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Lose the sugar in your kids’ cereals for health’s sake

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The ongoing epidemic of childhood obesity is jeopardizing the health and future well-being of our children. According to the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, it is both a national and local problem. Since the 1970s, national childhood obesity rates have tripled. In Los Angeles County, more than 1 in 5 students in the fifth, seventh, and ninth grades are now obese. A comprehensive analysis released on May 15 by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), an environmental health research and advocacy organization, found that many breakfast cereals are loaded with sugar.

The investigators analyzed 1,556 cereals, including 181 marketed for children; they found that most contain so much sugar that someone eating an average serving of a typical children’s cereal would consume more than 10 pounds of sugar a year from that source alone. A typical serving of these cereals can contain as much sugar as three Chips Ahoy! or two Keebler Fudge Stripe cookies. EWG noted that their study found that children enjoy eating low-sugar cereals; however, the supermarket cereal aisle offers few such products. In addition, they found that children’s cereals with cartoon characters on the box are among the most highly sweetened of all.

In addition to the new analysis, a smaller sample of 84 popular children’s cereals were previously evaluated in 2011 were reanalyzed. This analysis found that while a few of manufacturers lowered the sugar content of 11 cereals in that sample, the vast majority are still too sweet to be healthy: they averaged two teaspoons per serving. One cereal added even more sugar. Not one of the 10 cereals with the highest sugar content on EWG’s 2011 list had a decreased its sugar content.

The EWG notes that cereals can provide important nutrients that children need during critical times of growth and development; however, the added sugar detracts from its nutritional value. A much healthier choice would be unsweetened whole-grain hot cereals such as oatmeal with fruit on top; this breakfast meal would provide a rich source of naturally occurring vitamins and minerals without any empty calories. Unfortunately, hot cereals require additional prep time, which is a problem for busy families. The reality, however, is that hot cereals can be less convenient for busy families; however, with a little extra planning, providing healthier cereals can be shoehorned into a busy morning routine.

EWG found that on average, 34% of the calories in children’s cereals come from sugar. For most of these cereals, a single serving contains more than a third of what experts recommend children consume in an entire day. For 40 cereals, a single serving exceeds 60% of the daily amount of sugar suggested by healthcare advocacy groups. Some cereals contain as many as six different types of sweeteners.

AT a casual glance, the typical supermarket cereal aisle appears to be full of choices, the analysts found that there were very few low-sugar options, particularly among cereals marketed for children. Among the 181 products examined, not one was free of added sugars. EWG also discovered that promotional labeling on cereal boxes is designed to distract consumers from focusing on the unhealthy sugar content; this is done by making claims that the product provides important nutrients, such as “Excellent Source of Vitamin D” or “Good Source of Fiber.” The labels on seven of the 10 children’s cereals with the highest sugar content in EWG’s 2011 cereal report currently feature a marketing claim promoting their nutrient content.

Take home message:

The suggestion to feed your children health hot cereals is a good one. With some planning, it can be accomplished in a busy household. As a general rule of thumb, avoid cereals with cartoon characters. Read cereal labels thoroughly and try to ferret out the healthiest choices among the myriad of sugar-loaded junk cereals.