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Cereals Contain Far More Sugar than Experts Recommend

Children's Cereals: Sugar by the Pound: Cereals Contain Far More Sugar than Experts Recommend

May 15, 2014

Children's CerealMost scientists and health agencies agree that children and adults should limit their sugar intake. But many Americans consume much more than recommended (NCI 2010). The average 6-to-11-yearold American boy consumes 22 teaspoons of added sugar every day, and the average girl of that age consumes 18 teaspoons (Ervin 2012). This means that many children are consuming double or even triple the recommended maximum – about seven teaspoons. And many scientists believe the currently recommended limit is too high.

Cold cereals are one of the high-sugar foods in the American diet. EWG’s new analysis of 1,556 cereals on the U.S. market shows clearly that many children’s cereals are as sweet as cookies and should not be considered a part of healthy breakfast.

Among EWG’s findings:

  • 92 percent of cold cereals in the US come preloaded with added sugars.
  • Every single cereal marketed to children contains added sugar. On average, children’s cereals have more than 40 percent more sugars than adult cereals, and twice the sugar of oatmeal.
  • Children’s cereals and granolas have the most sugar, packing in more than 2 ½ teaspoons per serving on average, more than two Keebler Fudge Stripe cookies.
  • For 40 cereals, a single serving exceeds 60 percent of the daily amount of sugar suggested by health agencies and organizations. Because the serving sizes on cereal labels are unrealistically small, many children eat multiple “servings” in a single sitting.
  • A child eating one serving per day of a children’s cereal containing the average amount of sugar would consume nearly 1,000 teaspoons of sugar in a year.
  • 97 percent of the most common class of cold cereals have labels that underestimate the amount of cereal people actually eat, according to FDA’s analysis of food consumption data. Because the serving sizes on cereal labels are unrealistically small, many Americans eat more than one “serving” in a single sitting.

Cereals: As sweet as cookies

EWG divided the 1,556 cereals it analyzed into eight categories. They were first classified into two major groupings: hot and cold. Hot cereals include grits, oatmeal, instant oatmeal, hot wheat cereals and others. Cold cereals were further classified as granolas or other cold cereals.

TABLE 1: GRANOLAS AND KIDS’ CEREALS ARE THE MOST SUGARY


Cereal Type Average sugar content per serving* (teaspoons) Average sugar content per serving* (grams) Average percent sugar by weight

All Cold Cereals

2.2 9.0 23 %
Granola** 2.7 10.7 22 %
Children’s Cereals 2.6 10.4 34 %
Family Cereals 2.3 9.2 26 %
Adult Cereals 1.8 7.3 18 %

All Hot Cereals

1.4 5.7 12 %
Instant Oatmeal 2.0 8.1 19 %
Oatmeal 1.2 4.6 7 %
Other Hot Cereals (Cream of Wheat, Oat Bran, etc.) 0.9 3.7 8 %
Grits Less than a ¼ teaspoon 0.1 0.5 %

All Cereals

2.0 7.9 20 %

* Manufacturer’s labeled serving size using common household measure (3/4 cup, 1 cup, 24 biscuits, etc.).
** Granolas often contain more fiber and are heavier compared to other cold cereals. Therefore, although granolas have highest sugar content per serving, they are lower in percentage of sugar by weight.

EWG then examined the packaging of all 858 non-granola cold cereals to further categorize them according to their likely marketing audience. Any box front displaying an animated character or a promotion for one was classified as being marketed to children. Packaging displaying a picture of a child, a family, prizes or games was classified as being marketed to families. All others were classified as marketed to adults. A cereal’s classification can change as manufacturers launch new promotions. For example, although plain Cheerios cereal is generally considered a cereal intended for all family members, the Cheerios package examined at the time of this analysis displayed a promotion for a LeapFrog SpongeBob game, meeting EWG’s criteria for cereals marketed directly to children. (See Appendix 1)

EWG’s analysis focused on the total sugar content of each cereal by weight and compared sugar content with the guidelines issued by several authoritative health agencies and organizations.

