In nearly three-dozen brands, sugar makes up more than a third of the cereal by weight, the study said. Those include the original and “marshmallow” versions of Kellogg’s Froot Loops, as well as the original and “all berries” version of Quaker Oats Cap’n Crunch.
“Most parents would never serve dessert for breakfast, but many children’s cereals have just as much sugar or more,” said Jane Houlihan, senior vice president of research for the group, a nonprofit that researches everything from the safety of sunscreens to pesticides in foods. “I wasn’t surpised that so many of these cereals contained sugar. I was suprised at the very high amounts.”
The report comes at a time when the federal government is considering voluntary guidelines for foods marketed to children. With obesity rates at epidemic levels, a federal inter-agency group wants the industry to limit the sodium, fats and added sugars in the foods and drinks advertised to kids ages 2 to 17.
But the industry has lobbied against the proposal, which would take effect in 2016. Food companies say the guidelines are back-door regulations that would effectively ban food advertising to youth because they are so severe.
The guidelines allow for 13 grams of added sugar per 50 grams of cereal, so that a cereal can be about one-quarter sugar by weight. Two-thirds of the children’s cereals analyzed exceed that threshold, the Environmental Working Group said.
The industry prefers its own standard, unveiled in July, that calls for no more than 10 grams of sugar per listed serving size, starting in 2013. Most of the cereals analyzed now meet that threshold, but a quarter do not, the study said.
Many cereal makers say the study is misleading on several fronts.
For starters, only two cereals on the group’s “10 worst” list are marketed to kids, industry advocates said. Those two are Kellogg’s Apple Jacks and Froot Loops Original. Food firms stopped advertising products with more than 12 grams of sugar to children under age 12 starting in 2006, when the industry adopted its own marketing standards.
Honey Smacks is not marketed to children and seldom eaten by them, said Lisa Sutherland, vice president of nutrition at Kellogg North America. Neither is Wheaties Fuel, said Kirstie Foster, a General Mills spokesman. Its target audience is active male adults, Foster said.
Industry advocates also dismissed the comparisons between cereals and dessert, such as Twinkies with 17.5 grams of sugar and three Chips Ahoy cookies with 11 grams of sugar.