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Fortified breakfast cereals harmful to children’s health, study finds

Kellog's Cocoa Krispies is one of several breakfast cereals with levels of nutrients that may be toxic to children.
Kellog's Cocoa Krispies is one of several breakfast cereals with levels of nutrients that may be toxic to children.
CycloneBill/flickr (CC BY-SA)

Breakfast cereals and snack bars fortified with vitamins and minerals are providing toxic levels of vitamin A, niacin and zinc to children, according to a press statement released today by the Environmental Working Group (EWG). The EWG analyzed more than 1,550 breakfast cereals and 1,000 snack bars and identified 141 over-fortified products. Nearly half of American children, age 8 and younger, are consuming harmful levels of these nutrients, the EWG found.

Kellog’s Cocoa Krispies, Krave and Product 19 and General Mill’s Wheaties Fuel and Total Raising Bran are listed among the top over-fortified cereals, which pose a health risk to young children. Marathon Protein Bars, Balance Bars and PowerBar Protein Plus snack bars were also found to have levels of vitamins and minerals in excess of what is safe for children to consume. Additionally, pregnant women who consume products fortified with high levels of vitamin A put their unborn child at risk for developmental abnormalities.

“Heavily fortified foods may sound like a good thing, but it when it comes to children and pregnant women, excessive exposure to high nutrient levels could actually cause short or long-term health problems.” — Renee Sharp, EWG research director

The report blames antiquated Food and Drug Administration (FDA) nutritional labeling and aggressive marketing by cereal manufacturers for the problem. The FDA Recommended Daily Values of many vitamins and minerals were calculated over 40 years ago and are based on dietary needs of adults, not children. Manufacturers mislead consumers by marketing excessively fortified cereals and snack bars as being healthier products. According to dietician Ashley Kroff, higher levels of nutrients does not make a product more nutritious.

Excessive doses of vitamin A can lead to brittle nails, hair loss, headaches, fever and weight loss. In extreme cases, it may lead to liver damage. In infants, it can cause intracranial and skeletal abnormalities. Vitamin A toxicity in the elderly may contribute to osteoporosis and hip fractures. Excessive amounts of zinc can suppress the immune system, and toxic levels of niacin may produce nausea, blurred vision and liver damage.

The EWG recommends that parents carefully read nutrition labels. Children should not be eating foods that contain more than 20 to 25 percent of an adult’s Recommended Daily Values of vitamin A, niacin or zinc. A well-balanced diet with a wide variety of fruits and vegetables will provide a child with all the vitamins and minerals necessary for optimal health.