Oct. 1, 2008 -- Cereal can be a great choice for a quick and nutritious breakfast, but some choices represent the nutritional equivalent of a doughnut in a bowl, according to a new investigation from Consumer Reports.
The group evaluated 27 of the breakfast cereals that are most heavily marketed to children, considering not just their sugar content, but also the amount of sodium, fiber, calories, and nutrients in a recommended serving.
Two of the worst-rated cereals -- Post’s Golden Crisps and Kellogg’s Honey Smacks -- were more than 50% sugar with very little fiber.
A serving of Honey Smacks has 15 grams of sugar -- 3 more grams than is found in a Dunkin’ Donuts glazed doughnut. Golden Crisps has 14 grams of sugar in a 3/4 cup serving and less than 1 gram of fiber.
In all, 11 of the tested cereals had 12 or more grams of sugar per serving, or as much as the glazed doughnut, Gayle Williams of Consumer Reports Health tells WebMD.
“Parents who would never give their children doughnuts for breakfast may be choosing these cereals without knowing that from a nutritional standpoint they really aren’t much better,” she says.
The Nutritional Winners
Four of the tested cereals were judged "Very Good" breakfast choices because they were relatively low in sugar and sodium, had some fiber, were high in iron, and were good sources of calcium.
None had more than 9 grams of sugar, less than 2 grams of fiber, or more than 210 milligrams of sodium per serving. They are:
- Cheerios (General Mills), with just 1 gram of sugar, 3 grams of fiber, and 190 milligrams of sodium.
- Kix (General Mills), with 3 grams of sugar, 3 grams of fiber, and 210 milligrams of sodium.
- Life (Quaker Oats), with 6 grams of sugar, 2 grams of fiber, and 160 milligrams of sodium.
- Honey Nut Cheerios (General Mills), with 9 grams of sugar, 2 grams of fiber, and 190 milligrams of sodium.
Consumer Reports Medical Advisor Orly Avitzur, MD, tells WebMD that any of these cereals, served with milk and a piece of fruit, represents a good breakfast choice.
“These cereals offer fiber and nutrients and they are not full of sugar, which is just empty calories,” she says.
“Americans are consuming about 15% more added sugars than they did 25 years ago, and over that time the percentage of overweight or obese adults has grown from 47% to 66%. During roughly the same time the number of overweight children in the U.S. has doubled.”
The Worst-Rated Cereals
Eight of the 27 rated cereals were scored as "Fair" choices -- the lowest rating given by Consumer Reports. All were low in fiber and most, but not all, were high in sugar.
Case in point: Kellogg’s Rice Krispies had just 4 grams of sugar per serving, less than most of the other tested cereals. But it still rated poorly because it was high in sodium and had no fiber.
Post’s Golden Crisp and Kellogg’s Honey Smacks made the list because they had the most sugar of any of the cereals tested.
Adults might remember these cereals from their childhoods as “Super Sugar Crisp" and “Sugar Smacks." Although the names have been changed, the report notes that “the levels of sugar in the cereals have remained about he same.”
The five other lowest-rated cereals included:
- Cap’n Crunch’s Peanut Butter Crunch (Quaker Oats), with 9 grams of sugar, 1 gram of fiber, and 200 milligrams of sodium in a 3/4 cup serving.
- Cap’n Crunch (Quaker Oats), with 12 grams of sugar, 1 gram of fiber, and 200 milligrams of sodium in a 3/4 cup serving.
- Apple Jacks (Kellogg), with 12 grams of sugar, less than 1 gram of fiber, and 135 milligrams of sodium in a 1 cup serving.
- Froot Loops (Kellogg), with 12 grams of sugar, less than 1 gram of fiber, and 135 milligrams of sodium in a 1 cup serving.
- Corn Pops (Kellogg), with 12 grams of sugar, no fiber, and 110 milligrams of sodium in a 1 cup serving.
The Middle of the Pack
Fifteen of the tested cereals were rated as "Good" choices, but the investigators noted that there was room for improvement in sugar and/or fiber content for most.
Kellogg’s Frosted Mini-Wheats Bite Size scored highest of the cereals that got the rating, with 12 grams of sugar, 6 grams of fiber, and just 5 milligrams of sodium.
Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes Reduced Sugar scored lower than regular Frosted Flakes. Although it had 8 grams of sugar per serving instead of 11 grams, the reduced-sugar version also had more calories and sodium than the original.
Cereals rated as "Good" included:
- General Mills: Cookie Crisp, Golden Grahams Honey Graham, Lucky Charms, Cocoa Puffs, Cinnamon Toast Crunch, Trix, Reese’s Puffs.
- Kellogg: Frosted Mini-Wheats Bite Size, Frosted Flakes Gold, Frosted Flakes, Cocoa Krispies, and Frosted Flakes Reduced Sugar.
- Post: Fruity Pebbles, Honey-Comb, Cocoa Pebbles.
Cereal Company Responds
In response to the report, a spokeswoman from Kellogg noted that the company has recently reformulated five of its cereals included in the Consumer Reports investigation to make them healthier choices.
These reformulated versions began to appear on grocery store shelves in June, but Honey Smacks has not been reformulated.
The Consumer Reports article noted that even with the reformulation, the five cereals -- Froot Loops, Corn Pops, Rice Krispies, Cocoa Krispies, and Apple Jacks -- would still score poorly in a nutrition rating compared to other choices.
In a statement, Susanne Norwitz of Kellogg notes that the company continues to work to improve the nutritional content of its products.
“Kellogg is committed to investing and innovation and looking to improve our products’ nutritional profiles wherever possible,” she says in the statement. “Our ready-to-eat cereals, including the pre-sweetened varieties, are nutrient dense, low in fat, and many are excellent sources of dietary fiber. Additionally, according to the government data, breakfast cereal consumption has been associated with lower (weight) in kids.”
A spokesman for Ralcorp Holdings, which manufacturers Post cereals, had no comment on the report.