* Pledge to cut 24 pct of sugar, 12 pct of salt in 20 brands
* Change to affect 5.3 bln portions sold outside N. America
* Food and beverage firms under pressure over obesity
* Campaigners say unhealthy cereals still targeted at kids
By Emma Thomasson
ORBE, Switzerland, Oct 15 (Reuters) - Nestle SA and General Mills Inc will cut sugar and salt in the children's breakfast cereals they jointly market outside North America, the latest attempt by major food companies to respond to health concerns.
The two have been in a joint venture since 1990 to sell Nestle-brand cereals such as Cheerios in more than 140 countries outside the United States and Canada, markets which account for about half total global cereal sales of some $25 billion.
They say they will reformulate 20 cereal brands popular with children and teenagers by 2015, boosting wholegrains and calcium and aiming for average reductions of 24 percent in sugar and 12 percent in sodium.
The reformulation will affect about 5.3 billion portions of cereals sold each year.
The 50/50 joint venture called Cereal Partners Worldwide (CPW) is the second-biggest breakfast cereal producer after Kellogg Co but is Europe's leading manufacturer of children's cereal. It had sales of 1.9 billion Swiss francs ($2 billion) in 2011.
CPW Chief Executive Jeffrey Harmening said the plan builds on efforts started in 2003 to improve the nutritional profile of cereals. The group has cut almost 900 tonnes of salt and more than 9,000 tonnes of sugar from its recipes since then.
"A certain number of moms don't want their kids to have as much sugar as they do right now, so that is a barrier for some to purchasing breakfast cereal," Harmening told Reuters at CPW's new global innovation centre in the Swiss town of Orbe.
The move comes as food and beverage companies seek to preempt tougher regulation due to the global obesity epidemic by offering healthier products or smaller portions.
The World Health Organisation estimated there were over 42 million overweight children under the age of five in 2010. It says obesity in Europe is already responsible for up to 8 percent of health costs and up to 13 percent of deaths.
HIGH IN SUGAR
A study this year by British consumer magazine Which? found that 32 of the 50 top-selling cereals were high in sugar, with almost all those aimed at children - including Cheerios - recording levels of sugar similar to chocolate biscuits.
However it did say that most cereals had significantly lower levels of salt than a few years ago and judged Nestle's Shredded Wheat the healthiest, with low levels of sugar, fat and salt.
Malcolm Clark, coordinator of the Children's Food Campaign of Britain's Sustain charity, which seeks to protect children from junk food marketing, was sceptical about the Nestle move.
"Reformulating is great, but the question is how they then talk about their products. They can't talk about them being healthy. They will be mildly less unhealthy than they were before," he said.
Harmening defended breakfast cereals as a low-calorie, high-nutrition option and said children who eat them tend to have a lower body mass index than those who do not.
Kellogg - which makes some of the sweetest cereals according to several surveys - has also reformulated some brands in recent years to cut sugar, as has General Mills for the cereals it produces for the North American market.
McDonald's Corp is including apples and cutting calories in its Happy Meals for kids, while Kraft Foods Group Inc has stopped advertising Kool-Aid and Oreos to children. It has also cut sugar and salt in some products.
In a report earlier this year, Yale University's Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity said U.S. cereal producers are offseting the benefits of cutting sugar and adding wholegrains by targeting kids with more ads for their unhealthiest products.
"There is a fundamental difference between what the food industry thinks is improvement and what the public health community thinks is improvement," said Dr Jennifer Harris, director of marketing initiatives at the Rudd Center.
"The food industry is really focusing on reformulating products that they've always marketed to children, which are some of their highest-sugar products, whereas what we want to see is less marketing overall for unhealthy products."
Harmening said CPW's move was driven by consumers rather than a threat of tougher regulation, which he said could backfire as people might switch to less healthy alternatives.
"If we're not delivering what they want, somebody else will deliver what they are looking for. The consumers are the judge."
He said the biggest challenge was to improve the nutritional profile of cereals without compromising on taste.
At CPW's research centre in Orbe, food scientists are already testing recipes that comply with the new targets, experimenting with cooking and drying techniques to maintain flavour even with less sugar and salt and more wholegrain.
Trained teams of sensory experts sample the new products in laboratories where different coloured lights force them to focus on taste rather than appearance of the cereals.
