Two years into the program, most companies increased their commitment to make 100 percent of their advertisements to children for products that meet the health guidelines, says CFBAI Director Elaine Kolish,
The problem with the self-regulated initiative, however, is that the standards to which companies agreed are so vague that cereal companies basically set their own definition of what’s considered to be healthful. The cereal-makers reformulated their cereals to reduce sugar content to no more than 12 grams per serving—down from 14 or 15 grams in some cases. But even with 12 grams, a 30-gram serving size will contain 40 percent sugar by weight—and smaller serving sizes will contain an even greater percentage of sugar. Plus, that assumes that kids will eat one recommended serving size and not two, as Rudd Center’s study indicates that they will.
Kolish says the sugar-level standards that cereal companies endorse are a starting point to changes that will further improve the healthfulness of cereal. But she wouldn’t say how much lower companies are willing to reduce the amount of sugar that is in cereal. Of course, cereal-makers have good reason to slowly change. A study by Mintel International Group found that from 2006 to 2009, “high-sugar” cereals (which it defines as those that have more than 25 percent sugar) are far and away the biggest sellers—capturing nearly 40 percent of the market. Cereal companies realize that it would be bad for business to drastically reduce the amount of sugar that is in all kids cereals. But that business philosophy doesn’t justify marketing marginally nutritious cereals as healthful.
What’s more, another labeling program that would set more standards for so-called healthful products, including cereals, was suspended in October 2009—less than 3 months after it was launched. FDA and nutrition experts condemned the Smart Choices initiative, in part because it allowed high-sugar cereals to qualify for the green checkmark label that is meant to tell shoppers that the product has health benefits. FDA is working on a new front-of-the-package label that would replace the industry-created Smart Choices program. But what approach FDA will take (and to what degree food-company lobbying groups will have influence) is uncertain. At best, you won’t see FDA’s alternative to Smart Choices for another year.
Believe it or not, Kellogg still stands behind its decision to put a “Smart Choices” label on Froot Loops. Kellogg insists that Froot Loops is good for you, in part because it has only 48 calories worth of sugar per serving. “I would rather see kids eat Froot Loops than skip breakfast,” says Celeste Clark, who is senior vice president of global nutrition and corporate affairs for Kellogg and a board member of Smart Choices.
BOWLED CLAIMS. The idea that sugary cereal is better than no breakfast at all has become a mantra for unrepentant cereal companies. General Mills and Kellogg each created its own nutrition-labeling scheme on the front of the box that cherry-picks nutrients to tout (complete with a green checkmark on General Mills’ version that looks a lot like the checkmark from the suspended Smart Choices labeling program). The box also includes fine print in the nutrition labeling that is on the back that spells out a less rosy story when you consider all of the nutrients (or lack thereof) in the product. Cereal boxes now are rife with health claims that bend the truth if not outright break it.
One of the most egregious examples was by General Mills in 2009, in which it claimed that Cheerios could reduce cholesterol. General Mills even specifically stated the exact amount—10 percent over 1 month, which it later downgraded to 4 percent in 6 weeks. Soon after General Mills made the Cheerios claim, FDA warned the company that it was out of compliance with federal rules, which caused it to back down from the claim.
The company then touted a milder claim that was allowed by FDA, which stated that soluble fiber from whole-grain oats, such as those that are found in Cheerios, “as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol, may reduce the risk of heart disease.”