Children's Cereal: Healthy Start or Junk Food?

Yale weighs the marketing v. nutrition of kids cereal.


Imagine you are 5 years old. In the supermarket cereal aisle. Towering above you are rows upon rows of cardboard boxes, brightly colored like construction paper, and emblazoned with your favorite mascots or silly characters that seem to hug you from their perch on the shelves. Sure, there are some understated choices—the simple yellow Cheerios box, offering up a bowl of mutely-colored rings. But remember, you're 5. You're more likely drawn to the rainbow of fun featured on the Fruity Pebbles package. Not only does this cereal come techicolored, but it's got Fred Flintstone on the box. You wish you could go barefoot and drive a car with your feet.... you tug at your mom and begin begging: "Please, please, please, can we get Fruity Pebbles?!!"

Pebbles (the fruity and cocoa versions) was ranked the least nutritious cereal in a recent report by Yale University's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity that lambasted cereal companies for peddling their poorest choices to kids.

Yale decided to check up on the food industry's plan to police itself—the Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative. Formed in 2006, the initiative called for promoting healthy foods and lifestyles to kids. Two years later, Yale studied the cereal market and reviewed the landscape last year. The first report found that companies were "doing zero marketing of their healthiest cereals," to kids, says Kelly Brownell, a Yale University professor of psychology who directs the Rudd Center. Today, "the number is still zero," and, furthermore, "they're doing aggressive marketing of their least healthy foods.

Money spent on advertising "child-targeted cereals" jumped by 34 percent from 2008 to 2011, the Rudd Center found. Furthermore, these cereals are purchased at 13 times the rate of other cereals, with African-American and Hispanic families most likely to buy these products. And they are nutritionally far inferior to cereals advertised to adults.

For its part, CFBAI takes the spoonful-of-sugar-helps-the-medicine-go-down approach.

"If children won't eat it, it's not good nutrition," says Elaine Kolish, CFBAI's vice president and director. These companies have been steadily boosting the amounts of whole grain and fiber in kids' cereals, and sugar helps in "making those ingredients more palatable," she says. "Calling these products not nutritious is simply wrong," when they are "chock full of vitamins and minerals for kids and they're only 130 calories tops" per serving, she says. What's more, "steady progress is good progress, and it's the way to change children's [tastes]," she says.

In the middle of the debate stands the consumers—children and their parents.

As we all know, a healthy breakfast is critical in the quest to nourish children, particularly amid an obesity epidemic that's weighing down so much of American youth. But what can parents do? How can they encourage children to get a nutritious start to their day?

[See Can Michelle Obama End Obesity? 5 Key Steps.]

For the record, cereal can be healthy, and pediatric experts often endorse it as a solid, nutritional choice. The key is to regain control of the meal. As to the theory of children's limited tastes, that's also up for debate.

"I don't buy the argument that children will only eat sweet things," says Jennifer Shu, an Atlanta-based pediatrician and mother of two. "First of all, breast milk [has] only about 8 grams of sugar per 4 ounces"—meaning a sugar content of 7 percent. By contrast, the average sugar content of "child-targeted cereals" made by Post, Kellogg, and General Mills is more than 30 percent, according to the Rudd Center.

Considering that kids often eat two servings of cereal, they're getting 20 grams of sugar—the daily limit, says Shreela Sharma, assistant professor of epidemiology at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston. "Kids are eating the sugar they need to consume all day by the time they just had breakfast."

Sharma advises replacing kids' sugary cereals with a range of healthier options, and to keep at it. "There is going to be fussing and there is gong to be irritability—even if you do that to adults," she says. It takes about 14 tries for kids to adapt to a new food, she says. The flipside? "If you start these behaviors at a younger age, it just stays with them through life."