COMMENTARY: Thinking a bit outside the (cereal) box

Jan 23, 2018
  • By David Shumway

I’m no nutritionist, but I do read labels and pay attention to prices. And on the surface, the sugar content of kids’ cereals is alarming, and the pricing ridiculous.

Consider a typical $4 box. A family with three growing kids could go through a box of cereal for breakfast. That’s $120 per month.

(Brief aside: If you conscientiously add juice with breakfast, please check the percentage of real juice on the back or side label; most of it is corn syrup, probably HFCS, with very little juice … probably 8 to 24 percent.)

The cereal industry has been repeatedly investigated and apparently everything’s legal, just maybe not moral. If conscientious parents have sticker-shock, the industry actually says we should use coupons. Really! Reportedly over half of cereal sold is “couponed.” But a “dollar off three” doesn’t help much, an 8.3 percent cost reduction in our example. It’s much more economical to buy generic or store brands. Whatever your opinion of generics, this would seem a benign case.

Cereal is grain. A box of cold cereal is grain that’s toasted, flaked, puffed, rolled, heavily sugared, or otherwise processed in huge quantities, weighed and put into plastic bags inside attractive colorful boxes. There’s probably not much more than a handful of grain in a box. And probably a handful of sugar or outright candy. And, rarely for kids, a few good things like raisins or almonds. But essentially grain and sugar.

A widely publicized study reported in Forbes tested 181 kids’ cereals and found many some 50 percent sugar by weight; only 10 met their standard for low sugar. They found cereals marketed to kids contained on average 40 percent more sugar than adult cereals, and that such kids start their day with more than half their recommended daily sugar.

Among the worst as tested: Honey Smacks and Golden Crisp. (Ironically, before a sugar backlash a few years ago, these were called, respectively, Sugar Smacks and Super Sugar Crisp … and the change was in name only.) WebMD also has the same test data. Recommendations from the study: Rice Crispies, Cheerios and Crispex (or generic or store brands of these).

Note also that the nutrition data required on the box, such as calories and sugar, are based on a serving size, which for many cereals is three-quarters of a cup. Did you ever give a growing boy three-quarters of a cup of cereal? Even the testers use the term “bowl,” meaning 1 1/2 cups, or twice the quoted serving size.

There’s absolutely no reason to pay high prices for sugar in a cereal box, especially considering our sugar surplus and governmental sugar subsidies. Even if we don’t value your children’s health, or concern ourselves with rampant child obesity and its devastating psychological and medical problems, at least let’s have concern for our pocketbooks. (BTW, what’s a “pocketbook”?)

I was also disappointed to see the Little League World Series sponsored, not by nutritional Kellogg’s Cereals, but by “Kellogg’s Sugar Frosted Flakes.” Some kind of choice — allowing for hundreds of sugar-filled commercials during the long playoffs, and lots of young T-Ballers and Little Leaguers clamoring for Tony the Tiger, “They’re Grrrrrreat!” Maybe not.