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.")