Sugary Cereal: Breakfast Candy or Obesity Cure?

Cereal companies should adopt -- and stick to -- sensible food marketing.

Cereal companies should adopt -- and stick to -- sensible food marketing.


Cereal companies have been touting ready-to-eat breakfast cereal as one important solution for the nation's childhood obesity epidemic. At the same time, those companies are aggressively lobbying Congress and the Obama Administration to kill voluntary government guidelines for food marketing to children. The companies fear that such guidelines, even though non-binding, wouldn't endorse the marketing of Apple Jacks, Cinnamon Toast Crunch, and other sugary products to young children.

Cereal companies contend that breakfast is the most important meal of the day and hype a link between eating breakfast and lower obesity rates. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans does list eating breakfast under the "principles for promoting calorie balance and weight management," and indicate that children who don't eat breakfast are more likely to be overweight. But does that mean that eating sugary cereal for breakfast puts a child on a path to a healthy weight?

Some observational studies have suggested that children who typically eat breakfast cereal are less likely to be overweight. However, this type of study cannot prove cause and effect, and most have been funded or conducted by the cereal industry. Other research indicates that sugary cereal eaters consume more calories and sugars, so it's likely that something else in cereal eaters' lifestyles explains their lower body weight.

Cereal makers also claim that children who eat cereal consume more nutrients. Few of those nutrients are naturally occurring in the cereal itself, but instead are added as a marketing gimmick to create an aura of healthfulness. During the recent flu epidemic, Kellogg's claimed that Cocoa Krispies "helps support your child's immunity" based on the presence of a few added vitamins. If those nutrients were added to soft drinks or candy, would we encourage kids to consume them more often?

Ready-to-eat cereals are the fourth biggest source of added sugars in Americans' diets, behind sugary drinks, desserts, and candy. Children ages 4 to 8 years old have a small allowance for calories from added sugars, about 12 grams per day. That's the amount in 1 cup of Kellogg's Froot Loops. Consuming even modest portions of sugary cereals leaves no room for any other added sugars in a healthy diet for a child.

To their credit, cereal manufactures have been working to reduce the amount of added sugars in their child-targeted cereals. Last summer, the industry adopted a goal of no more than 10 grams of sugar per serving in breakfast cereals marketed to children by January 2014. However, as the Environmental Working Group pointed out, that's more sugar than in three Chips Ahoy! cookies. And 10 grams is considerably more than the six grams allowed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program. The industry standard also means that a typical cereal would be one-third sugar, displacing an equal amount of health-promoting whole grains.

Cereal companies can do better. Kellogg, General Mills, Quaker, and Post all make top-selling cereals that are lower in sugars. The problem is that they don't market those cereals to children. According to a study by the Rudd Center at Yale University, cereals marketed to children contain 85 percent more sugars and 65 percent less fiber than cereals marketed to adults. Another Yale study found that low-sugar, whole grain cereals are well accepted by children, and when they eat them, they eat more reasonable portion sizes and more fruit than when they eat high-sugar cereals.

In 2009, Congress passed a bipartisan provision to require several federal agencies to work together to develop voluntary recommendations for marketing healthier foods to children. Those recommendations are needed because, despite current self-regulatory efforts, the vast majority (85%) of food products marketed to children continues to be too high in added sugars, refined grains, salt, and calories - promoting a diet that contributes to obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and other costly and debilitating illness. Developing voluntary food marketing guidelines would provide companies that want to improve their marketing to children with advice on how to do it.

The fate of those voluntary marketing recommendations is at risk. Cereal and other food and entertainment companies convinced Congress to include a provision in the Federal Trade Commission's FY2012 spending bill to block the agencies' efforts, unless they jump through hoops that usually apply only to mandatory requirements, such as a cost-benefit analysis.

As a practical matter, Congress' action is perplexing because it suggests that the FTC conduct a cost-benefit analysis of voluntary recommendations. The Administration could respond to Congress that since there are no mandatory requirements, there are no mandatory costs.

Instead of lobbying to keep marketing breakfast candy to kids, cereal and other companies should work with the Obama administration on sensible food marketing guidelines for children. The companies should also do considerably more to improve the nutritional quality of the cereals and other foods they market to children. Our children's health depends on it.