News flash! Kids’ cereal has lots of sugar in it, and – are you ready for this? It may not be good for you.
The Environmental Working Group released a study detailing the amounts of sugar in popular children’s cereals, noting that many of them have more sugar than a Twinkie. A Twinkie! Could they have chosen a more perfect icon for junk food? (photo source)
When I heard on Nightline that a shocking study turned up evidence that cereal (in all its whole grain goodness) may not be as healthy as we thought, I was waiting for something new and exciting, something I could really sink my teeth into. Imagine my disappointment when the study simply stated the obvious.
Yes, friends, children’s cereals, the pink, the marshmallowey, the frosted; the honeyed, the glazed, and the kinds where sugar is listed as the first or second ingredient, do, in fact, have a great deal of sugar in them. In fact, some are weighing in at over 50% sugar.
I think I missed my chance to be on Nightline.
By my figuring, my trusty calculator and I could have run some sugary numbers and written a study that announced to the world that cereal has too much sugar in it, and I might have even gone so far as to draw the conclusion that it’s not healthy for you. (Gasp!)
And I bet you could have done the same.
See, with the help of my feisty readers who petition General Mills to quit marketing junk cereals to kids (see below for more on that), we already knew cereal was bad for you.
The cereal companies, not surprisingly, do not agree.
Lisa Sutherland, vice president of Kellogg North America Nutrition, admits – with pride, of course – that, “Cereal with milk is a leading source of 10 nutrients in U.S. children’s diets.” (source)
What I read in that sentence is that there are a great many children who are malnourished – not underfed, not low on the scales – but clearly not receiving real nutrients from the food that passes their lips, if cereal is their top source of nutrients. I hear nothing about the health benefits of cereal and everything about the poverty of diet we Americans are experiencing.
Is cereal just a great way to get fruit into kids? (photo source)
Is EWG’s Study Wrong?
Don’t get me wrong here – certainly, I’m poking some fun at the fact that this sugar thing is big news. It’s not. BUT I’m still thankful that the EWG (Environmental Working Group) brought the scrutiny of the public eye to the question of cereal, and their facts are sure to shock many.
Sure, Honey Smacks might not be a surprise as a cereal with more sugar than a Twinkie, but how about Wheaties Fuel? It was also on the worst offenders’ list, and that label sounds like it’s trying to be healthy, but clearly it fails (and not just because of the sugar).
Honey Nut Cheerios was another big name that I think folks think of as a “lightly sweetened” healthy cereal – often fed to children – and it made the list of “more sugar than 3 Chips Ahoy cookies.”
Sugar has no place in our morning meal, particularly not so much of it. And really, sugar is bad for you, all the time, so it has no place in any meal and possibly not even dessert. (But maybe we can get away with making Smart Sweets…)
Let us hope that the EWG’s efforts do bring a spotlight not only to the overload of sugar in the American child’s diet (and the adults’) but also to the lack of true nourishment these sometimes obese children are receiving.
Why is Cereal Bad for You Anyway?
We traditional foods folks, who know that cereal wasn’t eaten thousands of years ago or even 150 years ago, know that your best breakfast options aren’t going to be discovered by following the formula for the “right” cereal box.
First, grains might not be so healthy for humans, period.
Third, almost all cereals are extruded, a process that further damages the fats in whole grains, making them downright toxic. (Check about halfway down this post for what extrusion is and how it damages whole grains in cereal.)
Therefore, EWG’s only problem with their report is that after all their research, they still recommend cereal (about 10 out of the seemingly thousands available) as a healthy breakfast option.
So What Should we Eat for Breakfast?
The funniest part of the whole thing, in my opinion, was a line from Brian Williams on Nightline, loosely quoted:
“This report is making cereal look so bad it’s almost to the point where bacon sounds like a healthy breakfast in comparison!”
Yeah. Because bacon has the scarlet “X” on it from the health police.
Be an Advocate for Healthier Breakfasts
Your mission, if you choose to accept, is to advocate for change. Make SOMETHING happen that you care about.
I’ve taken some time lately to write some letters, make some calls, and advocate for change. The examples I’m going to share are food and natural health related, but please know that I place a lot more importance on topics of faith and morals as a general rule.
I’ve written about that before, too, but I’ve had a bug in my bonnet about the medical issues when Jonathan was born and was encouraged by many readers to write letters. So I am.
- After readers encouraged me on Facebook, I wrote a letter to Gymboree about the candy breaks in the sports class for my 3-year-old. The local manager cut that routine, all because of one email from me.
- I wrote a letter to the hospital where I gave birth about the sugar water given as routine pain relief to my newborn. It’s posted here.
- I called the labor and delivery floor to recommend they include prices when they offer medications to new mamas…so others can avoid paying out-of-pocket for things like $42 Dermaplast spray (for stitches) that runs about $5 at Walgreen’s.The nurse on call was shocked about the prices and really sounded like she might make some systemic change.
- I also told my OBGYN that he might counsel his patients to bring their own spray and OTC pain medications like Tylenol or Motrin.
