How many times have you heard, “Breakfast is the most important meal of the day?” And no matter how much most Americans would like to cook a full breakfast from scratch every morning, for most of them the first meal of the day means one thing—cereal. Ninety-three percent of households eat cold cereal, at an average of 12 weekly servings per household. After all, cereal is quick, it’s easy and, according to the messages on the box, it comes with all kinds of health and nutritional benefits.
You don’t have to look further than the cereal aisle. The health claims that jump off of the cereal boxes that feature cartoon leprechauns, tigers or frogs can make you feel more as if you’re in a drugstore than a grocery store. In addition to promising whole grains and fiber and lots of essential vitamins, some cereal manufacturers promise that their products will lower your cholesterol, help you to lose weight and even bolster your immune system.
All of those claims and iconic characters, however, are just distractions to turn your attention from the sorry fact that many of these cereals are little more than junk food. At least a third of what’s in many brands of cereal is sugar, and the percentages of the good stuff, such as fiber and vitamins, are so low that the benefits that manufacturers claim they provide are negligible.
There are good cereals out there. But the worst cereals tend to have the loudest advertising, and the better cereals tend to get lost in the din. A backlash by consumers, nutrition experts and the federal government led the industry to reformulate their products to give the appearance—if not the reality—that their cereals are healthier than what they really are. But even the most recent changes that cereal companies made to their most sugary of products haven’t gone far enough to appease nutrition experts or federal government agencies that experts say seem to be doing a better job of scrutinizing claims by food-makers since President Barack Obama took office.
A study that was released in October 2009 by Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity reveals the depth of the problem. When the center’s researchers compared the brands of cereal that are marketed to kids with the brands of cereal that are marketed to adults, they found that kids cereals had 85 percent more sugar, 65 percent less fiber and 60 percent more sodium than the adult products did. What’s more, the study concluded that only high-sugar, low-fiber cereals were marketed to kids—quite aggressively so through TV ads and online games—and that even the healthful cereals that are intended for kids, such as Cheerios, were marketed only to parents.
“If you create a list of the cereals with the worst nutrition profiles and put it next to a list of cereals most marketed to children, there is almost complete overlap,” says Rudd Center’s director, Kelly Brownell.
SWEET SENSATION. Brownell says it’s easy to see why cereal companies devote much of their $226 million annual advertising budget toward their least healthful cereals. Studies show that kids eat more of the least healthful cereals. For example, in a separate Rudd Center study, researchers offered children either low-sugar or high-sugar cereal and allowed them to eat as much as they wanted. Those who chose the low-sugar cereal ate on average the established serving size of 30 grams, while those who chose the high-sugar cereal ate on average twice as much as the other children did.
For their more recent study on cereal marketing, Yale researchers used a Nutrition Profiling Index to determine which cereals provide the most nutritional value. The index is a nutrition scale that was developed in the United Kingdom and approved by nutritionists in several peer-reviewed journals. It takes into account both the positive and the negative nutritional traits of a particular food. Ranked at the bottom of the Yale researchers’ ranking are a cluster of the most popular cereal brands, which contain from 35 to 46 percent sugar by weight. Rudd Center also compiled a separate ranking that included all cereals (not just those that are marketed to children). That list includes cereals that have even lower nutritional scores. (See “Breakfast Breakdown.")
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.
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.”
General Mills continues to push the envelope on the cholesterol issue. As recently as February, a box displayed “Can Help Lower Cholesterol,” in big letters across the front and a bowl of Cheerios that is in the shape of a heart—even while the fine print at the bottom of the box explained that benefits are gained only when you eat 3 grams of soluble fiber daily. A serving of Cheerios has only 1 gram.
Kellogg also played fast and loose with the numbers on claims that it made about its Frosted Mini-Wheats cereal, which the company said in TV advertisements could help to boost attentiveness in children by 20 percent. That was too much for FDA’s sister agency regulating TV and radio advertising, Federal Trade Commission, which revealed that Kellogg’s study showed that only 1 in 9 kids improved his/her attentiveness score by that much. But even that embarrassing conclusion missed the point: The study compared kids who ate Frosted Mini-Wheats with kids who—you guessed it—skipped breakfast entirely. Even after they set a bar that low, only 1 in 9 kids was able to concentrate 20 percent better with a belly full of Frosted Mini-Wheats!
Even though FTC made Kellogg agree to end the misleading advertising after squelching the attentiveness claims, Kellogg continues to market the cereal on a Web site that uses the slogan “Keeps ’Em Full, Keep’s ’Em Focused.” The Web site also features a classroom theme and promises increases in attentiveness. FTC didn’t impose a fine on Kellogg, because fines aren’t allowed for a first-time offense. FTC also didn’t force Kellogg to offer a refund to those who bought the cereal, even though it had every power to make Kellogg do that. FTC spokesperson Mary Engle says the agency can’t comment on the specific case but notes that several factors are considered when FTC decides whether a company should offer a refund to its customers for an inflated marketing claim.
Yet experts say federal scrutiny of food-marketing claims, such as those that are made by cereal companies, has increased under the Obama administration. In addition, since First Lady Michelle Obama made childhood obesity a signature issue, FDA and FTC stated publicly that more must be done to keep food manufacturers in compliance with labeling laws.
Nevertheless, some of the most egregious cereal-marketing claims are beyond FDA’s power to regulate. FDA long has been able to regulate food companies’ claims that their products work like drugs that have the ability to prevent, treat or cure a disease. But FDA doesn’t have the same authority over foods that purport to aid a specific bodily structure or function, such as prostate health or liver function. Those so-called structure/function claims were deregulated in a 1994 law that dealt with dietary supplements, and the cereal industry has latched onto such claims. But the slight distinction is lost on most consumers, says Bruce Silverglade of nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest, which is a lobbying group that advocates tighter regulation of food marketing.
For instance, during the height of parents’ concerns last year over the H1N1 virus, boxes of Kellogg’s Rice Krispies and Cocoa Krispies claimed in big bold letters, “Now Helps Support Your Child’s Immunity.” The back of the box portrayed the cereals’ cartoon characters, Snap, Crackle and Pop, dressed like crime-fighters to take on germs, and it explained that the cereal had been improved to include “antioxidants”—otherwise known as vitamins A, B, C and E—that met 25 percent of the daily recommended amount.
In other words, the cereal provided vitamins that most kids who live in developed countries get anyway from other foods, while Kellogg seemed to prey on parents’ fears of a viral epidemic. Kellogg agreed to pull the claim in November 2009 after the city attorney in San Francisco threatened to take legal action against Kellogg over its claim. But as of March, we still found the immunity claim on boxes in the cereal aisle, which suggests that the company is waiting until the end of flu season to remove the label. We’re not surprised that Clark says it was a coincidence that the claim came out during the height of public anxiety about H1N1.
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.