Cereal nutrient claims

Are you getting too much of a good thing in your breakfast cereal? Cereal aisles are full of products lauding their iron, folate and calcium content to tempt us to buy.

Bowl of cornflakes

Are you getting too much of a good thing in your breakfast cereal? Cereal aisles are full of products lauding their iron, folate and calcium content to tempt us to buy.

Kellogg’s Special K Forest Berries touts it’s “specially designed for women” and contains “essential nutrients” including calcium for bones and teeth, folate to reduce tiredness, and iron for immunity. Sanitarium Light ‘n’ Tasty cereals have a similar combo of nutrient claims.

Among the products aimed at children, Nestle Nesquik promotes its zinc, calcium, niacin and iron to “help kids’ normal growth and development”.

Along with their claims, another thing these products often have in common is their spoonfuls of sugar. Nestle Nesquik is nearly a third sugar while Kellogg’s Special K Forest Berries has 22%.

Fortifying sugary foods puts a healthy spin on products that may otherwise be low in nutritional value. It’s a marketing ploy to make us think foods are healthier than they really are. But why are manufacturers allowed to get away with it? And do these extra vitamins and minerals do us any good?

What is fortification?

Fortification is simply adding vitamins or minerals to a food. It’s regulated by the Food Standards Code that states which vitamins and minerals can be added to a specific food and the levels allowed. Before allowing a new vitamin or mineral to be added, Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) undertakes a safety assessment to make sure people won’t get too much of a nutrient if they eat a lot of the food.

The code’s policy guidelines say there must be a reason for fortification, such as evidence of a population deficiency or a health benefit. Companies can also fortify a food to compensate for nutrients lost during processing, or fortify foods substituting for another, like adding calcium to soy milk to meet the calcium levels of cow’s milk.

However, when it comes to iron and folate – common nutrients added to cereals – most of us are already getting enough.

Nutrition survey data show less than 1% of Kiwi boys and 8.8% of girls had inadequate levels of folate. Just 2% of the adult population had low red blood folate.

Folate is particularly important for women of child-bearing age – it’s necessary in the early stages of pregnancy. The 2014/15 New Zealand Health Survey found that 84% of women of child-bearing age (15 to 49 years) didn’t have an optimal folate status, and 7% were folate deficient. It’s recommended women planning to get pregnant take a folic acid supplement (see “Pill popping”).

About 7% of Kiwi kids weren’t getting enough iron but the prevalence of iron deficiency was low (1.6%). Inadequate intakes increased for young women, especially once they started menstruating. More than 40% of 15 to 18-year-olds weren’t eating recommended amounts.

Breakfast cereals are one of the major contributors to our iron intake. However, the type of iron in cereals is of low bioavailability compared with food sources such as red meat, Dr Clare Wall, associate professor in nutrition at the University of Auckland, said. “The amount absorbed is quite low. The body is very efficient at regulating iron and excess dietary intake is usually lost in the gut,” she said.

Calcium is a slightly different story. It’s estimated about 45% of men and 70% of women have an inadequate intake. Breakfast cereals aren’t naturally a big contributor to calcium intake but as they’re widely consumed regulators say they are a good vehicle to deliver calcium – especially when eaten with milk. But we could also just up our intake of milk, dairy products and green leafy vegetables.

Mandatory vs voluntary

There are two types of food fortification – mandatory and voluntary.

Mandatory fortification: requires manufacturers to add certain vitamins or minerals to specified foods. It’s only done to address a significant public health need. Most bread must contain iodised salt instead of regular salt to address our significant iodine deficiency.

Voluntary fortification: allows manufacturers to add vitamins and minerals to specified foods, as long as there are permissions in the Food Standards Code. Breakfast cereals can be fortified with a range of nutrients, but the amounts are regulated.

About our test

We sent 25 cereals listing calcium, folate or iron in the nutrition information panel to an independent laboratory to check nutrient levels against the label claim. Our table shows the amount claimed on the label and the amount found in our test.

Test results for folate are shown as a range (based on a ±30% confidence level) rather than a single figure because of the variability in the test method for total folate. Our table shows the minimum and maximum value of this range.

Our results are based on a single sample. Products were purchased in April and May 2018 and had best-before dates ranging from July 2018 to March 2019.

Only one of the cereals we tested, Vogel’s Café-style Luxury Muesli, wasn’t fortified.

Can you trust the label?

Studies have shown there are often much higher levels of vitamins and minerals in breakfast cereals than what’s on the label. This means if you’re eating lots of fortified foods, as well as taking dietary supplements, you risk overdosing on certain nutrients (see “Pill popping”).

Of 25 breakfast cereals we tested, many contained significantly more iron and folate than was listed on the nutrition information panels. Calcium levels were reasonably consistent with label values.

Kellogg’s Special K Forest Berries had 16mg of iron per 100g in our test – more than double the 7.5mg claimed on the label. It was a similar story for Special K Gluten Free. These two cereals also had more than double the amount of folate.

