Cereal for Breakfast: A Good or Bad Idea for Kids?

If you’re like many Americans, you grew up all too familiar with Tony the Tiger and other characters painted on cereal boxes heavily advertised in TV commercials. Because of all the fun and familiarity surrounding cereal, you probably had more bowls of cereal to start your day than you can count or care to remember. I know I did! And I’m embarrassed to admit that when I was 5-years-old, I’m pretty sure I killed my hamster by feeding him Fruity Pebbles.

Although I continue to eat cereal a few times a week and also feed it to my children, I know how important it is for families to look before they leap when it comes to buying and eating cereal. While many ready-to-eat cereals can provide plenty of vitamins and minerals and make significant contributions to intakes of whole grains and fiber that many children fall short on, they also tend to provide way more added sugar than considered healthy—especially for growing bodies. The added sugar alone can turn a seemingly innocent breakfast into dessert.

In a new analysis, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) ranks 1,556 cereals, including 181 marketed to children, by their total sugar content by weight and compares the findings with current federal dietary guidelines and those by other organizations. Among the findings:

  • 92 percent of cold cereals and 100 percent of cereals marketed to children in the US contain added sugars, some having up to six different kinds including sugar mixed with corn syrup, honey, dextrose or high fructose corn syrup.
  • Cereals marketed to children have more than 40 percent more sugars than adult cereals, and twice the sugar of oatmeal.
  • 78 percent of children’s cereals contain more than 2 teaspoons of sugar in a single serving—more than a quarter of the daily limit for an 8-year-old.
  • For 40 cereals, a single serving (¾ cup or 1 cup—less than many children typically consume in a single sitting) exceeds 60 percent of the daily limit for sugar.
  • 12 cereals including Kellogg’s Honey Smacks and Post Golden Crisp provide more than 50% sugar by weight.
  • Only 47 cold cereals—3 family cereals, 43 adult cereals and one granola)—and 155 hot cereals and had no added sugar.

Although ready-to-eat cereals can certainly pack in a lot of added sugar, especially if kids eat it in oversized bowls or fill their bowl up more than once, they seem to contribute relatively little added sugar to the diets of Americans aged 2 and older when compared to some other foods and beverages. Whereas national survey data estimates that 3.8 percent of added sugar in the diet comes from ready-to-eat cereal, a whopping 35.7 percent of added sugar intake comes from sugary soda, energy drinks and sports drinks alone. Those drinks together with grain-based desserts, fruit drinks, dairy desserts and candy comprise 70 percent of added sugar intake.

Current dietary guidelines suggest a daily limit of 3 teaspoons (12 grams) to 8 teaspoons (32 grams) for children who consume 1,200 to 2,000 calories depending on their age, gender and individual needs. On average, children typically consume two or three times these amounts.

Although the new documentary Fed Up seems to blame sugar alone for the twin epidemics of obesity and type 2 diabetes in children, I do agree with the conclusion that to raise a healthier generation of kids, we do need to reduce the intake of added sugars. But while cereal is one source of added sugar, I believe that it’s important to look at and limit how often and how much we consume all sources of added sugar in the diet including (but not only) ready-to-eat cereal. We also need to look at individual food and beverages choices in the context of our total dietary intake and lifestyle –and teach our kids to do the same—when trying to improve the nutritional value of the diet.

Although the EWG findings may make you never want to eat—or feed your children—cereal again, I don’t think it’s necessary, desirable or realistic to ban cereal altogether from your pantry. Ready-to-eat cereal—especially whole grain, high fiber, low sugar options—can provide busy families with a tasty and convenient source of vitamins and minerals. Cereal can also be a great cluster food that pairs well with nutrient-rich picks like low fat or nonfat yogurt or milk, fresh fruit (or dried fruit with no sugar added) and nuts/seeds.

To choose a more nutrient-rich cereal, look for one that’s 100% whole grain (look for the 100% whole grain stamp, or look for whole wheat, whole oats or another whole grain listed first on the ingredients list). Aim for at least 3 grams of fiber per one cup serving. Look for as little added sugar as possible—one of my favorites is shredded wheat (it also has very little sodium, rare for a ready-to-eat cereal). If your cereal has added sugar, make sure the sugar content is no more than double the fiber content. (For example, if it has 4 grams of fiber per serving, look for no more than 8 grams of sugar on the Nutrition Facts panel.) If you and your kids already eat sugary cereals and don’t want to give them up, eat it in smaller bowls with smaller utensils. Better yet: mix them with lower- or no-sugar cereals. You will get used to the taste if you give it some time. You can also choose more flaky cereals and fewer crunchy, hard, more concentrated cereals and granolas that can pack in more calories (and more added sugar) in smaller portions, or mix them to reduce the load of calories—and added sugars.

To learn more about choosing cereals and reducing added sugar in the diet, check out the EWG’s Recommendations. You can also check out my previous Scoop on Food posts including Empty Calories and Kids and How to Help Your Kids Satisfy a Sweet Tooth and get breakfast ideas here.

Do you and your kids eat cereal?

Image of a good breakfast via shutterstock.

How much do you know about toddler nutrition?

Healthy Breakfast: 3 Quick Meals for Kids
Healthy Breakfast: 3 Quick Meals for Kids
Healthy Breakfast: 3 Quick Meals for Kids

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  1. [...] The EWG wisely recommends looking for cereals that offer no more than 20 to 25% of the adult Daily Value for vitamin A, zinc and niacin. Encouraging children to stick to small serving sizes of cereal, to choose cereal that is 100% whole grain, high in fiber, and lower in sugar, and topping it with fresh fruit, chopped nuts or seeds (for older children) and low- or nonfat milk can help kids meet—but not exceed—food group and nutrient needs. (To find other tips to help you choose more nutritious cereals, check out my recent Scoop on Food Post, Cereal for Breakfast: A Good or Bad Idea?, here.) [...]