"We spend an enormous amount of time and money so that consumers don't perceive the changes," said Harmening. "That is a competitive advantage for us because - to the extent we can crack that - we will receive a benefit from consumers." ($1 = 0.9349 Swiss francs) (Editing by David Holmes)
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The Standby: A Bowl Of Cereal
Cereal with milk may be the classic breakfast choice (in fact, 31 percent of U.S. breakfast eaters opt for it, according to an <a href="http://abcnews.go.com/GMA/PollVault/story?id=762685#.UHWcxPlETlk">ABC news poll</a>, making it the most popular item), but it's not always the healthiest pick. Many of the brands on grocery store shelves are loaded with <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/20/how-much-salt-is-in-cereal-cake-ketchup_n_1687403.html">sodium</a> and <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/12/07/cereals-sugar_n_1132025.html">sugar</a>. <strong>The makeover:</strong> You don't have to give up your morning standard -- the key is to pick a healthier cereal. Start at the nutrition label: choose something with 5 grams or more of fiber and 5 grams or fewer of sugar, Forberg says. And you never want to see any saturated fat on the package, Bauer adds. Scan the ingredient list for whole grains -- and if there's protein, that's an added bonus. Miss the sugar? Sweeten up your bowl by mixing in fresh fruit (which ups the fiber, too) -- or if you're eating a hot cereal, like a serving of heart-healthy oatmeal, stir in sweet spices such as cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, cloves or even pumpkin pie spices, Forberg suggests. Serving size is also important here: A cereal can <em>look</em> healthy, but if the suggested amount is a quarter cup, you need to multiply all the values by four to get a true picture of a typical one-cup serving, Bauer warns. And people tend to overdo it in general when it comes to pouring cereal out of the box -- to keep portions in check, Bauer recommends mixing it into yogurt instead of milk. If you sprinkle a handful of cereal into a seven-ounce container of yogurt, you'll have a (portable) lower-calorie meal.
The Standby: Cereal Bars
"They're very tempting because we're always in a hurry and we want portable things," Forberg says. "But so many of them are just small servings of junk food." Yup, if you read carefully, your "healthy" pick could be comprised of sugar, corn syrup and chocolate chips. "You might as well be having a really good cookie," she adds. <strong>The makeover:</strong> "If you start your morning with a bar coated in chocolate, it sends a bad message to your brain," Bauer says. So, if you're sold on the idea of a bar, pick one with six to ten recognizable ingredients that aren't junk food or <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/09/13/other-names-for-sugar-maltose-dextrose_n_1874487.html">synonyms for sugar</a>. Then pair it with some fruit, like an apple, for a touch of sweetness and filling fiber.
The Standby: A Bagel With Cream Cheese
A decent-sized bagel slathered with your favorite spread can have upwards of 400 pretty-much-empty calories. And while we get the satisfaction factor, you can get a similar feeling with some healthy swaps. <strong>The makeover:</strong> Look for a high-fiber whole grain english muffin, and top it with whipped cottage cheese. "It spreads like cream cheese, but you get much more protein," Bauer says, adding that you can spread on a little organic jam, as well. (And remember that multigrain isn't the same thing as whole grain when scanning the labels -- the former means there are multiple grains, but they could all be processed, Forberg says.) If you can't quite bring yourself to opt for the english muffin instead, eat half a bagel, Forberg suggests. Go for a light cream cheese with smoked salmon or turkey on top, to work some protein into this carb-heavy meal, as protein slows the release of blood sugar to keep you feeling fuller longer. Another cream cheese alternative? Hummus, she says.
The Standby: A Yogurt Parfait
Yogurt parfaits have a health halo -- what's <em>not</em> healthy about yogurt, granola and fruit? The answer, unfortunately, can be plenty. With a heaping portion of high-fat granola and sugar-laden yogurt, you might be eating the caloric equivalent of a small dessert. <strong>The makeover:</strong> The answer here is DIY. Start with a non-fat yogurt, preferably a creamy Greek style, which has double the protein and half the sugar. Then layer with fruit and a sprinkle of granola, or even a healthy cereal for similar crunch. Forberg advises trying out some of the bulk granola at the health food store to find one that tastes good without having off-the-charts fat content.
The Standby: An Omelet
Veggies, eggs (or egg whites!) and a little bit of cheese -- what's not to love? The problem with omelets prepared outside your own kitchen is that they can be loaded with oil, Bauer explains -- a tablespoon of oil has 100 calories, which means you can tack on an extra 350 between sautéing the vegetables and cooking up the eggs. <strong>The makeover:</strong> If you're cooking an omelet at home, be sure to measure out the oil. On the go? Try a different kind of eggs altogether. "If you do poached or hard boiled eggs, there's no room for error," Bauer says. At 75 calories a pop, you can add your own fiber crackers and some fruit to round out the meal. Boil a bunch at home on Sunday and throw them in your bag -- just wait to peel them until you're ready to eat so they don't smell. "I always feel full when I eat that, and it feels clean," she adds.
The Standby: A Smoothie
While a smoothie can, in theory, be a very healthy choice, store- and restaurant-bought varieties can be loaded with sugar, juice and even ice cream. And that's the makings of a dessert, not a power breakfast. <strong>The makeover:</strong> Ideally you'd do this one at home, blending together nonfat yogurt, almond or skim milk, frozen or fresh fruit and some ice. Or you could even try a green smoothie (<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/dr-patricia-fitzgerald/green-smoothies_b_924060.html#s326934&title=GreenNGlow">check out recipes here!</a>). If there's simply no time in the morning, Bauer says some companies do produce healthy, portable smoothies that are available in the grocery store. Look for organic ingredients -- and only ones you can pronounce.
The Standby: Frozen Waffles
While many frozen waffles aren't over-the-top calorie wise, they can have an ingredient list of processed items that's enough to make your stomach churn. <strong>The makeover:</strong> Frozen waffles have the appeal of convenience -- if you can't live without them, look for a whole grain variety, Forberg says. Better yet, whip up a homemade batch using whole ingredients on the weekend and put them in individual Ziploc bags and freeze them. Then just pop them in the toaster like you would straight from the box. "Then you'll know what you're getting," she adds.