- I’m working on a letter to the editor about the rampant health care costs in the nation and how I think what I talked about above is one of the big problems, encouraging others to avoid unnecessary medical spending (even if their insurance pays for it, because ultimately, we all do).
Need Some Baby Steps?
Here at Kitchen Stewardship, we’ve always been all about the baby steps. But if you’re just starting your real food and natural living journey, sifting through all that we’ve shared here over the years can be totally overwhelming.
That’s why we took the best 10 rookie “Monday Missions” that used to post once a week and made a printable checklist so you can track your progress.
Sign up to get the checklist and weekly challenges and teaching on key topics like meal planning, homemade foods that save the budget (and don’t take too much time), what to cut out of your pantry, and more.
Does General Mills Market Their Cereals Appropriately to Kids?
I received an email from a long-time reader and it fit perfectly with this Monday Mission on being an advocate. I just had to share it with you, in her words:
This past Monday I received an appalling email from the Vice President of Corporate Communication of General Mills. I received this email because I signed a petition and sent an email through the Environmental Working Group to Kraft and General Mills urging them to follow the Interagency Working Group’s self-regulatory guidelines for marketing food to children. The intent is to improve the nutrition of the company’s foods that advertise to children. Here is the letter I received in response to my email:
Thank you for your email regarding the Interagency Working Group proposal. Please allow me to respond.
Your email notes that we have lobbied against the Interagency Working Group (IWG) proposal. That is correct. We have serious concerns about the IWG proposal.
Our most advertised product is cereal – and we stand behind it. Cereal is one of the healthiest breakfast choices you can make. Ready-to-eat cereal has fewer calories than almost any other common breakfast option. Cereal eaters consume less fat, less cholesterol and more fiber than non-cereal eaters. If it is a General Mills cereal, it will also be a good or excellent source of whole grains.
Childhood obesity is a serious issue – and General Mills wants to be part of the solution. But if the issue is obesity, cereal should perhaps be advertised more, not less. Because frequent cereal eaters tend to have healthier body weights – including people who choose sweetened cereals. It’s true of men. It’s true of women. It’s true of kids.
Data published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, based on the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services’ National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), found that frequent cereal eaters tend to have healthier body weights overall, including kids who eat sweetened cereals. To be precise, kids who eat four to seven servings of cereal over a 14-day period are less likely to be overweight than kids who eat fewer than four servings of cereal. Kids who eat cereal more frequently, or more than seven times in 14 days, are even less likely to be overweight than kids who eat cereal less frequently.
Another study published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association followed 2,000 American girls over a 10-year period. It found that girls who demonstrated a consistent cereal-eating pattern had healthier body weights and lower body mass index (BMI) than those who did not.
General Mills’ ready-to-eat cereals are America’s number one source of whole grain at breakfast, and fortified cereals provide more iron, folic acid, zinc, B vitamins and fiber than any other conventional breakfast choice. Eating cereal also has the added benefit of promoting milk consumption. Forty-one percent of the milk children consume is with cereal – and the figure is even higher for African American and Hispanic children.
Many things have been written about the proposed IWG guidelines in the media and–many misstatements have been made. You can be assured than food and beverage companies have studied every letter, comma and period in the proposal. We know what it says, and what it does not. For example, we know that 88 of the 100 most commonly consumed foods and beverages could not be marketed under the IWG guidelines. The list of “banned” items under the guidelines would include essentially all cereals, salads, whole wheat bread, yogurt, canned vegetables, and a host of other items universally recognized as healthy.
Despite the characterizations used to advance them, the IWG guidelines would not be voluntary, in our view. The IWG guidelines are advanced by two of the agencies most responsible for regulating the food industry, as well as the agency most responsible for regulating advertising. Ignoring their “voluntary guidance” would not be an option for most companies. Regulation has already been threatened (even demanded) should companies choose not to comply – and litigation would inevitably follow.
The IWG guidelines also conflict with most existing government programs and definitions relative to food. For example, many products that meet the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s current definition of “healthy” could not be advertised under the IWG guidelines. Many products included in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program fail the IWG standards, as do most products encouraged and subsidized under the USDA’s Women, Infants and Children Feeding Program (WIC). Even low-calorie, nutrient dense foods of the type specifically encouraged by the U.S. Dietary Guidelines broadly fail to meet the unique stringency of the proposed WIG restrictions. In fact, it is readily apparent that the new IWG guidelines have no parallel whatsoever – from a nutrition or science standpoint – with any other U.S. government food or nutrition program.
Curiously for guidelines purportedly developed to address obesity, the IWG guidelines fail to include any reference to calories. The inexplicable omission of a measure as important as calories also works to the disadvantage of cereal products, which are inherently low-calorie, nutrient-dense foods. Importantly, this is true of both unsweetened cereals and sweetened cereals, because both tend to have roughly equal numbers of calories per serving – most being about 120 calories per serving – whether sweetened or not.
Finally, your email suggests companies should focus on providing feedback via public comment. We agree. We have reviewed every detail of the IWG proposal – and we remain opposed, as our public comment explains.
Thank you again for your email, and for allowing us the opportunity to respond.
