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Would you like some cereal with that bowl of sugar?

July 13, 2012

Fruit Loops, Cap’n Crunch, Apple Jacks, Reese’s Puffs- the list could go on and on. All of these cereals boast of their nutritional value by claiming, “now provides fiber”, “made with natural flavors”, or “made from whole grains”, but they all have one thing in common- their shockingly high sugar content. The problem is, these cereals are what many kids crave, thanks to cereal companies who try (and succeed) in luring kids into wanting, NEEDING their sugary cereal product through marketing campaigns that target young children.

How much sugar can REALLY be in these kid-friendly cereals? Well, let’s put it in perspective and take a look at 3 popular cereals among kids: Frosted Flakes Gold, Cap’n Crunch, and Trix. All 3 cereals contain about 3 whole sugar cubes in one serving. But kids don’t just eat one serving; they like to fill up the bowl! One bowl of these sugary cereals contains 6 whole sugar cubes. Would you want your child popping sugar cubes in their mouth like it’s candy? Probably not, but that’s essentially what happens when your child consumes these cereals.

As childhood obesity rates continue to rise, there’s been concern over the true nutritional value of the many oh-so-appealing cereals that are marketed to young children. The Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at Yale University released an interesting and jaw-dropping report on the nutritional quality and marketing of cereals to children, comparing statistics from 2008 to current 2012 statistics. Here’s a brief overview of what researchers found.

The Study

The Good
  • Overall nutritional quality improved by an average of 10% for 13 of 16 child-targeted brands
  • TV ad exposure declined for 7 child-targeted cereals among children ages 6-11
  • Preschoolers’ exposure to TV ads for all cereals declined by 6%
The Bad
  • Despite improvements, the cereals advertised to children contain 57% more sugar, 52% less fiber, and 50% more sodium when compared to adult-targeted cereals
  • Cereal companies do offer more nutritious and lower-sugar cereals, but these cereals are marketed to parents, not kids
  • Cereal companies are developing an interactive relationship with children. Kellogg introduced the first food company child-targeted gaming app for the cereal Apple Jacks called, “Race to the Bowl Rally”.
Even though it appears that the cereal companies are attempting to produce healthier cereal options, it seems these half-hearted efforts are lost amidst the increase in advertising of their popular, sugary cereals to young kids.

What does this mean for us? Advocating a healthy lifestyle is important and educating kids on healthy food choices needs to start at a very young age. That’s not to say the occasional indulgence in these dessert-like cereals is a bad thing. Just like candy and cookies, sugary cereals are okay in moderation and should be treated as an occasional treat, not a morning ritual.

How to choose a nutritious cereal

Finding a nutritious cereal among the many sugarcoated cereal options that line the shelves can be overwhelming and confusing. Here are some tips to keep in mind next time you and your child take a trip down the cereal aisle of your grocery store:
  •  Nutrition Labels- Don’t just look at the health claims on the front of the box. Look at the nutrition label on the side as well, to get a better idea of the actual nutritional value. If a cereal contains 10 grams of sugar and the serving size is 30 grams that means that 30% of your child’s bowl of cereal would be pure sugar.
  • Whole Grains- Look for cereals that are 100% whole grain. Check the ingredient list to make sure the word “whole” is included before any grain listed. If the first few ingredients are “refined” or “enriched”, then the cereal is lacking in nutritional value. Whole grains are important in keeping your child’s energy levels consistent throughout the day, whereas refined, or white grains would more likely produce a spike in your child’s energy level, leaving your child feeling sluggish shortly after.
  • Fiber- Look for cereals that have at least 3 grams of fiber per serving. Fiber will help keep your kids fuller longer and is a big part of a healthy diet.
  • Sugar- Keep the sugar content in the single digits per serving! Less than 10 grams of sugar is okay, assuming the cereal has met all other nutritional measures. All sugars are created equal, and even though a cereal may contain honey, it is no more nutritious than a cereal that contains high fructose corn syrup.
Cereal is a great go-to option for growing kids. It comes in many flavors and varieties that can satisfy even the pickiest eater. It can be eaten dry, or with milk, on the go, or at the kitchen table. Encourage healthy habits for your kids by teaching them the difference between cereals that are nutritious, and those that aren’t. Buy a variety of nutritious cereals to see which ones your child likes, because if they don’t like them, they won’t eat them, no matter how healthy they are! And don’t forget your cheat sheet on how to choose a nutritious cereal next time you head to the grocery store.

Encouraging your kids to eat healthy foods can sometimes be a battle for many parents. What are ways your family encourages a healthy diet? How do you handle your child’s cravings for sugary cereals?