A new study shows that cereal boxes with real nutrition claims and exaggerated portion sizes may confuse consumers

In moderation, healthy cereals can help you maintain a balanced diet. Many breakfast cereals available in the UK are high in sugar. Based on the total weight of a product, some contain over a third.

Breakfast cereals are more than just an early morning meal for children. Kids tend to snack throughout the day on these cereals because they are so quick to make. Cereal products, which are sugars that have been added to foods and drinks, as well as those found in honey or unsweetened juices, are second to cereals as the main source of sugars for children. They make up 8% or more of free sugars consumed by children aged four to ten years and 7% for teenagers aged 11-18.

In the media, it is often said that excess sugar is a risk factor for tooth decay and can lead to cavities, gum disease, and painful abscesses. What is less often discussed in the media is that excessive sugar can also be a risk factor for tooth cavities – which may lead to gum disease, painful abscesses, and even diabetes.

In our newly published study, we looked at the marketing of breakfast cereals high in sugar to children and its impact on oral health. We were interested in the portion sizes on the front of packs and how this affected sugar intake.

Oversized portions

According to recent UK nutritional recommendations, free sugars shouldn’t exceed 5 % of total dietary energy for children over two years old. According to the NHS, this should not exceed 19g per day (approximately five teaspoons) in children aged 4 to 6 years.

Nine out of thirteen cereal boxes were examined. Maria Morgan is the Author.

We used these guidelines to examine the packaging of nine of the most popular breakfast cereals sold in the UK. We decided to investigate Coco Pops more closely, as it was the most popular cereal (according to Mintel’s marketing reports), and include all UK supermarket and branded versions. We had 13 different breakfast cereals: Cheerios (and Asda’s, Sainsbury’s, Morrison’s, and Tesco supermarket-branded versions), Coco Pops, Cornflakes, Crunchy Nut Cornflakes, and Frosties.

We found that eight of the thirteen cereals, when consumed at the suggested portion size by the manufacturer, provided more than half the daily recommended sugar intake for children aged between four and six. We also found out that the pictures of the portions on the packaging can be misleading to consumers. The packaging suggested the recommended portion sizes, but the images showed pieces at least two-thirds larger than those recommendations.

Sugar content (g/100g) of leading UK children’s cereals. Author provided

Cartoon characters, royal endorsements, and QR codes were used to promote the breakfast cereals. Many of these appeared to be targeted towards children.

All the cereals we tested had legitimate nutritional claims, including those relating to vitamins (especially iron) and minerals (especially folic), whole grains, and no artificial flavors or colors. Only two cereals, Weetabix & Sugar Puffs, did not include a voluntary nutrition label on the front of their packaging (often color-coded as traffic lights). The problem is that while the images on the packaging do not reflect the manufacturer’s actual recommendation, the legitimate claims made about the other nutritional components of the cereals may lead consumers to believe that they are healthier.

It may not be an intentional attempt to mislead the consumer. Still, dental professionals and other healthcare providers should be aware of how marketing techniques can affect children and parents when they are giving nutritional advice. In addition, consumers should be more informed about the breakfast options they choose.

Breakfast is an important part of starting the day, and it doesn’t have to be boring. Choose breakfast cereals that have less sugar. Porridge, plain wholewheat cereals, and plain shredded cereals are all good choices. Add some fruit (raspberries or bananas work well) and serve with semi-skimmed or natural yogurt. Change4life offers some tips on reducing sugar in breakfast as well as easy and quick recipes.

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