A new study finds that children will gladly chow down on low-sugar cereals if they're given a selection of choices at breakfast, and many compensate for any missing sweetness by opting for fruit instead.
The 5-to-12-year-olds in the study still ate about the same amount of calories regardless of whether they were allowed to choose from cereals high in sugar or a low-sugar selection. However, the kids weren't inherently opposed to healthier cereals, the researchers found.
"Don't be scared that your child is going to refuse to eat breakfast. The kids will eat it," said study co-author Marlene B. Schwartz, deputy director of Yale University's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity.
Nutritionists have long frowned on sugary breakfast cereals that are heavily marketed by cereal makers and gobbled up by kids. In 2008, Consumer Reports analyzed cereals marketed to kids and found that each serving of 11 leading brands had about as much sugar as a glazed donut. The magazine also reported that two cereals were more than half sugar by weight and nine others were at least 40 percent sugar.
This week, food giant General Mills announced that it is reducing the sugar levels in its cereals geared toward children, although they'll still have much more sugar than many adult cereals.
In the meantime, many parents believe that if cereals aren't loaded with sweetness, kids won't eat them.
But is that true? In the new study, researchers offered different breakfast cereal choices to 91 urban children who took part in a summer day camp program in New England. Most were from minorities families and about 60 percent were Spanish-speaking.
Of the kids, 46 were allowed to choose from one of three high-sugar cereals: Froot Loops, Frosted Flakes and Cocoa Pebbles, which all have 11-12 grams of sugar per serving. The other 45 chose from three cereals that were lower in sugar: Cheerios, Rice Krispies and Kellogg's Corn Flakes. They all have 1-4 grams of sugar per serving.
All the kids were also able to choose from low-fat milk, orange juice, bananas, strawberries and extra sugar.
The study findings appear in the January issue of Pediatrics.
Taste did matter to kids, but when given a choice between the three low-sugar cereals, 90 percent "found a cereal that they liked or loved," the authors report.
In fact, "the children were perfectly happy in both groups," Schwartz said. "It wasn't like those in the low-sugar group said they liked the cereal less than the other ones."
The kids in both groups also took in about the same amount of calories at breakfast. But the children in the high-sugar group filled up on more cereal and consumed almost twice as much refined sugar as did the others. They also drank less orange juice and ate less fruit.
Len Marquart, an associate professor of food science and nutrition at University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, said the study findings "confirm for people that their choices in the cereal aisle do make a difference."
"The biggest challenges are taste and marketing. In the morning, kids are sleepy and cranky, and it's hard to get them to sit down and eat breakfast," he said. "The sugar cereals marketed with flash and color and cartoon characters help get kids to the kitchen table when nothing else seems to work. And, we have to be realistic, they do like the taste of presweetened cereals."
But one solution is to be creative, he said. "Take Cheerios and put some strawberries and vanilla yogurt on top, and that's going to taste better than any presweetened cereal anyway," Marquart said