Kids and Obesity-Promoting Breakfast Cereal
Many adults can probably easily recall catchy cereal ads from when they were kids (having subliminally memorized the imbedded messages like “Trix are for kids”). Those once seemingly appropriate cereals are now strongly considered obesity-promoting products and a menace to public health. Childhood favorites such as Fruit Loops and Cocoa Pebbles have recently fallen under public fire in response to research led by Yale’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity. The investigation focused on the marketing tactics that make kids desire a sugary start to each day. Rudd researchers crunched Nielsen and comScore data (2009) that tracks television and Internet marketing to decipher how much cereal advertising young kids commonly view. The data clearly demonstrated that the least healthy cereals were the ones marketed most aggressively during prime-time TV programming aimed at children.
According to the Rudd findings, preschoolers (ages 2 to 5) view an average of 507 cereal ads that are designed to appeal to kids each year. The report also detailed how sugary-cereal makers have developed additional interaction with young consumers on their websites through online video games. General Mills’ popular Millsberry.com was noted to generate more than 750,000 unique visitors under the age of 18 each month at the time of the findings. Researchers believe that television advertising may be the major contributing factor to the alarming overweight and obesity rates seen in children in the United States. This was clearly illustrated by a study published in Health Psychology (July, 2009) that revealed snack consumption to be 45% greater among children 7-11 years old who watched a cartoon with numerous food commercials when compared to other 7-11 year olds who watched the same program without TV advertisements. Researchers concluded by saying, “we find this negative relationship to be potentially rampant in the U.S. as there are few restrictions on food ads.” As reported by the Yale Rudd’s Center for Food Policy and Obesity using the same resource (Nielsen, 2008), nearly 35,000 food, beverage and restaurant brands appear in prime-time TV programming in 2008 (the main promoted products were soft drinks from Coca-Cola). This is not the case in other countries with lower youth obesity rates such as in the U.K. where junk food cannot be marketed on children’s television. The only (children’s) cereal brand sold in the United States that would be allowed on TV in the U.K. would be Frosted Mini-Wheats (because of the quantity of fiber per serving).
Supportive information related to the subject published in the journal Pediatrics (Sept, 2010), and also ran by the Rudd Center, examined the effects of serving high-sugar cereals on children’s breakfast eating behaviors. Researchers found that many children actually like and will eat low-sugar cereals as an alternative. Ninety-one children attending a summer day camp received a breakfast that included either the choice of 1 of 3 high-sugar cereals or low-sugar cereals, as well as low-fat milk, orange juice, bananas, strawberries, and sugar packets. The participants served themselves in separate dining areas and completed a questionnaire after eating. The amount and calories consumed were measured and recorded by investigators. All of the children signified on the questionnaire that they liked or loved the cereal they ate. Children in the low-sugar group consumed slightly more than one serving of cereal, while those in the high-sugar group ate two servings. Those who consumed the low-sugar cereal selections did add sugar from the packets to their breakfast but they still consumed significantly less sugar than those who chose the high-sugar cereals (0.7 teaspoons vs. 5.7 teaspoons). Those who consumed the low-sugar cereal were also more likely to put fresh fruit on their cereal than those who chose the high-sugar cereal (54% vs. 8%).
It is well known that children who eat breakfast have better overall nutrition and lower BMI values than those who skip the meal. Any age group skipping breakfast has demonstrated a significant increased caloric intake later in the day or evening. While convenient breakfast cereals are a popular choice, many of these cereals are extremely high in sugar – adding “empty” calories and promoting unfavorable insulin dynamics. Additionally, potential nutritional deficiencies can occur when this practice occurs daily. Considering the evidence, researchers suggest that low-sugar cereals offered to kids (even if they are allowed to manually add a sugar packet) will promote lower total sugar intake throughout the day – and potentially present as one step in the right direction to lowering the risk of obesity among youth in the United States.