Vice President, Corporate Communications
This letter turned my stomach. Here is how I responded:
note from Katie: As an educator, I prefer to lay out facts and teach, so I might not use so much sarcasm in a letter, but it’s a good example of taking action! (It’s just the kind of thing I might say for the benefit of my readers, when I get to be a comic to a certain extent.)
To Mr. Forsythe,
I would like to thank you for taking the time out of your busy schedule to respond to my email. Thank you for setting the record straight and for educating me on the nutritional value of your cereals, both with sugar and with reduced sugar.
I had no idea that your cereal is the healthiest breakfast option I can make for my family. Maybe even healthier than the homemade yogurt topped with fresh fruit that I usually feed them. Or the vegetable filled omelet I serve. Or the freshly prepared bowl of steel cut oats. Or the fruit and veggie smoothies I can whip up.
Your highly processed, highly sweetened cereals are clearly much more nutritious than what I usually serve. It is, in your words, “…the number one source of whole grain at breakfast, and fortified cereals provide more iron, folic acid, zinc, B vitamins and fiber than any other conventional breakfast choice. Eating cereal also has the added benefit of promoting milk consumption.” How silly of me to think that I can get any of those things from the fresh fruit and produce department at the grocery store. Or the farmer’s market.
I’m sure serving my child the “low-calorie, nutrient-dense” Fruity Pebbles, with the first 3 ingredients being rice, sugar and hydrogenated vegetable oil, is a lot healthier than the whole foods I put on my table. And as for the milk that cereal forces children to consume, wow, what a benefit. I guess I was wrong and you can’t get calcium from something like plain yogurt. Or leafy greens. Or nuts.
Thank you for pointing out that the FDA and the Department of Agriculture know what I need to nourish my family, regardless of the fact that those who make up the senior staff at the FDA have come from Big Business. Regardless of the fact that the FDA is influenced by Big Business, not by the well-being of consumers – it’s all about the sell, it always has been. I should listen to them alright. After all, they’re the ones who’ve made sure that highly processed grains can now be found in everything, including our meat. Kudos.
But what do I know; I’m not a food scientist or work in your R&D department isolating nutrients so I can fortify nutritionally-empty processed grains and sugar. I’m just a mom raising a young child, hoping that my child will outlive me. I’m sure a lot of parents are feeling the same way these days.
So, again, I thank you. You have made it abundantly clear that what you care about is your bottom line, spinning your email to try to sell more of your overpriced, over-processed cereals. I do know something about advertising Mr. Forsythe. And I do know something about the loose regulatory guidelines you observe when marketing your products to unaware consumers.
As a matter of fact, I have the experience to make your boxes of cereals fly off the shelf by creating a comprehensive marketing plan and persuasive advertising campaign.Your boxes scream healthy, whether it’s true or not. Thanks to the FDA, you can tout the fact that your cereals contain whole grains, even if those whole grains are processed, losing a lot of their nutrition. And you can claim them having fiber, even if that fiber come in the form of maltodextrin and polydextrose.
Thank you for making sure that my household will never purchase a box of your cereal products, because that’s what they are, products, not food. I will do everything that I can to make sure that my son grows up to feed his children real food, not cereal.
Note about why cereal is not a healthy breakfast option: The sugar added to almost all cereal, even “plain” corn flakes, is a clear no-no for breakfast. Beyond that, 99% of cereals are made up of extruded grains, a process that subject grains (whole or otherwise) to extreme heat and pressure, just the ingredients for oxidation of fats in particular. Extruded whole grains may very well be as carcinogenic (cancer-causing) as they might be nourishing. Give me a cheap bowl of oatmeal any day…
So…what are YOU going to advocate for this week? (I bet it will only take 20 minutes when all is said and done…enough time that you could watch a Big Bang Theory on DVR, but that’s about all you’d miss…)
More on the Cereal Story
- Twinkies for Breakfast? Kids’ Cereals Fail Industry’s Own Lame Nutrition Guidelines – a super fun read with at least as much biting sarcasm and more pointed arguments than mine…
- ABC News’ take on the situation
- Artist Parodies Unhealthy Cereal Boxes – hilarious!
- The original EWG report
More Healthy Breakfast Recipes
- The Healthy Breakfast Book with over 50 recipes!
- Tastes Like Pizza Breakfast Hash
- Autumn Spiced Pumpkin Pancakes – can be made grain-free, gluten-free, sourdough or whole wheat!
- Grain-free Pumpkin Pie Breakfast Porridge
- Apple Cinnamon Baked Oatmeal (pumpkin pie version)
- Instant Pot Apple Cranberry Steel Cut Oats
- Best Homemade Soaked Granola
- Best Pancakes: Whole Wheat or Gluten-free or Sourdough or Paleo Apple Almond
- Veggie Potato Latkes
- Grain-free Pizza Quiche
- Best High Protein Scrambled Eggs Ever
- Candy Cane Smoothie Bowl
- 10 Healthy Brunch Dishes for Potlucks
- Creative Ways to Add Veggies to Breakfast
- Lots of Breakfast Ideas for Meal Planning
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