The Standby: A Toaster Pastry
Just one iced toaster pastry can contain <a href="http://ndb.nal.usda.gov/ndb/foods/show/5852">upwards of 200 calories</a> -- and who doesn't eat two? And a perusal of the nutrition label on a <a href="http://www.kelloggs.com/en_US/pop-tarts-frosted-blueberry-toaster-pastries.html">Kellog's Frosted Blueberry Pop-Tart</a>, for instance, reveals they have an eye-popping <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/24/processed-food-ingredients_n_1441700.html">40-plus ingredient panel</a> (many of which are unpronounceable). <strong>The makeover:</strong> While some companies have tried to create a healthier toaster pastry, your best bet here is to do it yourself. Forberg suggests getting a whole grain sandwich thin, toasting it and then slathering one some peanut butter and/or a sugar free spread. "You have the same sweet flavors and the crunch, and it has most of the same flavor attributes, but you can feel really good about this choice," she says. "And it's probably a lot cheaper too."
The Standby: A Breakfast Sandwich
While a breakfast sandwich or burrito might be convenient, it can also be <a href="http://www.fitsugar.com/Guess-Calories-Breakfast-Sandwiches-4775066/1">loaded with calories</a>, saturated fat and refined carbohydrates, depending on how it's prepared. <strong>The makeover:</strong> The key is to order up a healthier version -- you don't have to nix the sandwich altogether. Bauer recommends asking for four egg whites and one slice of cheese on wheat toast with no butter. If you can't resist, add the occasional one slice of Canadian bacon. Same taste, better for you.
The Standby: A Muffin
Blueberries might be chock-full of health benefits, but not when they come encased in a giant muffin -- one large, commercially prepared blueberry muffin tops <a href="http://ndb.nal.usda.gov/ndb/foods/show/5626">500 calories, according to the USDA</a>. <strong>The makeover:</strong> If nothing but a muffin will do, slice yours in half and choose one made with whole grains, Forberg says. Better yet, pick a whole-grain, high-fiber toast, even one with some cinnamon mixed in to give you a similar flavor profile. "It's really satisfying and stays with you," she says. This option also works as a substitute for regular pastries, too (read: croissants, danishes and turnovers, to name a few). While the occasional indulgence is fine, it shouldn't be an everyday breakfast choice -- she recommends buying anything like this outside the house instead of bringing a whole package home, where temptation can loom.
The Standby: A Glass Of Juice
Think a tall glass of orange juice counts as breakfast? Think again. At just over 100 calories per eight ounces (and don't kid yourself -- most cups hold more than that), juice has all the sugar of fruit, without the fiber. And that means you'll get a temporary blood sugar rush that'll eventually leave you crashing. <strong>The makeover:</strong> "I'm all about eating your calories," Forberg says. So just eat the orange -- she suggests pairing it with some kind of protein, like a cheese stick or a hard boiled egg, to make it a more well-rounded meal.
The Standby: Cold Pizza
You're not the only one eating last night's leftovers in the morning: <a href="http://abcnews.go.com/images/Politics/981a1Breakfast.pdf">According to an ABC News poll</a>, a full 39 percent of people have eaten cold pizza for breakfast at some point. <strong>The makeover:</strong> Don't worry, the diet police won't come after you for this one: Forberg says she herself even indulges in cold pizza for her first meal of the day -- some people just don't like breakfast food, and others simply like pizza, no matter <em>what</em> time of the day it is. The key is choosing the right slice. Instead of your typical greasy pizza, opt for one with a whole grain crust, or make some with polenta or even a portabella mushroom cap as the base. We get it, everyone's busy in the morning, but the point of pizza breakfast is that it comes from leftovers. So get cooking the night before and then continue to reap the benefits into the next day.
The Standby: Nothing
Your mom may have told you it was the most important meal of the day, but the truth is that 56 percent of Americans don't eat breakfast every day, according to the <a href="http://www.foodinsight.org/For-Consumers/Breakfast-Resources.aspx">2009 Food and Health Survey from FoodInsight.org</a>. The excuses range all the way from being too busy to not feeling hungry to thinking you'll save calories by shaving off one meal. <strong>The makeover:</strong> "It might seem counterintuitive, but skipping meals promotes weight gain, not weight loss," Forberg says. In fact, eating breakfast can <a href="http://www.webmd.com/diet/features/lose-weight-eat-breakfast">jump-start your metabolism and curb hunger</a>, WebMD reports. If your body's not used to eating in the morning, push yourself to have even just a few bites of, say, yogurt and berries, or another small, healthful snack, to help retrain your hunger schedule, she says. And just because it's the first meal of the day doesn't mean you have to eat the second you wake up -- if you're not hungry at 7 or 8 a.m., that's fine, Bauer says. Instead, have breakfast around 9 or 10. If you're tempted to see if you can hold out till lunch, forget it. Getting your body to that point will only cause you to overeat and make poor choices later in the day.