Sugar Rush: Why We Can't Trust Cereal Companies to Self-Regulate

Breakfast food marketers insist that children won't eat cereals that aren't doused in sugar. They're wrong.

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Breakfast is good. Children who eat breakfast every day are less likely to be obese, and more likely to be well-nourished than those who miss it. Cereals can be an excellent, fairly low-calorie means of delivering needed nutrients like whole grains and fiber. And, of course, there is the milk that goes along with it. On these matters, we and the cereal companies agree.

Where we disagree is how sweet these cereals must be, and which cereals should be marketed to children. The companies have a range of cereals in their portfolios. Why then, do they not market their better cereals -- regular Cheerios, Frosted Mini-Wheats, Quaker Oatmeal Squares -- to children? These cereals are high in whole grains and much lower in sodium and added sugars. They are hard for nutritionists to object to. But the companies, led by General Mills and Kellogg, claim that children will not eat cereal unless the cereals are highly sweetened. In a piece in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, top nutrition officials from these two companies said, "Food does not become nutrition until it is eaten," implying that cereals without lots of sugar will not leave the box.

We found in a study that when children are served low-sugar versions of cereals (Corn Flakes vs. Frosted Flakes for example), they eat the amount a child should have for breakfast, and add fruit and a small amount of sugar to do the sweetening. Children served high-sugar cereals consume much more cereal and sugar (from the cereal), and add less fruit. It is no wonder companies want to market the high-sugar versions to children -- they eat more cereal. The amount of excess sugar in children's cereals is depicted in a video using Cheerios vs. Honey Nut Cheerios as examples.

How do the companies navigate the tricky ground they stand on? They are feeling pressure about the scourge of childhood obesity, from the White House to leading medical groups, and hence the threat of government regulation looms large. But the basic business model is to maximize profits. Hence selling products that children overconsume.

One solution the industry itself proposes is self-regulation. The industry can argue that it will police itself -- that it will act in the best interests of children, and that government regulation will not be necessary. An example is the participation of General Mills, Kellogg, and Post in the Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI), which is "designed to shift the mix of foods advertised to children under 12 to encourage healthier dietary choices and healthy lifestyles."

Industry self-regulation is worth a try. If the companies can develop ways of protecting children from poor nutrition influences and not require government involvement, everyone wins. The question is whether industry promises get fulfilled -- and whether they are meaningful promises to begin with. In order to answer these questions, it is important to have objective data on industry sales and marketing practices, and to track these over time to see if changes are occurring.

Our team at Yale's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity is doing just that. Three years ago, we released a comprehensive report on the marketing of breakfast cereals to children. The report documented that cereal companies were speaking to children early, often, and when parents weren't looking. The least healthy cereals were the ones most aggressively marketed to children. Cereal companies were targeting children not only with television ads but through websites containing "advergames" and other branded activities, and advertising on popular kids' websites like Nick.com.

Presented by

Kelly Brownell & Jennifer Harris

Kelly Brownell is a professor in the Department of Psychology at Yale University, where he is also a professor of epidemiology and public health and director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity. Jennifer Harris is the director of marketing initiatives at the Rudd Center.

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