Cereal May Not Be the Healthiest Start to Your Day

Many breakfast cereals contain more than double the recommended sugar in one serving

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD Beth Bolt, RPh

(RxWiki News) Most parents try to start their children's day with a healthy breakfast. Yet one of the most popular breakfast foods is often packed full of sugar — sometimes as much as three Chips Ahoy! cookies.

The typical breakfast cereal is loaded with added sugar, experts claim. They have calculated that people who eat one bowl of a typical breakfast cereal every day would eat 10 pounds of sugar in a year.

"Read food labels to ensure your family is eating well."

This research was done by researchers from the Environmental Working Group (EWG), an environmental health research and advocacy organization. These researchers were led by Dawn Undurraga, MS, RD.

Undurraga and team looked at 1,556 cereals, including 180 children’s cereals. These cereals often have cartoon characters on the front of boxes, meant to appeal to children, and may have advertising claiming health benefits, such as "high in vitamin D" or a "good source of fiber," the EWG noted, so parents will be enticed to buy them.

The EWG recommends that a serving of cereal should not contain more than one teaspoon, or 4 grams, of sugar per serving.

The children’s breakfast cereals assessed in this study typically contained 2 teaspoons of sugar per serving.

The American Heart Association recommends that children ages 4 to 8 should consume no more than 130 calories, or about 3 teaspoons of sugar a day. The maximum amount of added sugar included in a preteen's or teenager's diet should be 5 to 8 teaspoons.

To make matters worse, most people do not eat a serving size as described on the box, the researchers wrote. Americans eat about 30 percent more than the recommended serving size. Most cereals describe a typical serving as 27 grams, but in a recent analysis by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), most people ate 39 grams in one serving.

The EWG did a similar analysis in 2011, when they analyzed 84 popular children’s cereals. Then, the EWG recommended that the cereal manufacturers cut back on the sugar in their products. Eleven complied and lowered the sugar content, but not by enough, according to the EWG. One company added more sugar.

Hot whole-grain cereals contain much less sugar, the EWG stated. About 31 percent of these contain no sugar. Instant oatmeal, however, averages 75 percent more sugar than regular cooked oatmeal.

Sugar has been shown to contribute to health issues such as tooth decay and cardiovascular disease, the authors noted.

The EWG recommended that parents offer their children less sweetened cereals by reading the labels and trying to find cereals with less than 4 grams of sugar per serving. They also suggested making breakfast from scratch, when possible.

Furthermore, the EWG suggested parents should voice their discontent with the sugar content of these cereals by telling manufacturers what they want, and by showing the manufacturers what they want through purchasing products with the least amount of sugar.

Deborah Gordon, MD, who has an integrative medical practice in Ashland, Oregon, feels that the EWG did not go far enough in encouraging healthy eating for children.

“EWG's article on sugary cereals is a small start in the right direction, but only a small one. Parents who want to feed their children healthy breakfasts might occasionally pick a low sugar cereal, but should also be cautioned about the milk used on cereals. Higher fat milks help keep children from gaining excess weight and helps them concentrate during the day — fat is a good brain food and skim milk leads to fatter children, contrary to what has been commonly thought,” Dr. Gordon told dailyRx News.

“For growing children, however, the healthiest breakfast will always be one that includes a significant portion of protein: choose farm fresh eggs, chicken sausage, bacon, or leftover meat from the previous night," she said. "With protein as the center of the breakfast, a little low-sugar cereal or buttered toast might be a matter of personal choice.”

Review Date: 
May 19, 2014
Last Updated:
May 20, 2014