One good benchmark for a moderately sweetened cereal is the limit of 1½ teaspoons (6 grams) of sugar per one-ounce serving set by the government’s supplemental nutrition program for Women, Infants and Children. Only cereals containing no more than that amount – less than 21 percent sugar by weight – are eligible to be bought through the program (USDA 2014).

EWG, however, believes that only cereals that contain one teaspoon or less (4 grams) of added sugar per serving should be considered low-sugar.

EWG chose 10 percent of calories as a second benchmark for what constitutes an excessive amount of added sugar from all sources. This is the midpoint of the recommended 5-to- 15 percent range recommended by the government’s 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans for both added sugars and solid fats. The Dietary Guidelines are jointly issued by the Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Department of Health and Human Services every five years (USDA and DHHS 2010). The 10 percent limit for added sugar also represents the consensus view of the World Health Organization and Food and Agriculture Organization, agencies of the United Nations (WHO 2003; WHO 2014).

CHART 1: CHILDREN’S CEREALS, GRANOLAS ARE THE MOST SUGARY


Children's Cereal

Consuming 10 percent of calories from added sugars corresponds to eating about 12 teaspoons of sugar a day for an adult and 7 teaspoons for an 8-year-old child. As recently as the 1980s, Americans on average consumed 13 teaspoons a day (Glinsmann 1986; Wang 2013).

Many scientists, however, believe that 10 percent of calories may be too much sugar for a healthy diet. Earlier this year (March 2014), the WHO published a draft guideline stating that reducing sugar to less than 5 percent of total calorie intake per day would have additional public health benefits (WHO 2014). The American Heart Association’s consensus is for just four teaspoons of added sugar a day for children, which also corresponds to a limit of 5 percent of calories. For adults, the American Heart Association recommends no more than 100-150 calories a day from added sugars, which is significantly less than 10 percent of a 2,000 calorie daily diet (Johnson 2009). Additionally, research using nationally representative National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey data has shown that as sugar consumption increases above 5-10 percent of calories, an individual’s intake of other valuable nutrients drops (Marriott 2010). Americans who eat the most added sugar consume 40 percent less calcium, fiber, potassium, vitamin C, E and other important nutrients than those who consume the least (Marriott 2010).

EWG found that for 98 cereals, a single serving exceeded the American Heart Association’s recommended daily sugar limit for children.

On average, EWG’s analysis found, cereals contain two teaspoons of sugar per serving (see Table 1). Granolas, often advertised as healthier alternatives, actually have the most sugar per serving. Children’s cereals on average contain more than 2½ teaspoons of sugar per serving. This is comparable to three Chips Ahoy! or two Keebler Fudge Stripe cookies.

Added sugars are everywhere in the cereal aisle

EWG’s analysis shows that 92 percent of cold cereals come pre-loaded with added sugar. Not a single children’s cereal is unsweetened. Some cereals contain as many as six different types of added sweeteners, including sugar mixed with corn syrup, honey, dextrose or high fructose corn syrup.

Some people like to control how much sugar they consume in their cereal, and others, like those living with diabetes, must. But finding a cereal without added sugar is a feat, and coming up with one that has zero sugar is even more difficult. In a marketplace of more than 1,000 cold cereals, EWG found just 47 with no sugar at all. Among them are three family cereals, 43 adult cereals, one granola – but not a single children’s option.

Hall of Shame cereals

To underscore the unhealthy levels of added sugars in many cereals, EWG created a “Hall of Shame” of 12 products that are more than 50 percent sugar by weight. Of all 1,556 cereals EWG analyzed, the most highly sweetened were those marketed to children and their families. Among them, 10 are marketed to children and families. One granola and one hot cereal also found a place in the Hall of Shame (Table 2).

