Breakfast Cereals: Why all the bad press..?

The media is constantly full of articles and comments criticizing the breakfast cereals we have on offer today. But do these products really deserve the bad reputation they have gained? I set out to explain…

Food Industry and Breakfast Cereals | Sugar and Salt in Breakfast Cereals

Supermarkets today are a rather overwhelming experience. With such a huge wealth of foods on offer, it can sometimes be hard to even know where to start with your weekly food shop. The breakfast cereal aisle is no different. On recently visiting a large chain supermarket (not a regular occurrence), I was flabbergasted by the sheer number of cereals on offer. It seemed that both sides of a whole aisle were dedicated to people’s daily fast-breaking foods.

It is no wonder people are confused by what is and isn’t healthy when looking at the varying labels; some cereals state the nutritional content per 45g, some per 40g with added milk, some per 30g and so on.

After spending some time in this aisle, I was able to find three cereals which would be categorised by Government standards as low in salt and sugar. I was able to do this by checking the amount of sugar and fat per 100grams of the product (for more information see our Label Reading blog).

The rest of the cereal products available – a number of which were brandishing slogans claiming to be “a source of wholegrain”, “a source of fibre” and “now with added vitamins and minerals” – were moderate to high in salt, sugar or both.

Notably those cereals high in salt and sugar were, more often than not, the ones advertised as children’s cereals.

Different brands and different types of cereal all varied in their content – with some having as much as 40g of sugar per 100 grams of the product (that is 40% sugar!)

The problem is that many parents are unaware that they are offering their children cereals that are not too dissimilar in their sugar content to a bar of chocolate (around 50% sugar) in the morning. During workshops with parents I have often been asked – “How and why are they allowed to advertise these to my children?” Good question.

For the cereal manufacturers the defence is always the same – all the information is provided clearly on the nutrition panel for consumers to make their own decisions. No matter that, for the average person, the labels are too confusing to understand.

Another issue is that for mothers who have made a decision to offer more appropriate, healthier cereals to their children, there is sometimes the problem of food refusal. The reason for this is simple. We are born with an innate preference for sweet foods. The more sweet food we are exposed to, the more accustomed our palate becomes to sugar and therefore in comparison, less sweet foods taste bland and “disgusting” to children who have grown to love the sweet taste of sugar coated cereals.

So what is the answer and how can we get our children off these sugar-crammed cereals?

  • First and foremost, try not to offer these as everyday breakfast foods initially. Instead, offer them as a treat after dinner or on a weekend.
  • Gradually offer less and less of the sugary cereals over time and instead offer some healthier alternatives with a few handfuls of dried or frozen fruits to add in some sweetness.
  • Check the labels on all cereals and try a variety of healthier options until you find one your little one likes.
  • As a rule of thumb, avoid cereals with fun characters on the front of the packet; these are obviously advertised to young children. Try not to get sucked in to health claims on the front of the pack.
  • Practise role modelling and allow your child to see you and the rest of your family eating and enjoying healthier cereals and alternative breakfasts (see below).
  • Be persistent and consistent. As soon as you give in and go back to the original cereal every morning, your child will know they have control.
  • Try and offer a variety of breakfasts each morning including scrambled egg, omelettes, wholemeal toast, yoghurt and fruit, homemade oaty smoothies, porridge and even a grilled full English. For more ideas see our blog post on Healthy Breakfasts.Top Tips for a Healthy Breakfast

For now the Supermarkets “Responsibility Deal” means that many supermarkets and somemanufacturers will be working to decrease the levels of sugar in cereals, but this will be a slow and very gradual process which certainly won’t happen overnight. Therefore for now, we have to take some responsibility and try and make beneficial changes to our dietary intake and to that of our children.