The Environmental Working Group released a report today on children’s cereals, focusing on the amount of sugar in cereals marketed to kids as well as all breakfast cereals in general.

The report is based on a study that found 92 percent of cold cereals have added sugar, and that every single children’s cereal is sweetened in some way. Some cereals can contain several types of sweeteners at once including sugar mixed with corn syrup, honey, dextrose or high fructose corn syrup. Kids can end up eating 10 pounds of sugar each year just from what is added in breakfast cereal.

One surprising find of the study is that the type of cereal that averages the most sugar is not kid’s cereal — it’s granola. The study does make a point of saying that “granolas often contain more fiber and are heavier compared to other cold cereals. Therefore, although granolas have highest sugar content per serving, they are lower in percentage of sugar by weight.”

Children’s cereals weren’t that far behind granola, however. Granola averages 2.7 teaspoons of sugar per serving. Kid’s cereals average 2.6. EWG created a “Hall of Shame,” 12 cereals that are more than 50 percent sugar by weight. There are both national brands and store brands on the list. 

Two cereals tied at the top of the national brand list: Kellogg’s Honey Smacks and Malt-O-Meal Golden Puffs both contain 56 percent sugar by weight and 50 percent of the recommended daily sugar intake per serving. (That recommendation comes from The World Health Organization. The FDA has not set any recommendations about sugar intake, which is why nutrition labels don't have a recommended daily allowance for sugar on them.)

Keep in mind that a serving size of either of those cereals is only 3/4 cup. Most children pour more than that amount into their bowls.

At the top of the store brand “Hall of Shame” list is Liber’s Cocoa Frosted Flakes with a whopping 88 percent sugar by weight and 167 percent of the recommended daily sugar intake per serving. There are certainly lower sugar options in cereal, like Kellogg’s Rice Krispies that are only 12 percent sugar by weight and 13 percent of recommended daily sugar intake. 

Some of these numbers are staggering, but most of them are not unexpected. One thing the study made clear was unexpected, at least for me.

Breakfast cereals are the fifth highest source of added sugars in the diet of children under 8, after sugary drinks, cookies, candy and ice cream.
To me, breakfast cereals seem more like a sugary treat than a meal.

I was sent this EWG report a few days ago, and the timing was relevant. The night before I received it, my 11-year-old and I were in the cereal aisle looking at sugar content in breakfast cereals. I was showing him how to find it and how to do the math to figure out how much sugar is in the cereal. Since sugar on the nutrition label is in grams, it’s difficult to visualize the amount of sugar in any packaged food. When I told him that four grams is about one teaspoon of granulated sugar, he could visualize that. We also looked at serving sizes, and he made the observation that “no one eats just one serving of cereal.”

As my kids get older, they have increasing opportunities to choose foods outside of the house. I don’t just want to tell them, “Don’t eat that. It’s not good for you.” I want them to have a good understanding of what they’re putting in their bodies. I want them to be able to do the math when it comes to nutrition and make educated decisions.

The EWG’s report includes recommendations for parents, policy makers and food manufacturers. Although I do believe that consumers have more of a voice in influencing policy makers and food manufacturers than they did several years ago, changes through those avenues come slowly. Immediate changes, however, can happen if consumers follow some of the EWG’s recommendations for parents — even implementing these recommendations for adults.

  • Reduce sugar consumption from all sources and seek out foods that don't have added sugars.
  • Read the Nutrition Facts labels carefully and choose cereals with the lowest sugar content. Look for cereals that are low-sugar [no more than a teaspoon (4 grams) per serving] or moderately sweetened [less than 1½ teaspoons (6 grams) per serving].
  • Prepare breakfast from scratch as often as possible; add fruit for fiber, potassium and other essential vitamins and minerals.
  • Check out EWG’s Healthy Breakfast Tips for great ideas on making healthy and sustaining breakfasts.
  • Speak out. Use your buying dollars and your words to tell cereal manufacturers you want more low-sugar choices for you and your family.
Do these numbers and recommendations have you rethinking the cereal you give to your family?

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Robin Shreeves ( @rshreeves ) focuses on food from a family perspective from her home base in New Jersey.

Which kid's cereal tops the “Hall of Shame” for sugar content?
According to a new report, children who eat a bowl of children's cereal each day could be eating up to 10 pounds of added sugar a year.