Despite Numerous Nutrient Claims Children's Cereals Less Healthy than Adult Cereals

Despite numerous nutrient claims on the box, children’s breakfast cereals are still higher in calories, sugar, and salt than in an equal amount of adult cereals, according to a study by Yale’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity.

One in five middle school students and one in three high school students do not eat breakfast. There are a number of public health and food industry initiatives to encourage children to eat breakfast, particularly cereal, so the nutritional content is important, said Marlene Schwartz, deputy director of the center, senior research scientist, and lead author of the study.

“Health professionals need to encourage not only breakfast, but a healthy breakfast. This is hard because the breakfast cereals marketed to children are the least healthy choices,” she said.

Schwartz and her colleagues examined 161 breakfast cereals from four leading manufacturers and compared nutritional values of children’s and nonchildren’s cereals to national guidelines. They found that when comparing nutrients per gram, children’s cereals were higher in calories, sodium, carbohydrate, and sugar, but significantly lower in fiber and protein. They also found that the majority of children’s cereals, 66 percent, failed to meet national recommended nutritional standards for foods sold in schools.

“In other words, children’s cereals have too much of the nutrients you don’t want and too little of the nutrients you do want,” she said.

The research team also examined nutrient claims such as “low fat” or “reduced sugar” found on the boxes of children’s cereals. When cereals with and without these claims were compared, there was no difference in overall calories.

“People may assume that a low fat or reduced sugar cereal will help children limit the calories they are taking in, but this is not the case,” Schwartz said. “We found that cereals with nutrient claims have just as many calories as those without such claims.”

She added that products that display nutrient content or health claims have the potential to create a “halo effect” where consumers perceive the product as more healthful than warranted, and subsequently ignore other relevant nutrition information, such as calories or appropriate serving size.

Journal of the American Dietetic Association: April 2008

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