Parents wishing to give their kids a good start to the day have good reason to be concerned about the amount of sugar in children’s breakfast cereals, says the Environmental Working Group (EWG), in its recent review of 84 popular brands sold in the United States. According to EWG’s analysis, the worst offender is Kellogg’s Honey Smacks, which comprises nearly 56% sugar by weight; in fact, a one-cup serving of this cereal contains 20 grams of sugar, which is more than you will find in a Hostess Twinkie snack cake. And one cup of any of another 44 cereals, including the popular Cap’n Crunch and Honey Nut Cheerios, contains more sugar than three Chips Ahoy! cookies, or about three teaspoons.

EWG’s Senior Vice President of Research, Jane Houlihan, said:

“As a mom of two, I was stunned to discover just how much sugar comes in a box of children’s cereal.”

She said the bottom line message of the EWG report is “most parents would never serve dessert for breakfast, but many children’s cereals have just as much sugar, or more”.

Based on percentage sugar by weight, the EWG analysis finds that the 10 worst children’s cereals are:

  1. Kellogg’s Honey Smacks (55.6% sugar by weight).
  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%)

Only one in four of the cereals the EWG reviewed meets the government’s recommended guideline of no more than 26% added sugar by weight. The guideline comes from the federal Interagency Working Group on Food Marketed to Children, which proposed standards to Congress to curb marketing of children’s food with too much sugar, salt and fat as a response to the growing obesity crisis.

The EWG wants the guideline, which is unenforceable, it is up to cereal producers to take it up voluntarily, to be even tighter than 26%.

NYU nutrition professor Marion Nestle said cereal companies spend a fortune convincing parents that kids should have cereal for breakfast, and that sugary cereals are fun, and all kids like them. It is an interesting fact that the cereals at the top of the EWG highest-sugar list also happen to make the most profit for their producers, who invest upwards of £20 million a year in advertising those brands.

“No public health agency has anywhere near the education budget equivalent to that spent on a single cereal. Kids should not be eating sugar for breakfast. They should be eating real food,” said Nestle.

Health expert Dr Andrew Weil remembers when he went to medical school in the 60s, the view was that sugar was a fairly harmless food item that gave “empty calories” but no vitamins or minerals or fiber.

“But 50 years of nutrition research has confirmed that sugar is actually the single most health-destructive component of the standard American diet. The fact that a children’s breakfast cereal is 56% sugar by weight – and many others are not far behind – should cause national outrage,” said Weil.

Research shows that compared to kids who eat breakfast with less sugar, kids who eat high sugar breakfasts have a harder time at school: they experience higher levels of frustration and find it more difficult to work independently. Also, by lunchtime, they are hungrier, have less energy, find it harder to pay attention and concentrate, and they make more mistakes.

Add to this the fact that the rate of childhood obesity has tripled in the US in the last three decades, to the point where now, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in five children is obese, and rates of type 2 diabetes in children are also rising rapidly, and we may well be facing the unprecedented scenario that the children of today will have a shorter lifespan that their parents.

If you want to buy cereal for your children, but are not sure how to choose the right one, then you would do well to pay more attention to the back of the packet than the front. Nestle recommends that you look for:

  • Cereals with a short ingredient list (added vitamins and minerals are okay),
  • Cereals high in fiber, and
  • Cereals with little or no added sugars. Added sugar includes: honey, molasses, fruit juice concentrate, brown sugar, corn sweetener, sucrose, lactose, glucose, high-fructose corn syrup and malt syrup.

Nestle says that one of the best and easy breakfasts you can make for your children is fresh fruit with high-fiber, lower-sugar cereal. For an even more nutritious breakfast, take out the cereal and put in homemade oatmeal.

Click here to download a PDF of the full EWG report: “Sugar in Children’s Cereals”.

Written by Catharine Paddock PhD