Cereal offenders: potentially harmful ingredients in ‘healthy’ breakfast food

Many breakfast cereals claim to be a healthy way to start the day. Their boxes feature cute, colorful characters and catchy slogans that attract children, and their promise of a “complete” breakfast with whole grains, fiber and vitamins captures adults’ attention.

Cereal can be part of a balanced and nutritious breakfast. But many contain excess sugar, potentially harmful additives like food dye and added nutrients that undermine their nutritional value.

Get Your Free Guide: EWG's Guide to Food Additives

Sugars and added vitamins

Breakfast cereals, especially those marketed to children, often contain large amounts of sugar. An EWG study found that children’s cereal has, on average, over 40 percent more sugar than cereal marketed to adults. A single serving of the most sugary products can exceed 60 percent of the maximum daily amount recommended by health authorities.

Many breakfast cereals also have excess added vitamins and minerals. Added micronutrients like vitamin A, zinc and niacin in a cereal might be a draw. But too much of a good thing can be harmful: A 2014 study shows nearly half of all children ages 2 to 8 consume more than the “tolerable upper intake levels” for vitamin A, zinc and niacin. Overconsumption can lead to health problems like brittle nails, hair loss, anemia and suppressed immune function.

Food additives

Many popular foods contain potentially harmful food additives like butylated hydroxyanisole, or BHA, and butylated hydroxytoluene, or BHT. BHA and BHT have been shown to cause hormone disruption and harm the reproductive system. BHA is classified as possibly carcinogenic to humans by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, an agency of the World Health Organization.

BHT is added to well-known brands such as Cap’n CrunchApple Jacks, and Froot Loops to prolong their shelf life.

Questionable additives continue to be allowed in the food we eat because of the Food and Drug Administration’s outdated generally recognized as safe, or GRAS, rule loopholeThe purpose of the GRAS rule was to allow ingredients to skip regulatory approval only if they’re known to be safe. But it’s allowed manufacturers, not the FDA, to certify their own ingredients as safe.

Food dyes are also frequently found in cereals. For instance, Red 40 – shown to cause behavioral problems in children ­– can be found in Froot Loops, Apple Jacks and Lucky Charms.


Boxes of cereal containing food additives

Organic versus conventional

Most packaged breakfast cereals are ultra-processed. EWG recommends limiting consumption of these foods, whether organic or conventional. A diet high in ultra-processed food is linked to an increased risk of depression, obesity, Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke and cancer.

When you do want to consume ultra-processed cereals, picking organic options can help you to avoid some of these health concerns.

A recent EWG peer-reviewed study analyzed nutrition and ingredient information for more than 8,200 organic and 72,200 conventional foods sold in the U.S. in 2019 and 2020. It found organic packaged food contains fewer ultra-processed ingredients and potentially harmful food additives, and has a better overall nutritional profile, with less added sugar.

Unlike conventional packaged foods, organic packaged foods must be formulated in compliance with robust standards set by independent and government experts.

To find healthier cereal choices, check out EWG’s Food Scores database, which rates food items based on concerns about nutrition, ingredients and processing.

This article was updated Tuesday, February 22, 2022.

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