Unsurprisingly, cereal companies take issue with the recent barrage of criticism. But when they tried to defend the benefits of their products during interviews with Consumers Digest, their answers sounded as misleading as the claims that they make about their cereals. When one company spokesperson’s best defense was that eating a bowl of sugary cereal is better than eating no breakfast at all, we couldn’t help but to roll our eyes. Eating a chocolate doughnut is better than eating no breakfast at all. But that doesn’t mean that eating a chocolate doughnut is a healthful breakfast.
In an attempt to rebuke the claims of cereal critics, General Mills spokesperson Heidi Geller says the most sugary cereals that General Mills makes have only 130 calories per serving, which is a small portion of the 2,000 calories per day that the average American should consume. But according to Department of Agriculture, most of those 2,000 calories should come from essential nutrients. It leaves room for less than 300 so-called discretionary calories, which, Food and Drug Administration says, can come from sugar. And for kids, whose calorie requirements might be as low as 1,200 per day, that discretionary calorie amount is even less. So, the 130 calories that are in breakfast cereal could account for nearly all of the discretionary calories that are allowed in 1 day.
The Half-Truth About Whole Grains
We believe that it is puffery when Geller says, “cereal is probably one of the healthiest breakfast choices you could make” or cereal “gives people what they need at the start of the day.” On the contrary, precisely because cereal typically is the first meal of the day, sugary cereals can have a negative impact on a child’s entire diet, says David Ludwig, who is a professor at Harvard Medical School and director of Children’s Optimal Weight for Life Program at Children’s Hospital in Boston. An infusion of sugar in the early morning can raise blood sugar and insulin levels quickly, which results in a so-called crash later. “If kids eat a low-quality, sugary breakfast, they are going to be hungry soon afterward and are more likely to binge on candy and junk foods,” Ludwig says. “A very highly processed sugary breakfast might predispose someone to unhealthy eating throughout the day.”
SOGGY STEPS. Because cereal companies clearly have felt the heat in the past 2 years, we’re not surprised that an official with one cereal industry interest group criticized Rudd Center’s study as “unfair,” because the Nutrition Profiling Index uses standards to which cereal companies never agreed. Yet, even some of the industry’s toughest critics acknowledge that there are signs that cereal companies are taking baby steps toward making their cereals slightly better for you (but still not necessarily good for you).
Most notably, General Mills announced in December 2009 that it would reduce the amount of sugar that is in its cereals to less than 10 grams per serving from 11 or 12 grams per serving, although it wouldn’t say specifically when it would make that change. Plus, there’s nothing to stop General Mills from decreasing the serving size. If a cereal has 11 grams of sugar per 30-gram serving, reducing the sugar to 9 or 8 grams would mean little if the company also dropped the serving size to 28 or 26 grams (as has been done with some cereals), because the percentage of sugar that is in the cereal would remain about the same. Meanwhile, Kellogg added at least 3 grams of fiber to some of its cereals, such as Apple Jacks (enough to qualify those cereals as a “good source of fiber” by FDA standards), but the No. 1 ingredient in Apple Jacks is still sugar.
Cereal companies have gone to great lengths to ensure that any changes to their industry or their products have happened on their terms rather than on the terms of regulators. Two years ago, the four largest cereal companies—General Mills, Kellogg, Post and Quaker (owned by PepsiCo)—joined 12 other food companies to start Children’s Food and Beverages Advertising Initiative (CFBAI). The group sets voluntary standards to improve the healthfulness of foods that are marketed to kids and requires that at least 50 percent of companies’ advertisements to children were for products that follow recognized health standards that are set by FDA and Department of Agriculture.