Sugar: Still a bad choice for breakfast

How sugary cereal marketing contributes to childhood obesity

Sugar Still a bad choice for breakfastWas your mom right, is breakfast the most important meal of the day?  It appears that the answer depends more on what you eat for breakfast and less on whether you skip it or not. During your medical weight loss program you have established the habit of eating at regular intervals to balance blood sugar levels and avoid excessive hunger.  Skipping breakfast may cause you to eat more at the next meal or snack to stave off the hunger that has developed.

Children need breakfast most of all, to fuel their developing bodies and minds. However, the breakfast food of choice for many American kids is sugary cereal, which packs in far more calories than most kids need in a single meal and little nutritional value. Though the right kind of cereal can give you some low-calorie nutrition for a quick and easy morning meal, high-sugar cereals do little more than contribute to the spread of childhood obesity.

Teaching children healthy eating habits will help them grow into healthy adults. Part of this battle is changing the way foods are marketed to kids and improving messages of good health and nutrition to all children to help them keep their weight under control and develop a healthier society. This is difficult to do when it is estimated that each year children watch about 4000 food related ads – very few of which are for fruit and vegetables. What’s more, Latino children watching Spanish language channels see approximately 49 percent more ads for sugary food and drinks than white children watching English speaking channels.

Marketing to the Sweet Tooth

The companies behind popular sugary children’s cereals claim that their cereals are sweetened to such high levels because children will not eat them otherwise. However, the truth is simply that children eat more of a cereal if it’s loaded with sugar.

In a study at Yale’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, researchers found that children who were served the low-sugar version of a cereal (like Cheerios instead of Honey Nut Cheerios) ate the amount of cereal a child should have for breakfast and added fruit to sweeten it. Meanwhile, those who ate the high-sugar versions consumed far more cereal and sugar and added less fruit. Obviously, this provides an incentive for cereal companies to focus their marketing on sugary cereals—more sugar makes kids eat more, which in turn means higher profits.

Industry Regulation

These tactics have led to increased scrutiny on the role that cereal companies have in childhood obesity. Facing mounting pressure from the White House and medical groups, the industry has suggested self-regulation as a solution, claiming that the companies can make strides to improve their messages and nutrition without government involvement.

One such attempt is the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI), which was started in 2006 to encourage healthier lifestyle and diet choices in children under 12 by changing the kinds of foods advertised to them.  Kellogg, Post and General Mills, the three most prominent cereal manufacturers, are all participants. Three years ago, the Rudd Center released a report that detailed the problems in marketing strategies from these companies—kids were being targeted early and often and the least healthy cereals were marketed the most aggressively.

The companies involved with the CFBAI promised to make improvements by expanding advertising requirements and giving their cereals more nutritional value. The Rudd Center organized a follow-up study this year to see if improvements were actually made in the world of children’s cereal advertising.

Looking at almost 300 varieties of cereal marketed to children and adults, the Rudd Center found that General Mills and Kellogg had both reduced the sodium content of their cereals, while General Mills reduced the sugar in the brands targeted to children, making it halfway to the goal of single-digit sugar content in each serving. They also found that some brands reduced advertising targeted to children, in part by discontinuing advergame-filled websites.

However, overall media spending for child-targeted cereals increased (by 34 percent), companies still spend more marketing to children than adults, other ways to market to children are emerging (like promotional cellphone games), some cereals continue to imply health benefits without any real value (like Kellogg’s Krave) and marketing to Hispanic and black youth, who face the highest rates of obesity and related conditions, has increased since 2008.

The Takeaway

Clearly, this means the bad still outweighs the good. Though industry self-regulation may be the best solution to the problem, it requires the industry to actual make serious headway in solving the problems it creates. So far, the cereal industry does not look particularly serious about actually making its products healthier. While this may mean that the problem requires stricter regulation in the future, either from the industry or from the government, it shows how careful we must be about the products we let our children (and ourselves) consume. Cereal can be healthy for breakfast, but high-sugar, low-nutrient varieties have got to go.

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