Breakfast or Dessert? How Much Sugar Is In Your Kid's Cereal?

When I was a kid, trips through the cereal aisle at the supermarket led me to lament my tragic fate as an innocent victim of tremendous injustice perpetrated by tyrannical parents whose sole objective was to impose unfairness and stifle happiness.  You see, my mother, brazenly defying the Saturday morning cartoon marketing machine, maintained a draconian breakfast cereal procurement policy: No buying kids' cereals. EVER!

So while all the cool kids enjoyed the super-awesome-funtime breakfasts aggressively promoted by Captain Crunch, Toucan Sam, Lucky the Leprechaun, Ice Cream Jones (mascot of Ice Cream Cones cereal {yeah; it really existed}) and the Gotta-Have-My-Pops brats, my sisters and I were stuck eating boring healthful cereals with intentionally unhip packaging and a conspicuous lack of super-awesomeness.  Sometimes, my mother would unapologetically up the uncool factor by adding slices of fresh fruit.  Insufferable!

In retrospect, of course, this was among the many situations in which my mother knew better than I.  This was because mom recognized – even during the dark days of information obfuscation that existed before the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act mandated meaningful labeling in the 90s – that the cereals being marketed to kids were mostly crap.

According to a report released today by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), not much has changed.  After assessing 84 popular children’s breakfast cereals, EWG determined that only one in four meets the voluntary dietary guidelines proposed by the federal Interagency Working Group on Food Marketed to Children (more about these guidelines later).  The biggest problem: too much sugar.  Or, more accurately, WAY too much sugar; 56 of the assessed cereals contained more than 24 percent sugar by volume, and 44 contain more sugar per cup than three Chips Ahoy! cookies (11 grams).  The worst offender was Kellogg’s Honey Smacks – at almost 56 percent sugar by weight, this mediocre dessert popular breakfast cereal contains more sugar than a Hostess Twinkie!

“Now hold on a moment,” you might protest, “what’s wrong with feeding kids a handful or five of sugar for breakfast?”  Well, Tony the Tiger, widespread consumption of an overwhelming excess of empty calories is currently contributing to the alarming epidemic of childhood obesity (which has equally alarming implications for future rates of adult overweight and obesity).  Furthermore, as described within the report:

Studies suggest that children who eat high-sugar breakfasts have more problems at school. They become more frustrated and have a harder time working independently than kids who eat lower-sugar breakfasts. By lunchtime they have less energy, are hungrier, show attention deficits and make more mistakes on their work. (Warren 2003, Ingwersen 2007, Benton 2007).

Laboratory studies suggest that sugar is habit-forming, stimulating the same brain responses as opiates (Avena 2008). A case can be made that sugar acts as a drug, enticing kids to eat more and more.

Certainly not a desirable outcome.  “Well, hey, shouldn’t someone be doing something about this?!”  Of course.  And in fact, Congress finally stepped up and created the federal Interagency Working Group on Food Marketed to Children, a team of nutrition scientists and marketing experts tasked with developing nutritional guidelines for cereals and other foods marketed to kids.  Earlier this year, the group issued proposed guidelines, which, while not exactly as ambitious as most advocates would hope (e.g., they allow kids' cereal to contain as much as 26 percent sugar by weight), would certainly improve the status quo.

Needless to say, cereal manufacturers and other players in the kids' food industry weren’t wild about the prospect of adhering to even these modest guidelines.  So they employed the classic, pull-together-some-junk-science-and-set-your-own-standards technique!  In this case, industry launched the Better Business Bureau’s Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, which developed voluntary nutritional guidelines for foods marketed to kids.  It should come as no surprise that these guidelines were much less stringent than those proposed by the Interagency Working Group (for instance, the industry supported standards allow almost 50 percent more sugar than IWG’s proposed standards).

Infuriating.  As were some of the other findings presented in EWG’s report; for instance, it turns out that high sugar content isn’t the only way that kids' cereals are out of step with the proposed federal nutritional guidelines; 71 cereals contained more than 140 mg of sodium, 26 cereals were not predominantly whole grain and seven cereals had more than one gram of saturated fat.

You can find a complete analysis of all 84 children’s cereals in the report (see below for a list of the best and worst cereals).  EWG also includes tips for picking more nutritious cereals, along with healthful non-cereal breakfast alternatives. Good info for smart parents who hope to emulate my mom’s forward-thinking approach to the most important meal of the day.  And don’t worry - your kids will thank you later.

10 Worst Children’s Cereals
Based on percent sugar by weight.

  1. Kellogg’s Honey Smacks 55.6%
  2. Post Golden Crisp 51.9%
  3. Kellogg’s Froot Loops Marshmallow 48.3%
  4. Quaker Oats Cap'n Crunch’s OOPS! All Berries 46.9%
  5. Quaker Oats Cap'n Crunch Original 44.4%
  6. Quaker Oats Oh!s 44.4%
  7. Kellogg’s Smorz 43.3%
  8. Kellogg’s Apple Jacks 42.9%
  9. Quaker Oats Cap'n Crunch’s Crunch Berries 42.3%
  10. Kellogg’s Froot Loops Original 41.4%

Best and Good Cereals
These cereals pass the proposed federal guidelines on sugar, sodium, fat and whole-grain content. They are free of artificial flavors, colors and artificial sweeteners such as aspartame and sucralose.

20 Best Cereals
These cereals are also free of pesticides and genetically modified ingredients.
Ambrosia Granola : Athenian Harvest Muesli
Go Raw : Live Granola, Live Chocolate Granola and Simple Granola
Grandy Oats : Mainely Maple Granola, Cashew Raisin Granola and Swiss Style Muesli
Kaia Foods : Buckwheat Granola Dates & Spices and Buckwheat Granola Raisin Cinnamon
Laughing Giraffe : Cranberry Orange Granola
Lydia’s Organics : Apricot Sun, Berry Good, Grainless Apple, Sprouted Cinnamon and Vanilla Crunch
Nature’s Path Organic : Optimum Banana Almond, Optimum Cranberry Ginger, Corn Puffs, Millet Puffs and Rice Puffs

6 Good Big-Brand Children’s Cereals
Kellogg’s Mini-Wheats
--Unfrosted Bite-Size
--Frosted Big Bite
--Frosted Bite-Size
--Frosted Little Bite
General Mills Cheerios Original
General Mills Kix Original