Sanitarium Light ‘n’ Tasty Golden Almond Crunch had nearly double the iron and folate listed on the label. The company says it’s reformulated the product.

Cereals marketed to children also had more of these nutrients than claimed on the label. Woolworths Honey Poppas and Rice Pops had twice as much iron. Kellogg’s Coco Pops and Sultana Bran Buds had at least double the folate. Both Uncle Tobys Cheerio cereals had significantly more iron.

In previous research, the Ministry for Primary Industries found similar over-fortification of breakfast cereals, with some products containing three times the folate, twice the iron and 180% of the calcium compared with the label.

Under the Food Standards Code, manufacturers are required to show nutrients as an average, rather than as a precise amount, to account for variations and any nutrient losses over a product’s shelf-life. Manufacturers we spoke to said they regularly test products to ensure nutrients are consistent with stated averages.

Companies said the vitamin and mineral content of cereals can vary for several reasons. Grains have naturally occurring nutrients that can fluctuate depending on the season and where they’re grown. Nutrients can also degrade over time so higher levels are added to ensure products meet label claims at the end of their shelf-life.

But the latter reason is questionable. University of Otago human nutrition researcher Dr Bernard Venn said the calcium and iron present in a food won’t degrade over time. “Folic acid should also be stable in dry foods such as breakfast cereals,” he said.

Vogel’s Café-style Luxury Muesli Toasted with New Zealand Manuka Honey was the only cereal to have significantly less folate than listed on the box. Its nutrition information panel claimed it contained 92mcg (micrograms) of folate per 100g, but our test results showed less than half that amount (between 24 and 45mcg).

Smartfoods, the manufacturer of Vogel’s muesli, said the folate in this unfortified product is naturally occurring. But it wouldn’t expect the results to vary as much as we found, even accounting for different sampling methods.

As a result of our findings, Smartfoods retested this product and found the test method it originally used had a high margin of error. Vicky Taylor, chief operating officer at Smartfoods, said the company has changed its test method and laboratory. “The nutrition information panel will also be updated to reflect the revised folate content,” she said.

Health spin

Regardless of the reasons manufacturers give for fortification, the policy guidelines state fortified foods shouldn’t promote increased consumption of foods high in salt, sugar or fat.

But a third of the fortified cereals we looked at were high sugar (more than 22.5%).

Nestle Milo Duo highlights its calcium and vitamin D on the front, and Woolworths Honey Poppas claims to be a good source of folate. However, these cereals are more than a quarter sugar.

A further 12 cereals listed sugar as the second largest ingredient.

We don’t think companies should be allowed to fortify sugar-filled cereals. Putting a healthy spin on these types of products could mislead consumers about what they’re eating. Labelling rules need to be strengthened so nutrition claims can’t be made for sugary foods.

Are we overdoing it?

For good health it’s recommended we consume a certain amount of iron, calcium and folate each day. This is known as the recommended dietary intake (RDI).

Depending on the nutrient, RDIs may differ for children and adults, and due to factors such as age and gender. For some nutrients an upper limit (UL) is set – this is the maximum daily intake unlikely to cause adverse health effects.

Nutrient values

Download this table as a PDF here. (16.5 KB)

Pill popping

We’re not just getting our vitamins and minerals from food. Our 2017 consumer survey found 61% of people take dietary supplements. Six out of 10 take them daily. This means if you’re eating a lot of fortified foods, as well as taking dietary supplements, you may be exceeding recommended upper limits.

Adults need about 1000mg of calcium a day but we shouldn’t have more than 2500mg – particularly if the calcium has been added to food or taken as a supplement. Too much calcium from supplements can increase the risk of kidney stones and interact with some medications. Some studies have also shown calcium supplements can increase the risk of heart problems. You’re best to get your calcium from milk and other dairy products.

Folate is particularly important for women planning a pregnancy to reduce the risks of neural tube defects such as spina bifida. The Ministry of Health recommends taking an 800mcg folic acid supplement daily for four weeks before you might become pregnant through to 12 weeks after becoming pregnant. Folic acid is the synthetic form of folate which is used in supplements and fortified foods. Pregnant women are also advised to take an iodine supplement.

Senior lecturer in population health at the University of Auckland Dr Helen Eyles said folate is water soluble and there are generally no adverse effects associated with dietary folate equivalents found naturally in foods. “However, high intakes of folic acid from fortification and/or supplements may cause health issues in some groups, and have been shown to mask vitamin B12 deficiency,” Dr Eyles said.

Most people get enough iron from their diet. However, there are some people who may benefit from an iron supplement such as pregnant women or teenage girls who have higher iron requirements, people with excessive blood loss, or those who don’t absorb iron normally.

Iron supplements can have unpleasant side effects such as nausea, constipation or diarrhoea so check with your doctor before taking them. People susceptible to iron overload (when too much iron builds up in your body) should avoid iron supplements and highly fortified foods.

What we found

Download this table as a PDF here. (21.2 KB)

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