A staggering two-thirds of the kids’ breakfast cereals we surveyed had more than our maximum criteria for sugar. The cereals we looked at appeal to children by using bright packaging, sweet flavours or a range of promotional activities. What they don’t necessarily provide is a healthy meal.
About our survey
We bought 51 cereals marketed to children. We also included cereals that are commonly eaten by children (such as wheat biscuits and porridge) to see how they compared.
We've used green, orange and red "traffic light" symbols to show the fat, saturated fat, sugar and sodium in the products (see our tables below). If you see a red light, you know the food is high in something you may be trying to cut down on. Green means the food has low amounts of it; orange fits somewhere in between.
What we found
Kids need a nutritious breakfast but – as we found – it’s hard work cutting through the marketing hype on the supermarket shelf.
Cereal grains in their natural form contain little sugar. But many of the cereals in our survey have sucrose, glucose or honey added.
35 cereals in our survey got a red light for sugar. The worst offenders were Budget Cocoa Puffs, Home Brand Cocoa Puffs, Home Brand Honey Poppas, Hubbards Big Bugs ‘n’ Mud, Hubbards Honey Bumbles, Kellogg’s Coco Pops, Kellogg’s Froot Loops, Kellogg’s Frosties, Pams Coco Snaps, Pams Honey Snaps and Select Honey Nut Corn Flakes. All these had more than 2½ teaspoons of sugar in a 30g serving.
In some cases it’s obvious. Anything with “honey” in the product name will be high in sugar. You can also check the ingredients list. If sugar – or one of its aliases such as sucrose, glucose or honey – is in the first few ingredients, don’t buy it.
Dried fruit adds to the sugar content. But dried fruit contains fibre and other nutrients. Two cereals in our survey had fruit in their ingredients list – we’ve noted that in our product comparison table.
Our table includes some good low-sugar options such as wheat biscuits or porridge. Your kids may need to add a little sugar to their bowl – but at least you’re aware of how much sugar they’re consuming.
We didn’t include all brands of porridge in our survey because they all have similar nutrition information. Watch out for the sweetened varieties, though.
Sodium (the “baddie” in salt) is added to some cereals during processing. Home Brand Corn Flakes, Home Brand Rice Pops, Hubbards Cornflakes, Kellogg’s Crispix Honey, Pams Corn Flakes, Pams Rice Snaps and Sanitarium Ricies, all have at least 600mg per 100g.
In 2010 HeartSAFE (a collaboration between manufacturers, the Heart Foundation and the government) developed best practice guidelines for reducing sodium levels in breakfast cereals. That seems to be having an effect: since our last survey in 2008 we’ve seen some positive results on sodium. Pams Corn Flakes, Sanitarium Skippy Cornflakes, Sanitarium Ricies, Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, Kellogg’s Rice Bubbles, Kellogg’s Coco Pops Chex, Kellogg’s Nutri-Grain, Kellogg’s Coco Pops, Kellogg’s Frosties and Kellogg’s Froot Loops all had a lower sodium content than in 2008.
Breakfast is a good way to boost fibre intake. But many kids’ cereals are fibre-flimsy: 21 products in our survey have less than 5g fibre per 100g.
Unfortunately, 4 cereals – Budget Cocoa Puffs, Home Brand Cocoa Puffs, Home Brand Rice Pops and Pams Coco Snaps – don’t list their fibre content.
They don’t have to: the Food Standards Code doesn’t require it unless the product’s making a carbohydrate claim. However, we think every breakfast cereal should have this information – and it’s disappointing that these supermarket home brands don’t.
Children need a daily fibre intake of 5g to 10g plus 1g for each year of their age. So a 5-year-old should eat 10g to 15g of fibre a day.
There’s not a lot of fat or saturated fat in most cereals. Muesli is the main fat-offender, but we didn’t include mueslis in our survey.
Wider health issues
Around 10 percent of Kiwi kids and young teens don’t eat breakfast regularly. Eating breakfast is associated with a healthy body weight and better nutrient intake – kids are more likely to be hungry mid-morning and snack on unhealthy foods if they skip breakfast. Missing out on breakfast can also have a negative impact on cognitive function, academic performance, school attendance and mood.
Tooth decay and obesity
Our kids have a big problem with tooth decay. The 2009 New Zealand Oral Health Survey found that 23 percent of children aged 5 to 11 had a tooth filled. This rate increased to 55 percent for children aged 12 to 17. Sucrose is of particular concern because when it’s metabolised it produces dextrans, which let bacteria stick to the teeth more easily.
And then there’s our increasing problem with obesity: in the 2011/12 New Zealand Health Survey, 21 percent of children aged 2 to 14 were overweight and a further 10 percent were obese (up from 8 percent in 2006/07). Sugar adds empty kilojoules which may lead to weight gain.
Of course breakfast cereals aren’t the only culprit. But they do contribute to our children’s sugar intake. According to Ministry of Health surveys, a high proportion of carbohydrate intake for children comes from refined cereals and sugar. Choosing the right cereal may help make a difference.
Tip: For healthy breakfasting, nothing beats wheat biscuits or porridge – just don’t pile on the sugar!
- Kids don’t need “special” foods that are brightly coloured and high in sugar. It’s important not to encourage a sweet tooth early in life.
- Breakfast is an important contributor to fibre intake – so fibre content should be listed on all breakfast cereals’ packaging, not just on some.
- Don’t buy a cereal just because it claims vitamins, minerals or other nutritional benefits. Your best guide is the nutrition information panel and ingredients list on the pack. We’d like to see front-of-pack “traffic light” labelling to make it easier for consumers to choose.
Report by Belinda Castles.