Dec. 7, 2011 -- If you think giving your child cereal for breakfast ensures a healthy start to the day, check the label.
Many kids' cereals are loaded with sugar, according to a new report that looked at 84 cereals.
"In our study, three cereals have more sugar than a Twinkie,'' says Paul Pestano, MS, a research analyst at the Environmental Working Group, which issued the report. ''Forty-four others have more sugar in one cup than three Chips Ahoy cookies."
The Twinkie-equivalent cereals are Kellogg's Honey Smacks, Post Golden Crisp, and General Mills Wheaties FUEL, according to the EWG report. Honey Smacks is nearly 56% sugar by weight, Pestano says. That's more than double the maximum recommended by voluntary federal guidelines.
The study is titled "Sugar in Children's Cereals: Popular Brands Pack More Sugar Than Snack Cakes and Cookies."
In response, cereal makers say they have reduced sugar content in some products, giving people a choice.
Kids' Cereals: Study Focus
Overall, just one in four of the cereals evaluated meet the voluntary guidelines on sugar proposed earlier this year by a panel of federal nutrition scientists and marketing experts. The panel, the Interagency Working Group on Food Marketed to Children, was convened by Congress in response to the childhood obesity epidemic. One in five U.S. children is obese.
The panel has proposed that children's cereal contain no more than 26% added sugar by weight. (It also has guidelines about sodium, saturated fat, and whole-grain content.) Industry guidelines allow more sugar, up to 38% by weight.
Breakfasts high in sugar have been linked with poorer attention and school performance.
Others on the ''worst'' list and their sugar content:
- Kellogg's Froot Loops Marshmallow, 48.3% sugar
- Quaker Oats Cap’n Crunch OOPS! All Berries, 46.9%
- Quaker Oats Cap'n Crunch Original, 44.4%
- Quaker Oats Oh!s, 44.4%
- Kellogg's Smorz, 43.3%
- Kellogg's Apple Jacks, 42.9%
- Quaker Oats Cap'n Crunch's Crunch Berries, 42.3%
- Kellogg's Froot Loops (Original), 41.4%
Kids' Cereals: Healthier Options
Cereals making the EWG "best" list meet guidelines on sugar and other ingredients. These cereals also are free of pesticides and genetically modified ingredients. Most are lesser-known manufacturers:
- Ambrosial Granola: Athenian Harvest Muesli
- Go raw: Live Granola, Live Chocolate Granola, and Simple Granola
- Grandy Oats: Mainely Maple Granola, Cashew Raisin Granola, and Swiss-Style Muesli
- Kaia Foods: Buckwheat Granola Dates & Spices, and Buckwheat Granola Raisin Cinnamon
- Laughing Giraffe: Cranberry Orange Granola
- Lydia's Organics: Apricot Sun, Berry Good, Grainless Apple, Sprouted Cinnamon, and Vanilla Crunch
- Nature's Path Organic: Optimum Banana Almond, Optimum Cranberry Ginger, Corn Puffs, Kamut Puffs, Millet Puffs, and Rice Puffs
Six major-brand kids' cereals got a "good" rating because they meet the federal guidelines on sugar, sodium, saturated fat, and whole grain content:.
- Kellogg's Mini-Wheats -- Unfrosted Bite-Size, Frosted Big Bite, Frosted Bite-Size and Frosted Little Bite
- General Mills Cheerios (Original)
- General Mills Kix (Original)
Sugary Cereals: More Industry Weigh-In
Lisa Sutherland, PhD, vice president of nutrition for Kellogg North America, says the company has reduced the sugar in U.S. kids' products by about 16%. "Our most popular kids' cereals have 4-12 grams of sugar, so parents can choose the cereal that best meets their families' needs," she says.
Sutherland says it is important to remember that ''cereal contributes less than 4% of the added sugar in the U.S. diet.'' Children who have cereal for breakfast, whatever the sugar content, have healthier body weights than kids who don't eat breakfast or eat other foods, she says, citing a study published in 2011 in the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine.
In a statement, Jody Menaker of Quaker Oats says the company offers consumers ''a wide range of wholesome breakfast options," including Quaker oatmeal and lower-sugar instant oatmeal, for those wanting to reduce sugar.
Menaker concedes that Cap'n Crunch is ''not marketed as a health product" but that it has been on the market a long time and some people enjoy it. It does include essential vitamins and minerals, she says.
Sugary Cereals: Perspective
Some kids' breakfast cereals are like ''milk-covered candy in a bowl," says David Katz, MD, MPH, director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center.
He reviewed the findings for WebMD but was not involved in the research.
In their ads, cereal makers tend to focus on the other features of cereals, besides the sugar, he says, such as emphasizing the added vitamins and minerals.
He says parents don't always have to be the food police in keeping their kids away from sugary cereals. When kids are taught ''how advertising manipulates them, and learn some skills to look out for themselves, they are quite capable of rejecting such products on their own," he says.
How to Reduce Breakfast-Time Sugar
Shop smarter for cereal, Pestano suggests. Examine the nutrition label. "Avoid anything that has more than 5 grams of sugar per serving."
Try adding fruit to cereal that has a low sugar content, he says.