Twinkies for Breakfast? Kids’ Cereals Fail Industry’s own Lame Nutrition Guidelines

Today the Environmental Working Group (best known for its “Dirty Dozen” list of pesticide-laden produce) released a not very surprising report detailing the insane amounts of sugar in children’s cereals. Kellogg’s Honey Smacks, at nearly 56 percent sugar by weight, won the top prize,  packing more sugar (20 grams per cup) than a Hostess Twinkie.

This, despite the company’s “commitment to responsible marketing,” in which the cereal giant pledged to “apply science-based Kellogg Global Nutrient Criteria to all products currently marketed to children.”

Not federal guidelines, not scientifically-derived criteria, but rather, “Kellogg Global Nutrient Criteria?” Corporate-speak translation: Kellogg gets to define its own nutrition criteria. (Using capital letters must make up for the lack of science.)  The company conveniently sets the bar at 12 grams of sugar per serving, while some serving sizes are ridiculously low at 3/4 cup. This trick allows Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes to squeak under at exactly 12 grams per serving.

But back to Honey Smacks, which is so high in sugar it doesn’t even fit under Kellogg’s own lame limit. But the company has that covered too. You see, the food company “pledges” claim only to not advertise foods to kids that don’t fit the nutrition criteria, but says nothing about not manufacturing them in the first place. So explains Kellogg’s: “Products that don’t meet the Nutrient Criteria will either be reformulated or will no longer be marketed to children under 12.” Why bother making your products healthier when you can just claim to not market the junk food instead?

But as any good ad man will tell you, package design is a crucial component to marketing. And one look at the Honey Smacks box tells us this is no adult-oriented product. Moreover, research has shown how strongly cartoon characters can influence children’s dietary preferences. Of course, that’s why company’s like Kellogg’s invest so much in brand icons like Tony the Tiger: they know kids respond through strong emotional bonds.

The processed food industry must be scared that such a popular and well-resourced organization as the Environmental Working Group is now taking aim at them. (The group boasts more than 1 million supporters.) In my inbox this morning arrived a very defensive email from the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, the lobbying group that defends Big Food by touting their responsible marketing to kids. They claim:

All of the cereals our participants currently may advertise to children are wholesome, containing a rich package of vitamins and minerals, such as calcium, fiber, vitamin D and iron. More than 60% contain at least a half serving (8 grams) of whole grains per serving. These cereals are an excellent breakfast choice, particularly when consumed with low fat or skim milk and fruit.

Not to waste too much time deconstructing this silliness, but really, “wholesome”? When you have to dig that deep for such a BS term you know you’re in trouble. And that “rich package” of vitamins is added back in artificially after the companies strip all the natural nutrients. Finally, note the qualifier, “may advertise to children,” to presumably set apart brands like Honey Smacks as outliers. Except that it’s not.

EWG also found 56 (out of 84) brands contain more than 26 percent sugar by weight. Also, only 1 in 4 cereals would meet the federal government’s proposed (i.e., science-based) nutrition guidelines for marketing to children. A whopping 82 percent of General Mills’ brands don’t meet the federal rules. (No wonder Big Food has been fighting the federal proposal so hard.)

Also, as the study notes, Honey Smacks is hardly Kellogg’s only offending brand: “Apple Jacks and Froot Loops, which Kellogg’s markets aggressively to children, contain more sugar than the industry’s recommended 38 percent limit.” Indeed, 21 (of the total 84) children’s cereals contain more sugar than the limit recommended by the industry’s own nutrition standards.

But at least they are wholesome.

9 Responses to “Twinkies for Breakfast? Kids’ Cereals Fail Industry’s own Lame Nutrition Guidelines”

  1. [...] The Environmental Working Group, most known for their sunscreen reports and the Dirty Dozen list, just put out a report on the amount of sugar in many popular breakfast cereals. In this blog post, Michele Simon writes, “Kellogg’s Honey Smacks, at nearly 56 percent sugar by weight, won the top prize,  packing more sugar (20 grams per cup) than a Hostess Twinkie.” Is it really any wonder our kids have a weight problem? Parents, please read this article and realize that MOST breakfast cereals should be treated like dessert. Read the full story on Appetite for Profit. [...]

  2. Harold Amens says:

    Is it any wonder that the 99% don’t trust the 1%, many of whom are the leaders of our nation’s largest companies? If we can’t even trust them to support our efforts to raise healthy children, how can be expect them to to do anything other than take advantage of us at every turn. The members of the 1% are not all bad men and women but to the extent those who are not bad tolerate the lies and misdeeds of those who are, they become co-conspirators and subject to the same changes that will be necessary for us to protect ourselves and our children. I know not where this will lead but in the short run, and perhaps the long run, it will be difficult for the country because of the excessive greed of the few.

  3. [...] 84 cereals reviewed by E.W.G. meet the F.T.C. voluntary guidelines. But that same number of cereals don’t meet the lame guidelines that the industry set for itself. You read that right: Apple Jacks, the especially aggressively marketed Froot Loops and 19 other [...]

  4. [...] Michele Simon Twinkies for Breakfast? Kids’ Cereals Fail Industry’s own Lame Nutrition Guidelines [...]

  5. [...] the Environmental Working Group’s recent report on sugary cereals called out the utter failure of Big Food’s voluntary nutrition guidelines on marketing to children. Given EWG’s one [...]

  6. [...] example, the Environmental Working Group’s recent report on sugary cereals called out the utter failure of Big Food’s voluntary nutrition guidelines on marketing to children. Given EWG’s one [...]

  7. [...] the Environmental Working Group’s recent report on sugary cereals called out the utter failure of Big Food’s voluntary nutrition guidelines on marketing to children. Given EWG’s one [...]

  8. [...] of our lives. As we track tales of governors selling naming rights to highways and bridges and online games pushing junk food on children, a perennial story we encounter is that of increasing commercialism in our public schools. Not a [...]

  9. [...] Food Industry Undermines Our Health and How to Fight Back. A version of this post appeared on her website Dec. 7, 2011.  © Food Safety [...]

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