TABLE 2: EWG's CEREAL HALL OF SHAME: SOME CEREALS ARE MORE THAN 50 PERCENT SUGAR BY WEIGHT


Cereal

Percent sugar by weight Grams of sugar per labeled serving Percent of recommended daily sugar intake per serving
(children)*

National Brands

 

Kellogg's Honey Smacks

56% 15 50%

Malt-O-Meal Golden Puffs

56% 15 50%

Mom's Best Cereals Honey-Ful Wheat

56% 15 50%

Malt-O-Meal Berry Colossal Crunch with Marshmallows

53% 16 53%

Post Golden Crisp

52% 14 47%

Grace Instant Green Banana Porridge

51% 28 93%

Blanchard & Blanchard Granola

51% 29 97%

Store Brands

 

Lieber's Cocoa Frosted Flakes

88% 50 167%

Lieber's Honey Ringee Os

67% 38 127%

Food Lion Sugar Frosted Wheat Puffs

56% 15 50%

Krasdale Fruity Circles

53% 17 57%

Safeway Kitchens Silly Circles

53% 17 57%

*Based on recommended daily sugar intake of 10 percent of total calories.

Among cereals that have a sugar content of 50 percent or more (Table 2), six use three-quarters of a cup or 27 grams as the labeled serving size. The list includes Kellogg’s Honey Smacks, Malt-O-Meal Golden Puffs, Post Golden Crisp and others. A recent FDA analysis of the cereal amounts people actually eat found that the median amount eaten at a sitting is 39 grams for this category of cereals (FDA 2014b). Calculating the amount of sugar from these products using a realistic portion size indicates a person choosing those cereals for breakfast or a snack ingests 1½ teaspoons more sugar than is indicated on the label.

The unrealistically small serving sizes used on the Nutrition Facts label make sugar amounts appear to be less of a concern. For hundreds of cold cereals EWG analyzed, the listed amount is smaller than what FDA found people eat in one sitting.

Adult cereals are less sugary, but many still have too much

On the whole, adult cereals tend to make better cold cereal choices. Still, the average adult cereal is 18 percent sugar by weight, much higher than most hot cereals except instant oatmeal.

For kids, sugar instead of good nutrition

EWG’s analysis found that 78 percent of children’s cereals contain more than two teaspoons of sugar in a single serving – more than a quarter of the daily limit for an 8-year-old. 10 cereals managed to pack in more sugar than a Hostess Twinkie.

TABLE 3: THE 13 MOST SUGARY CHILDREN’S CEREALS


Cereals, ranked by percent sugar by weight within national and store brand categories Percent sugar by weight Grams of sugar per serving Percent of recommended daily sugar intake (children)*
National Brands  
Kellogg’s Honey Smacks 56% 15 50%
Malt-O-Meal Golden Puffs 56% 15 50%
Post Golden Crisp 52% 14 47%
Kellogg's Apple Jacks with Marshmallows 50% 14 47%
Kellogg’s Froot Loops with Marshmallows 48% 14 47%
Store Brands  
Food Lion Sugar Frosted Wheat Puffs 56% 15 50%
Krasdale Fruity Circles 53% 17 57%
Safeway Kitchens Silly Circles 53% 17 57%
Food Club Honey Puffed Wheat 50% 17 57%
Key Food Apple Wheels Cereal 48% 16 53%
Shur Saving Apple Whirls 48% 16 53%
Safeway Kitchens Apple Orbits 48% 16 53%
Essential Everyday Golden Corn Nuggets 48% 15 50%

*Based on 1 labeled serving size and recommended daily sugar intake of 10 percent of total calories.

TABLE 4: THE 10 LEAST SUGARY CHILDREN’S CEREALS CONTAINING ONE TEASPOON OR LESS OF SUGAR PER SERVING


Cereals, ranked by percent sugar by weight within national and store brand categories Percent sugar by weight Grams of sugar per serving Percent of recommended daily sugar intake (children)*
National Brands    
Kellogg’s Rice Krispies, Gluten-Free 3% 1 3%
General Mills Cheerios 4% 1 3%
Post 123 Sesame Street, C Is For Cereal 4% 1 3%
Kellogg’s Corn Flakes 11% 3 10%
Kellogg’s Rice Krispies 12% 4 13%
Kellogg’s Crispix Cereal 14% 4 13%
Store Brands    
Springfield Corn Flakes Cereal 7% 2 7%
Valu Time Crisp Rice Cereal 9% 3 10%
Roundy’s Crispy Rice 12% 4 13%
Shop Rite Scrunchy Crispy Rice 12% 4 13%

*Based on 1 labeled serving size, and a recommended daily sugar intake of 10% of total calories.

