Parents' Frequently Asked Questions
Why the focus on breakfast cereals?
Children see more advertising for breakfast cereals than for any other group of packaged food. Cereal companies spent more than $260 million promoting children's cereals in 2011, and not just on television. They also market extensively on websites, social media, packaging, and in-store promotions.
All of this promotion directly to children undermines parents' efforts to get them to eat healthier options including unsweetened or lightly sweetened cereals and fresh fruits and vegetables.
Isn’t eating anything for breakfast good enough?
Offering better food choices to your child is important. Many years ago the message might have been "eat breakfast," but that was before so many heavily processed foods with minimal nutritional benefits were available. (Remember when breakfast foods were eggs and toast, or plain oatmeal cooked on the stove, or a bowl of unsweetened cold cereal with milk?)
Allowing children to eat many of the processed foods marketed for breakfast contributes to a diet that is high in sugar, sodium, and fat, and relatively low in fiber, which can lead to obesity and type 2 diabetes.
Cereal FACTS reveals that many popular children’s cereals are 30% sugar. Registered dietitians recommend that breakfast include fruit or vegetables (not juice), whole grains, and lean protein. Check out our Tips for a Better Breakfast.
How can I understand the nutrition claims on the packages?
Often the claims on the front of the box are taking the attention away from the details in the nutrition facts panel and the ingredient list. For example, some cereals are able to make a claim of "lower sugar," but in reality all they did was reduce the serving size, which reflects fewer grams of sugar per "serving."
To manage nutrition claims on the front of a cereal package, try these ideas: 1) Use Cereal FACTS to make an informed decision about the cereals you are willing to buy before you go to the store; you might be swayed by price but not the front-of-package marketing when you shop. 2) When you feel drawn to the claim on the package, stop and turn to the nutrition facts and ingredient list; let the facts guide your choice. 3) If you are interested in a nutrition claim on the front of the package, wait to buy that cereal until you have been able to check out the facts to decide if it will be on your "willing to buy" list for the next trip to the store.
Is there anything I can do to help reduce the marketing of cereals to children?
- Stop purchasing the product. If you don’t like their marketing practices, don’t support their practices.
- Write a letter to the company to let them know that you would like them to stop marketing to your children.
- Share Cereal FACTS with others.
How did you come up with the nutrition scores?
Trying to decide if a cereal is nutritious can be a challenge when there are many brands and varieties, each with different amounts of nutrients. To add more confusion, there are many labeling systems on cereal boxes that attempt to give you information about how nutritious the product is. Which one is right?
There are various nutrition profiling systems being used around the world. After thoroughly reviewing them all, we adapted a system from the Nutrient Profiling Model currently used by the UK's Office of Communications to identify nutritious foods that are appropriate to advertise to children on television. It provides an overall nutrition score for a product based on its total calories and mix of healthy and unhealthy ingredients (like sugar, sodium, and fiber). This model has several advantages over other scoring systems: 1) It was developed by nutrition researchers at Oxford University independent of industry funding, 2) The calculations behind the scoring system are available to the public, and 3) It is consistent with the judgment of professional nutritionists and existing nutrition science.
What do the scores mean?
The scores that cereals received using our model allow you to see a cereal's nutrition score relative to others, rather than simply designating it as "good" or "bad." Since the original scores are not clear (they range from 34 to -15, with higher scores indicating worse nutrition), we converted the scores into a simpler format. For this we used the following mathematical equation: Our Score = (-2) x (NP score) + 70, which produces a score from 0 (poorest nutritional quality) to 100 (highest nutritional quality) that is easy to understand and compare.
What other methods were used to evaluate nutrition quality?
We also looked at the sugar, fiber, saturated fat, and sodium content of cereals separately to highlight any differences in individual nutrients. A final factor was whether the cereals contain artificial food dyes or artificial sweeteners.
Does this study rank companies and cereals based on nutrition or marketing?
Both. This research provides separate rankings for cereal nutrition and marketing practices.
What about food company pledges to be more responsible in how they market to children?
Through the Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI), sponsored by the Council of Business Bureaus, most of the largest food marketers have pledged to reduce the marketing of the least healthy products to children. Our research shows that the CFBAI has not significantly reduced the amount of cereal advertising to children on television. The average child in the U.S. views over 700 ads on television each year for cereals of the poorest nutritional quality.
What about company efforts to make foods healthier?
The larger cereal companies have improved the nutrition of some cereals, but to a small extent. Approximately two-thirds of child and family products have been reformulated, reducing sugar content from three-and-a-half teaspoons to three teaspoons per serving. New cereals that companies brought to market, as well as adaptations of existing brands, also failed to meet reasonable nutrition standards, as noted by the nutrition scores
Many of the cereals only have 10g of sugar; is that really a big deal?
10g of sugar for one serving is actually quite a lot. Let’s start with the serving size – for most of the high-sugar cereals, the serving size is ¾ of a cup. Measure out ¾ of a cup for your child’s breakfast tomorrow and see if that is what they usually eat. Many children eat about twice that much cereal at breakfast (especially the high-sugar varieties). If your child is eating 1 ½ cups of cereal each morning, that would be 20g of added sugar to start the day.
Put another way, 20g of sugar is 5 teaspoons of added sugar. And the calories provided by sugar provide no nutritional benefit. Those sugar calories (80 calories for 2 servings) are half of the calories the USDA recommends as a limit for many children for the entire day from "solid fats and added sugars."