The nutritional minefield also known as the breakfast cereal aisle is always challenging to navigate. Moms and dads learn, to their dismay, that "kid cereals" are placed directly at children's eye level. And a study released late last fall confirmed what we always suspected: The least healthy cereals are the ones most often marketed towards kids.
The report, from the Yale University Rudd Center of Food Policy and Obesity, found that cereals advertised toward children have 85 percent more sugar, 65 percent less fiber and 60 percent more sodium than those aimed at grownups. What is especially alarming is that many of the cereals with the poorest nutrition ratings boldly add health claims on the front of the package.
DEAR GOOD SENSE EATING
What should I look for when shopping for kids' cereals?
Look for cereals with whole grain as the first two grains in the ingredient list; rich in fiber, especially intact fiber; and low in sugar - aim for less than 10 grams per serving. Also, choose cereals that don't change the color of the milk in the bowl.
If you want to translate grams to teaspoons of sugar, divide by four. Example: A cereal with 19 grams sugar (without milk) has just under four teaspoons of sugar per serving. Watch out for portion size, with each cereal different.
Where are these cereals advertised? Saturday morning cartoons and after-school TV programs. According to a November 2009 study by The Nielsen Company, kids age 6-11 watch 28 hours of live TV each week. And despite a two-year pledge by more than a dozen major food corporations to advertise more nutritious foods, about two-thirds of those company ads continue to promote foods of low nutritional value, according to a study released in December by the University of Arizona and commissioned by the advocacy organization Children Now.
Other Yale University findings:
In a separate Yale study, children served low-sugar cereal consumed less sugar overall, even after they added table sugar, compared to children given highly sweetened cereals. Significantly, they liked their cereal equally, whether highly sugared or not.
One researcher who has studied Saturday morning cartoons is Deepa Handu, RD, PhD. Her findings, which she presented at the 2009 American Dietetic Association Food and Nutrition Conference & Expo, found that of nearly 500 food-related commercials, nine out of 10 were for foods high in fat, added sugars or sodium. Handu, assistant professor and director of the Master of Science program in Nutrition & Wellness at Benedictine University, also found that the primary advertising appeals used were action, fun and cartoon-animation. In other words, hard for a kid to resist.
A growing area of child-targeted advertising is online. Internet games and marketing through social media such as Facebook are capturing our children's attention. Eleven of the 13 cereals advertised most to kids on TV are also marketed heavily on the Internet. A study found that children visiting one cereal Web site remained there an average of 23.7 minutes per visit-deeply engaged with the brand.
Handu, herself the mother of a preschool-age son, says parents may allow their children to have some sweet and sugary foods in moderation. She also suggests we cut down on TV time. "It indirectly influences your child's food choices. Promotions linking children's entertainment characters to fast foods meals and other low-nutrient foods encourage children's requests for unhealthy products."
What else can you do? Mix sugary cereals with unsweetened ones, encourage your child to watch public television and contact your legislators about this issue. Congress will be looking at marketing restrictions later this year.
Christine M. Palumbo, RD, is a registered dietitian in private practice in Naperville. She can be reached at (630) 369-8495 or ChristinePalumbo.com.
Christine M. Palumbo, RD, is a nutritionist living in Naperville.
See more of Christine's stories here.