Parents, Don't Be Conned by Sugary Kids' Cereals

A commentary on new findings suggesting that if you put low-sugar food out, children will eat it.

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Kids will actually eat breakfast cereal that isn't super sugary—and they'll like it, too. That's heartening news for parents who feel like they've been conned by the food industry into serving breakfast with almost no nutritional value, in the belief that their kids would otherwise skip the most important meal of the day. Take that, Froot Loops!

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Many of the breakfast cereals aggressively marketed to children contain huge amounts of sugar: Froot Loops, Cocoa Pebbles, and Frosted Flakes, three of the cereals used in a new study, have 11 or 12 grams of sugar per serving. For Froot Loops, 42 percent of a serving's 118 calories come from sugar. Other cereals fare even worse; a study of sugary cereals done in 2008 by Consumer Reports found that a bowl of some varieties, like Kellogg's Honey Smacks, had as much sugar as a glazed donut—hardly a healthy start to the day.

But parents all too often listen to the marketers, and to their own kids, in thinking that's all children will eat. Not so, according to researchers from Yale University's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, whose results were reported online in Pediatrics. They presented two groups of children with the following breakfast options: cereal, milk, orange juice, and fresh strawberries and bananas. The children could choose what they wanted to eat, and how much. Both groups were also allowed to put sugar on their cereal, from sugar packets left on the table.

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The kids in the group offered low-sugar cereal options (original Cheerios, Rice Krispies, and Corn Flakes, all of which have 1 to 4 grams of sugar per serving) ate about one serving of cereal, and they were much more likely to serve themselves fresh fruit, with 54 percent of those children having fruit, compared to just 8 percent of the kids eating sugary cereal. The Froot Loops group ate almost twice as much cereal as the low-sugar kids.

What's interesting is that even though the children eating lower-sugar cereal poured on more sugar from the sugar packets, they still ate half as much sugar in their breakfast overall: about 12 grams, compared to 24 grams for the sugary cereal eaters. Add in the fact that fruit has many nutritional benefits, and that the less sugary cereals tended to have more fiber than the sweeter varieties, and it's a no-brainer; the healthier cereals made for a healthier meal, and the kids still got fed.

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Will this revelation generate massive whining in your house? Probably not. Children in the low-sugar group said they liked or loved their cereal just as much as the Foot Loops brigade loved theirs. The Yale researchers suggest parents offer children cut-up fruit and a small amount of sugar alongside a low-sugar cereal, so they can sweeten up that breakfast bowl. They'll still be eating a much healthier breakfast. And you'll have more leeway for a sweet treat later in the day, be it a lollipop or a Christmas cookie.