On average, children’s cereals were 34 percent sugar by weight, a result that is consistent with previous research from the Yale University Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity (Harris 2009). EWG found that more than 60 percent of children’s cereals contain a spoonful or more of sugar in every three spoonfuls of cereal. A ¾-cup serving of the children’s cereal with the highest sugar content by weight, such as Food Lion Sugar Frosted Wheat Puffs, Kellogg’s Honey Smacks or Malt-O-Meal Golden Puffs (Table 3), gives an 8-year-old half the reccomended daily amount of sugar.

Only a dozen children’s cereals contained a teaspoon of sugar or less per serving. Less than one in four children’s cereals contained fewer than 2 teaspoons of sugar per serving.

Only 10 children’s cereals (Table 4) meet EWG’s criteria for low-sugar – containing one teaspoon (4 grams) or less per serving.

Nutrition claims are a distraction

EWG found that promotional labeling on cereal boxes frequently makes claims that the products provide important nutrients – such as “Excellent Source of Vitamin D” or “Good Source of Fiber” – making it less likely that consumers will focus on the unhealthy sugar content.

The labels on seven of the 10 most heavily sugared children’s cereals in EWG’s 2011 cereal report and eleven of the 13 most sugary children’s cereals in this analysis (Table 5) currently feature a claim promoting nutrient content.

The FDA requires products that exceed a certain level of saturated fat or sodium (salt) to include a disclosure statement on the label if the packaging makes a nutrient content claim (FDA 2013). It does not set a similar limit for sugar content. The FDA needs to take action and stop allowing products with excessive amounts of sugar to tout their positive attributes.

TABLE 5: MANUFACTURERS PROMOTE NUTRIENT CONTENT IN THE MOST SUGARY CHILDREN’S CEREALS


Cereals, ranked by percent sugar by weight within national and store brand categories Percent sugar by weight Nutrient Content Claim
National Brands  
Kellogg’s Honey Smacks 56% Good Source of Vitamin D
Malt-O-Meal Golden Puffs 56% 11 Vitamins & Minerals
Post Golden Crisp 52% Excellent Source of Six B Vitamins
Kellogg's Apple Jacks with Marshmallows 50% None
Kellogg’s Froot Loops with Marshmallows 48% Good Source of Vitamin D
Store Brands  
Food Lion Sugar Frosted Wheat Puffs 56% 11 Essential
Vitamins & Minerals
Krasdale Fruity Circles 53% Excellent Source of 9 Vitamins & Minerals
Safeway Kitchens Silly Circles 53% Excellent Source of 9 Vitamins and Minerals
Food Club Honey Puffed Wheat 50% N/A*
Key Food Apple Wheels Cereal 48% Excellent Source of 9 Vitamins & Minerals
Shur Saving Apple Whirls 48% Good Source 12
Vitamins & Minerals; Excellent Source Iron; Excellent Source Vitamin C
Safeway Kitchens Apple Orbits 48% Excellent Source of 9 Vitamins and Minerals
Essential Everyday Golden Corn Nuggets 48% Excellent Source of 7 Vitamins

*Information not available.

Industry cites misleading, flawed studies

According to the 2007-2008 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 46 percent of 2-to-6-year-olds consume a ready-to-eat cereal on any given day (Ford 2013). A 2003 study found that over a two-week period, 90 percent of 4-to-12-year-olds had eaten a ready-to-eat cereal (Albertson 2003).

Not surprisingly, breakfast cereals are the fifth highest source of added sugars in the diet of children under 8, after sugary drinks, cookies, candy and ice cream (Reedy and Krebs-Smith 2010; Slining and Popkin 2013). But some parents don’t realize that cereal is a significant contributor to high sugar consumption in children.

Scientists funded by the food industry have reported that eating cereal is associated with lower body weight (Affenito 2013; Albertson 2003; Albertson 2011; Balvin Frantzen 2013; General Mills 2011). Indeed, children who eat breakfast on a consistent basis tend to have a lower body mass index (BMI) than children who skip breakfast altogether (Rampersaud 2005). However, not all studies found this association to be significant after controlling for energy intake, physical activity and parental education (Affenito 2005; Sampson 1995).

