EWG slams added sugar in kids' cereals; Gen Mills says it's leading the way in sugar reduction

By Maggie Hennessy

- Last updated on GMT

EWG report: On average, 34% of the calories in children’s cereals come from sugar, with children's cereals and granolas containing 40% more sugar on average than adult cereals and twice that of oatmeal.
EWG report: On average, 34% of the calories in children’s cereals come from sugar, with children's cereals and granolas containing 40% more sugar on average than adult cereals and twice that of oatmeal.

Related tags Sugar Breakfast cereal

A recent analysis of more than 1,500 cereals, including 181 marketed for children, by the Environmental Working Group found that a person eating an average serving of cereal a day for a year ends up consuming 10 pounds of sugar.

The EWG analysis​ focused on the total sugar content by weight of 1,556 cereals, compared with guidelines issued by federal health agencies and other organizations. The researchers found that the cereals that have cartoon characters on the box indicating they are marketed directly to children tend to contain the most added sugar—with some containing as many as six different types of sweeteners. (Packaging displaying a picture of a child, a family, prizes or games was classified as being marketed to families; and all others were classified as marketed to adults.)

Every cold cereal marketed to kids contains added sugar. On average, 34% of the calories in children’s cereals come from sugar, with children's cereals and granolas containing 40% more sugar on average than adult cereals and twice that of oatmeal, EWG found. A typical serving contains 2 1/2 teaspoons, the equivalent of three Chips Ahoy! or two Keebler Fudge Stripe cookies.

Most sugary cereals
Source: Environmental Working Group

Twelve of the cereals analyzed are composed of more than 50% sugar, including Kellogg’s Honey Smacks, Malt-O-Meal Golden Puffs and Post Golden Crisp. And for 40 of the cereals examined, EWG found a single serving exceeded 60% of the daily amount of sugar suggested by health agencies and organizations. 

The least sugary cereals—containing just 3% of daily recommended sugar intake—were Kellogg’s Rice Krispies, General Mills’ Cheerios and Post 123 Sesame Street, C is for Cereal. 

General Mills: ‘We’re leading the kids’ cereal market in sugar reduction’

In response to the study, a General Mills spokesperson told FoodNavigator-USA that all of the company's “Big G” cereals advertised to children contain 10 grams of sugar or less per serving, with some at 9 grams. “General Mills has led the way in reducing the sugar content in cereals advertised to children—lowering sugar levels by 16% on average since 2007,”​ said PR manager Kris Patton in an email.

In its study, EWG also re-reviewed a smaller sample of 84 popular children’s cereals that it had previously evaluated in 2011, finding that while a handful of manufacturers lowered sugar content of 11 cereals in that sample, the vast majority still average two teaspoons per serving. For some perspective, the US government’s supplemental nutrition program for Women, Infants and Children requires a cereal contain no more than 1½ teaspoons (6 grams, or less than 21% by weight) of sugar per one-ounce serving to be eligible for incorporation.

Kellogg: EWG report ignores better overall nutrition of cereal eaters

A Kellogg’s spokesperson noted that the report fails to factor in the better overall nutrition profile of people who eat cereal for breakfast, adding that Kellogg has taken significant steps to reduce sugar and sodium.

“It is unfortunate that the EWG study focuses on a single ingredient and ignores the significant research showing that people who start the day with a cereal breakfast have improved nutrition intakes and tend to weigh less, including those who choose pre-sweetened cereals,” ​company spokesperson Kris Charles said. “The study also doesn’t take into account a USDA report published in the June issue of ​ProcediaFood Science showing that cereal companies have increased fiber in their foods by 32% and reduced sugar and sodium by 10 and 14%, respectively. For example, over time, Kellogg has reduced the sugar in our top-selling kids’ cereals by 20 to 30%.”

Citing data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, Patton added that ready-to-eat cereals are among the lowest calorie, highest nutrient food choices available for kids: “Cereal and milk eating occasions account for more than 40% of the milk kids consume, but only around 4% of sugar in kids' diets comes from presweetened cereal,” ​she said.

EWG’s report also found that marketing claims related to important nutrients (such as “Excellent Source of Vitamin D” or “Good Source of Fiber”) distract consumers from the added sugar content. Indeed, the labels on seven of the 10 most heavily sugared children’s cereals cited in the 2011 EWG report currently feature a marketing claim promoting their nutrient content.


Americans averaging 22 teaspoons of sugar per day

The FDA has yet to establish a limit on the amount of added sugars allowed in products that make nutritional claims, nor is there an established Daily Value for sugar on the Nutrition Facts panel required on food products to help inform consumers how much sugar is too much. The agency does both for saturated fat.

In the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Agriculture recommended that solid fats and added sugar together should constitute no more than about 5 to 15% of total calorie intake. Currently, Americans consume 22 teaspoons of sugar a day on average, which amounts to 16% of total calorie intake from added sugars alone. Given growing concerns about the role of added sugars in contributing to the obesity epidemic, the World Health Organization recently lowered its recommendation for added sugar intake, to 5% from 10% of total calories.

Earlier this year, the FDA proposed listing added sugar content in the Nutrition Facts panel. And while the proposed regulations do place more emphasis on calories and serving sizes, they do not update the serving sizes for cereals specifically.

And yet, portion sizes are a big part of the problem, particularly when it comes to cereal. FDA data show that the average American eats 30% more than the amount used to set the labeled serving sizes for the most popular category of cold cereals. This means that on average, people consume even more sugar than the labels indicate.

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