It’s not just kids cereals that are subject to this form of misleading marketing. For instance, Kashi cereals—considered to be among the more healthful cereals in the aisle, according to nutrition experts—claim that probiotic bacteria that are included in the cereal aid in digestion. One claim is that Kashi Vive cereal “may restore digestive balance.” Kashi, which is owned by Kellogg, never has subjected the cereal to a study on the issue, and there is no evidence that probiotic bacteria (commonly found in yogurt) even survive in a dry cereal.
NUTRITION NEWS. It might sound like good news to hear that FDA and FTC finally are setting standards for cereal companies, but it’s still anyone’s guess as to what impact the recommendations will have. Last year, the agencies were charged by Congress with developing specific nutrition guidelines for marketing that are expected to be released in May. This officially will establish what should be considered healthful foods. (This initiative is separate from FDA’s effort to create an alternative to the industry-created Smart Choices program.)
The initial recommendations, which were released in December 2009, advise that cereal contain no more than 20 percent sugar per serving, which would translate to only 7 or 8 grams per serving in an average bowl of cereal. There also would be strict limits on the amount of salt and mandates that each serving have at least 50 percent whole grains.
The downside is that cereal companies won’t be bound by any new recommendations unless Congress uses the recommendations to pass laws about how companies could advertise foods that don’t meet them. At press time, there was no indication of what Congress plans. So, we believe that the government is too optimistic if it believes that the new rules would put real pressure on the industry to make significant changes. Nevertheless, the new rules would provide a basis for consumers to determine which cereals are the most healthful options.
“Right now, the companies through their marketing can say, ‘This is a better food for you,’ and most people don’t know enough about it to say this is just marketing hype,” says Jennifer Harris, who was the lead author of Rudd Center’s cereal study. “If we as academics or nutritionists say these foods aren’t healthy, it goes right over their heads. But if the government says, ‘this is our definition of healthy food,’ people listen.”
In yet another attempt to stay ahead of the regulators, CFBAI plans to review its nutrition guidelines. But Kolish would not give a specific timeline on when CFBAI seeks to finish its review or what changes—if any—CFBAI might consider. If we had to choose between standards that are set by the government and standards that are set by industry, it’s clear whose rules likely would benefit consumers more.
So, until industry and government get together to provide better information, it’s up to you to determine what cereals are healthful. How can you do that? The nutrition experts whom we interviewed say your best bet is to look for cereals that have as little sugar as possible (or as little as your child will eat) and as much fiber as possible. Nutrition experts differ on how much sugar is healthful, but the experts whom we interviewed suggest that you should not buy cereal that has more than 6 grams of sugar per serving. As for fiber, 3 grams per serving is probably the minimum amount that you should accept in a cereal, and cereals that have 6 grams or more per serving are best.
“The industry says, ‘we want you to trust us and put your children in our hands,’ then they sucker-punch the public every time with ‘smart choices’ and immunity claims,” Brownell says. “When are they going to prove themselves trustworthy?”
Freelance journalist Michael Blanding has written about bottled water and drug- and alcohol-rehabilitation centers for Consumers Digest. His new book, The Coke Machine: The Dirty Truth Behind the World’s Favorite Soft Drink, is scheduled to be published by Avery/Penguin this fall.