However, the studies that industry likes to cite don’t tell the whole story. While some studies separate high- and low-sugar cereals (Albertson 2011), others lump low-sugar hot cereals and sugary cold cereals together (Barton 2005). Another methodological flaw is comparing cereal eaters to non-cereal eaters but not distinguishing them from children who skip breakfast, who have higher BMIs (Albertson 2003).

In contrast, a study conducted by scientists from Louisiana State University and the USDA looked at the data from the 1999-2002 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey and found that children who ate cereals with more than 6 grams of sugar per serving cereals had lower fiber intake and higher average BMIs than those who ate cereals containing less than 6 grams of sugar per serving (O’Neil 2012). A study from the United Kingdom found that children who ate high-sugar breakfasts had more behavior and attention problems at school (Benton 2007).

Other studies have suggested that sugar can be habit-forming and encourage overeating (Avena 2008; Garber and Lustig 2011; Ludwig 1999; Sclafani 2013). A 2011 study by Yale University researchers found that children given a low-sugar cereal for breakfast ate about 30 grams, while those who got a high-sugar cereal ate nearly twice as much (Harris 2011a). When the children were also provided with sugar and fresh fruit, those given low-sugar cereals were more likely to put both sugar and fresh fruit on the cereal but still managed to consume half as much added sugar as those given a high-sugar cereal (Harris 2011a). Research clearly demonstrates that breakfast is an important meal and should not be skipped. Cereals can be part of a healthy breakfast, and whole-grain, low-sugar cereals are a great way to start the day. Highly sweetened cereals with empty calories and low fiber intake are clearly less desirable choices and have been linked to difficulty concentrating and rotten teeth (Cinar and Murtomaa 2009; Dye 2004; Marriott 2010).

 

“Breakfast cereals are the fifth highest source of added sugars in the diet of children under 8, after sugary drinks, cookies, candy and ice cream.”

 

Better choices

In all, EWG found just 47 cold cereals and 155 hot cereals that contain no sugar at all. Since there are so few unsweetened cereals on the market, the next best bet is to buy low-sugar cereals. EWG found that 30 percent of those it analyzed qualified as low-sugar – containing less than 1 teaspoon (4 grams) of sugar per serving.

The majority of low-sugar cereals are hot cereals such as oatmeal, cream of wheat or grits. The reality, however, is that hot cereals are less convenient for busy households, which makes the lack of low-sugar cold cereals all the more problematic. EWG’s analysis showed that only 18 percent of cold cereals are lowsugar. EWG found just 12 low-sugar children’s cereals and nine low-sugar granolas.

However, sugar is just one factor to consider in preparing a good breakfast. It’s also important to look for whole-grain options (three or more grams of fiber per serving) and lower-sodium (salt) foods.

Later this year, EWG will release a comprehensive, first-of-its-kind food database that will look deeply at the nutritional value of foods sold in supermarkets as well as their potential health concerns and degree of processing. The database will provide information to shoppers looking for better choices in every aisle in American supermarkets, including the cereal aisle.

Hot cereals offer the most lowsugar and unsweetened options

The convenience of cold cereals is a decisive factor in the eyes of many busy households, but whole-grain hot cereals such as oatmeal provide a much healthier breakfast choice. They provide a rich source of naturally occurring vitamins and minerals and, when unsweetened, no empty calories. Moreover, a 2012 analysis by EWG of government data found that on average, a bowl of hot cereal such as oatmeal costs half as much as a bowl of cold cereal (EWG 2012).

As a group, oatmeal, cream of wheat, grits and other hot cereals offer the greatest selection of zero sugar and low-sugar options. Thirty-one percent of hot cereals contain no sugar at all. Instant oatmeals are the exception. They average 75 percent more sugar than regular cooked oatmeal. Fewer than one in five have no sugar, and nearly 60 percent contain more than two teaspoons of sugar per serving.