By Elisa Zied
June 25, 2014
Should We Rethink Kids' Cereal Intake? 37737

Despite its popularity as a staple for many children and parents alike, cereal has gotten a bad rap lately—primarily because of the high levels of added sugar it contains. But as cereal sales continue to fall, companies seem to be doing what they can to generate interest in having consumers eat it not just for breakfast but at other times of the day (see this recent Wall Street Journal clip). Also, Kellogg's recently announced a partnership with YoCrunch to sell in a yogurt aisle near you YoCrunch Cereal Bowls (a combination of Greek yogurt and popular cereals like Frosted Flakes, Fruit Loops and Special K). Whether such efforts will help overturn the recent slump in cereal sales has yet to be seen, though a new highly publicized report about cereal by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) may very well cause them to fall even more.

In the new report, How Much Is Too Much? Excess Vitamins and Minerals Can Harm Kids' Health, the EWG concludes that many American children get too much of three nutrients—vitamin A, niacin and zinc—and that cereal is a key contributor to this excess intake. The report claims that "Fortified breakfast cereals are the number one source of excessive intake of vitamin A, niacin and zinc because they're all added to fortified foods in amounts calculated for adults, not children." It also points out that Daily Values for vitamin A, niacin and zinc are higher than the "Tolerable Upper Intake Level" (UL) calculated by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) for children 8-years-old and younger. (The UL is "the highest level of daily nutrient intake that is likely to pose no risk of adverse health effects to almost all individuals in the general population.") When routinely ingested in high doses, these vital nutrients can become toxic.

Before drawing conclusions, the EWG analyzed the Nutrition Facts panels of 1,556 cereals. Of those, 114 contained 30 percent or more of the adult Daily Value (DV) of either vitamin A, zinc or niacin in a single serving. According to the EWG, "A child age 8 or younger eating a single serving of any of them would exceed IOM's safe level." The EWG also identified 23 cereals—these include some popular picks like General Mills total Raisin Bran, Kellogg's Product 19—that had the highest added doses of the three nutrients. The report warns that "Children who eat cereals that are high in one or more of these three nutrients along with other fortified foods and/or supplements could easily be overexposed."

When consumed in excess, Vitamin A—important for healthy teeth, bones, eyes and skin and immune function—can damage the liver and contribute to symptoms like brittle bones, hair loss and peeling skin. Getting too much zinc—a mineral that supports immune function and plays a key role in many important chemical reactions in the body—can, in fact, impair immunity, cause anemia, and reduce the absorption of copper. Overdoing intake of the niacin—a B vitamin that helps convert food to energy—can cause rashes or other skin reactions, nausea and liver problems.

If you, like many parents (including me), routinely give your kids cereal, the EWG report might make you throw your hands up in despair—and throw all your cereal boxes in the garbage! While this report does raise a red flag and illustrate the idea that too much of a good thing may not, after all, be good, I really don't think you need to go to extremes to keep your kids healthy. That being said, it's prudent to add excess intakes of vitamins and minerals from cereal and other fortified foods to your list of concerns when feeding children simply because of potential health perils associated with eating such foods, especially in excess.

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.)

Although it's great to be mindful of what kinds of cereal and how much and how often your kids consume this traditional breakfast staple, it's important to also think big picture to help them eat healthfully. Although no one food can make or break a diet, when it comes to nutrients, the EWG report underscores the importance of looking at cereal as part of your child's overall intake of food, fortified foods, and dietary supplements. If you really want some credible guidance on making food and/or supplement choices for your children to meet (but not exceed) their overall nutrient needs, consulting with a registered dietitian nutritionist and your child's pediatrician can certainly be a great first step.

Does this EWG report make you want to ban cereal together? Will you think twice when buying cereal or feeding it to your children?

Image of healthy breakfast via shutterstock.