which is nutritionally the same as sugar, became a health food.

  • Anyone notice in the Washington Post article that the big food industry used ADA “data” and stated that people who frequently eat cereal, including kids who eat sweetened ones, tend to have healthier body weights than those that don’t.

    Convenient that the makers of garbage food products have an association willing to jump on those grenades. Amazing what a little corporate sponsorship dollars can buy.

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  • Jessica

    Thank you Marion, for yet another timely article on nutrition. For a little more than a year now my family has been on the road to becoming healthier, as you may know. A few months ago I became concerned about the amount of sugar in most breakfast cereals; even the lowest has about 2 tsp per serving! So I started watching and it was easy to see that our children would eat large quatities of this stuff but never seem to be full. After one episode when I bought a box of HN Cheerios that included 22 servings and our 5 children ate it in one sitting, I banned it, opting instead for eggs, oatmeal, etc(healthier options). About a month ago I became involved in couponing and couldn’t resist the fantastic deals on these products. We could tell the difference in the children right away, their energy levels, irritation threshold, how long it took for them to become hungry, etc. I have once again banned premade breakfast cereals. It’s not even worth it for free. Having been raised to believe that those products were what you eat for breakfast, with eggs as an occasional treat, it was difficult for me to really believe they are so bad. My little experiment has proven otherwise to me and I will never go back to them. These findings represent to me what I’ve already discovered in my own journey and I thank you for sharing them. Many many more people need to know…

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