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Play Every Day Blog > Posts > Spot sneaky buzzwords on cereal boxes: Your family’s breakfast may not be as healthy as it seems from the front label


September 21
Spot sneaky buzzwords on cereal boxes: Your family’s breakfast may not be as healthy as it seems from the front label

​SEPTEMBER 21, 2020 — Open your cupboard and pull out the cereal boxes. Take a quick look at the words on the front: 

  • Made with whole grains
  • Natural fruit flavors
  • Good source of fiber

Added Sugar Cereal Box 2020.jpegNow turn that box around. Look at the ingredient list, and then check the Nutrition Facts for added sugar. Here’s what you might find on those colorful boxes branded to appeal to young kids:

  • Added sugar often shows up one or more times near the top of the ingredient list.
  • One bowl of sweetened cereal can have as much added sugar as three powdered mini doughnuts or a chocolate candy bar.
  • Fruit may be in the name, but there’s no actual fruit in the cereal.

“Parents are trying to choose healthy foods and drinks for their kids, but reading the front of the packages can make it tricky to figure out what’s healthy, and what’s not,” said Diane Peck, registered dietitian with Alaska’s Physical Activity and Nutrition Program. “Food companies don’t have to name all the ingredients — including the added sugar — on the front of the package, but they do on the Nutrition Facts label and ingredient list. Next time you shop, take a minute to look beyond the words on the front and turn the box around to find cereals that are low in added sugar and high in whole grains and fiber.”

Look for cereals with no or low added sugar

Sugary drinks are the most common source of added sugar for kids and adults​. These drinks contribute almost half the added sugar in daily diets. But sugar creeps into other foods, too, like ice cream, cakes, cookies, granola bars and other snacks and treats. Often without realizing it, you can start your day with a bowlful of sugar just by eating a sweetened cereal for breakfast.

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that children and adults limit their added sugar to less than 10 percent of their daily calories. For an adult eating 2,000 calories a day, that would mean limiting daily sugar to 12 or fewer teaspoons a day. For little children eating smaller meals, that could mean limiting daily sugar to 6 or fewer teaspoons a day. A bowl of some types of cereals can get little children close to that recommended limit.

In January, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration updated the Nutrition Facts label to help families spot the added sugar. Now, the label lists grams of added sugars on a separate line under “Total Carbohydrate.” This helps families look at foods and drinks and figure out how much sugar comes from natural sources, like fruit, and how much comes from white sugar, honey, high fructose corn syrup and other sweeteners that are added in the factory. 

Some cereals contain mostly added sugar, while others are a mix of natural and added sugar. A good example is raisin bran. Natural sugars in this type of cereal come from the raisins. Added sugars are from other sweeteners, like syrups. Turn the cereal box around to find the updated Nutrition Facts label, and look for the line that says “Includes Added Sugars.” One serving of raisin bran can have more than 2 teaspoons of added sugar. 

Peck recommends that families choose cereals with 6 or fewer grams of added sugar per serving. That’s 1 ½ teaspoons of added sugar (1 teaspoon of sugar equals about 4 grams of sugar). Aim for cereals that also have at least 2 grams of fiber per serving. This includes unsweetened oatmeal and some cereals made with whole grains. Breakfast doesn’t have to be served in a bowl, however. Peck recommended these healthy options to start your family’s day: whole grain toast with peanut butter and slices of banana, a fruit smoothie with frozen berries and non-fat milk, or a scrambled egg and salsa in a whole-wheat tortilla.

Eating oatmeal delivers healthy whole grains, but watch out for packets with added sugar

Oatmeal can be a healthy breakfast cereal with whole grains and fiber if you make it from scratch and add fruit — like blueberries — instead of brown sugar or honey. Oatmeal from packets often have added sugar. A cinnamon and spice oatmeal packet, for example, can have almost 3 teaspoons of added sugar. Making instant oatmeal from a bulk container of plain oats can be just as quick and easy as making a packet of oatmeal, and it has no added sugar. 

Another type of whole grain cereal has low added sugar, but a variation of it comes sweetened with honey, giving it as much added sugar as some popular sweetened, colorful cereals. The same size bowls of this whole grain cereal sweetened with honey and the colorful cereal with marshmallows have the same amount of added sugar — 3 teaspoons of sugar in just a 1-cup serving. One cup of cereal doesn’t look like a lot in a bowl. Some people likely eat more during a breakfast, which means even more added sugar. 

Look out for labels that suggest a breakfast cereal is healthier than it is

The cereal box is meant to catch your children’s eye. They’re covered in bright colors and can feature cartoon characters. They’re meant to catch parents’ eyes, too, featuring words that suggest sweetened cereals are good for their families: whole grains, packed with essential vitamins and minerals, even organic.

Organic cereals, however, don’t always mean low in sugar. One organic, cinnamon-flavored cereal has almost 3 teaspoons of added sugar per serving.  Organic cane sugar, brown rice syrup and honey are added sugars, just like white sugar and high fructose corn syrup.

Sugary foods, just like sugary drinks, often have labels that make them seem healthier than they are. A sugary drink label, for example, may focus on the drink having 100% Vitamin C, but not mention the added sugar. Cereal labels may focus on the fiber and not the multiple teaspoons of sugar in each serving. 

Give labels a closer look when they name or show a fruit. The front of a sugary drink and cereal box can have a fruit in the name or show a picture of a fruit, even though they contain no fruit at all. 

Eating sweet cereals and pastries can lead to as much added sugar as treats and candy

When it comes to added sugar, starting the day with a sweetened cereal is similar to starting the day with a bowl of candy. One bowl with a couple servings of a sweet cereal can have as much added sugar as a chocolate bar. A serving of the colorful cereal with marshmallows has about as much added sugar as three powdered mini doughnuts. 

Look out for a lot of added sugar in breakfast pastries. A frosted fruit-flavored pastry, for example, listed a type of sugar four times in the first six ingredients — well before you saw a mention of a fruit. One pastry has about as much added sugar as a bag of chocolate candies you’d find in a grocery store checkout line. 

Visit this Play Every Day website to help you figure out how much sugar is hiding in your foods and drinks.