Last month, the consumer group set out 12 key demands designed to "tackle government and industry inertia over the diet and health crisis", which has seen obesity rates reach almost epidemic proportions, placing a massive burden on the health care system and increasingly putting consumers' lives at risk.
Among others, breakfast cereal manufacturers have been quick to exploit consumers' concerns over their health, and frequently market their products as a healthy way to start the day. But cereals, it seems, are more likely to be a symptom of the obesity problem than a cure, at least according to the CA's research.
Which? investigated 100 cereal brands produced by the five biggest cereal manufacturers (Quaker, Weetabix, Nestle, Kellogg's, Jordans) to see whether their healthy image was really justified. Its findings showed that 85 per cent of them contained 'a lot of sugar' (10g or more per 100g), 9 per cent contained 'a lot' of saturated fat (20g/100g) and 40 per cent contained 'a lot' of salt (0.5g of sodium/100g) - worrying figures for a product which is increasingly seeking to play the health card.
Most worrying of all, according to Which?, were the cereals marketed to children. Of the 28 cereals investigated by the Consumers' Association, some 32 per cent contained 40 per cent of sugar or more and 64 per cent contained 'a lot' of salt.
The report also looked at 11 cereal bars - increasingly used as alternatives to sit-down breakfasts by the time-starved British. While these were found to be better than many sweet biscuits and snack bars, Which? claimed that they were still no substitute for a bowl of cereal as the higher-fibre, low-fat advantages of cereal are mostly lost. Many of the bars contained a lot of saturated fat and all the bars provided less energy and fibre than an equivalent bowl of cereal.
"The new research demonstrates how a traffic light labelling system - allowing consumers to see at a glance how much fat, sugar and salt a product contains - could help consumers to distinguish between good and bad foods and balance their diets accordingly," said Which?. The traffic light system is one of the 12 demands Consumers' Association has made to industry and government.
Using this system, the list of the leading cereal brands marketed at children makes for interesting reading. In terms of sugar, for example, Kellogg's Rice Crispies were the best performer, having a mere 10g/100g, less than half the nearest rival (Nestlé's Cheerios) and four times less than Kellogg's own Frosties Chocolate brand. 'A little' sugar is defined by the Food Standards Agency as less than 2g/100g.
Standard Frosties came in with the best score in terms of fat, however, with just 0.5g/100g, while Nestlé's Lion cereal had a whopping 13.7g/100g, putting it well ahead of the rest. As for salt, Lion was the best performer with just 0.75 g (still three times the rate for 'a little') while another Nestlé brand, Golden Grahams, was the worst offender with 2.5g/100g.
Nick Stace, director of communications at the Consumers' Association, said: "Breakfast cereals have a healthy image, yet our research shows that big brand manufacturers are lacing their cereals with such high levels of sugar and salt that it is no wonder that we have a public health crisis on our hands.
"The government tells us that the obesity debate is on its radar but we are concerned that this is little more than rhetoric. Since we launched our 'Health Warning to Government' last month it has become clear that only sustained pressure will get the messages across. Today's name and shame is the first in a series of attacks to force industry and government into action."The food industry - manufacturers and retailers alike - have pledged to do their bit to help reduce the intake of salt in breakfast cereals, with the British Retail Consortium announcing a major five-year programme designed to bring levels down to 0.7g/100g within that time - although this is still higher than the FSA's lower limit.
Martin Paterson, deputy director general of the Food and Drink Federation in the UK, defended the cereal manufacturers against the Which? claims. "Breakfast makes a major contribution to a well-balanced diet. Every parent knows that that it's important to make breakfast foods attractive and tasty to encourage children to eat breakfast. Breakfast should provide about one quarter of our daily energy intake and breakfast cereals can be a good source of fibre, vitamins and minerals.
"In May 2003, the Food and Drink Federation announced an industry wide programme to reduce salt - or more precisely sodium - for breakfast cereals. The programme showed a 16 per cent reduction in sodium achieved since 1998 in the sector, and an expectation that new products coming to market will continue the trend for products with lower sodium levels."
In searching for a solution to the obesity problem, the finger has repeatedly been pointed at the food industry, accused of marketing sugar-, salt- and fat-laden products to an unsuspecting public and even hiding their tracks with misleading labelling and bogus claims.
Such accusations have been denied by manufacturers, who argue that they are acting entirely within the law by marketing their products in this way, and are merely catering to consumer choice.
Clearer rules on nutritional labelling imposed by Brussels will make it easier for consumers to have a clearer picture of what they are eating - notwithstanding the ongoing disagreements about the efficacy of the information required by the regulators - but a much clearer understanding of the effects of excess salt, sugar and fat consumption is also vital.