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Marlene Schwartz, Ph.D. Headshot

Can Parents Trust Cereal Companies?

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As a researcher, I know the importance of making sure children eat breakfast. Children who eat breakfast have better nutrition, do better in school and are less likely to be overweight than children who skip the first meal of the day. But as a mother of three, I also know how hard it can be to get your children to actually eat breakfast. Mornings are hectic and my three teenage girls are more concerned about their clothes and hair than their calcium and fiber. Healthy ready-to-eat cereals are a great option.

The problem is that cereals companies decided at some point that in order to promote cereal to children, it had to resemble dessert. In the middle of trying to teach my oldest child what constitutes a "breakfast food," I remember seeing a commercial with her that said, "Yes, you can have cookies for breakfast!" I felt completely undermined. So I combined my roles of researcher and parent and decided to focus on children's cereals.

Our latest study from the Rudd Center found that cereals marketed to children have 56 percent more sugar, half as much fiber and 50 percent more sodium than products marketed to adults. While some cereals can be a nutritious option, the majority of cereals pushed on children are unhealthy. Some of these cereals even contain one spoonful of sugar in every three spoonfuls of cereal.

Cereal companies know how to make cereals taste good that aren't packed with sugar and salt, so why can't they help parents out and market these directly to children instead?

The companies claim that children will not eat cereal unless they are sweetened. But our group found this not to be true. The study, published in Pediatrics, found that when children are served low-sugar versions of cereals, such as corn flakes, they eat the appropriate serving size and add fruit and a small amount of sugar to sweeten the cereal. However, children who are served high sugar cereals consume much more cereal and sugar and add less fruit.

Since children who are served high sugar cereals consume much more cereal, it's no wonder companies heavily market these products to children.

Feeling pressure from the government and consumers over the childhood obesity epidemic, major cereal companies promised to improve the nutritional value of their children's cereals and strengthen their standards for child-directed advertising in 2006 through the industry-led Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI).

If companies are self-regulating, then how do parents know if these changes are being made and if cereal companies are living up to their promises?

In 2009, our team released a comprehensive report on the nutrition and marketing of breakfast cereals to children called Cereal FACTS. The report found that cereal companies were aggressively and pervasively marketing the least healthy cereals. Since then, companies have promised to do better, including enhancing the nutritional quality of cereals and expanding CFBAI advertising requirements.

Have these changes improved children's cereal nutrition and marketing? Yes and no.

Using the same methods as the original Cereal FACTS, we launched a three-year follow up. Our report found that while cereal companies have improved the nutritional quality of most cereals marketed directly to children, they also have increased advertising to children for many of their least nutritious products.

General Mills and Kellogg improved the nutritional quality of these cereals by reducing sodium. General Mills also reduced the sugar in its child brands and is halfway towards fulfilling its promise to reduce the sugar per serving to "single digits." Some brands even reduced child-targeted advertising including General Mills and Post, who discontinued their advergaming sites.

While the nutritional improvements can be seen as a step in the right direction, it's not all good news. From 2008 to 2011, total media spending to promote child-targeted cereals increased by 34 percent. Companies are still spending more to advertise child brands than they spend on the healthier adult brands.

The discontinuation of popular cereal company advergame websites and associated banner advertising was partially offset by the introduction of new child-targeted websites and increased banner advertising for individual brands and existing websites.

As technology advances, companies are following suit and are finding new ways to target children. For example, Kellogg introduced the first food company advergame for mobile phones and tablets targeted to children for Apple Jacks.

One of the most troubling finding is Hispanic and black youth exposure to cereal marketing increased from 2008 to 2011. This trend is particularly concerning, as these young people face the highest rates of obesity and related diseases.

So as parents, what can we do?

One of the most important things you can do is to educate yourself on cereal nutrition and marketing. We created a website with tools and resources that will help you and your family make healthy choices when it comes to cereal. I encourage you to check it out.

Parenting is an emotionally demanding, time consuming and sometimes very stressful job. Parents have a long list of responsibilities and struggles that are inevitable in raising children in this society. My opinion is that it is not only unrealistic, but unfair, to expect parents to scrutinize every nutritional label in the grocery store. We must hold the industry accountable for making the promised changes. Cereal companies have substantial resources and are extremely creative. I hope they use these assets to find new ways to market the healthier products in their portfolios to children. I also hope that they reduce the hundreds of advertisements for high-sugar cereals that children see every year.

If cereal companies want parents to trust them, they need to do more to earn it.