Companies Commit to Making Healthier Kids’ Cereals Overseas ... Just Not Here

American consumers continue to gobble up sugary, aggressively marketed cereals.
Cereal companies aggressively market their high-fat, high-sugar, high-sodium products directly to children. (Photo: Bloomberg / Getty Images)
Oct 15, 2012· 2 MIN READ
Steve Holt is a regular contributor to TakePart. He writes about food for Edible Boston, Boston Magazine, The Boston Globe, and other publications.

Cereal Partners Worldwide, a joint venture between Nestlé and General Mills that produces and markets breakfast cereals outside North America, just announced that it will reformulate 20 cereal brands popular with children and teenagers to be more healthy. By 2015, CPW says it will have boosted whole grains and calcium and reduced sugar content by an average of 24 percent and sodium by 12 percent. The reformulations will affect cereal sold in 140 countries outside the United States and Canada, markets which account for about half the total global cereal sales of some $25 billion.

But rather than making the changes to improve the health of kids eating its cereals, the CPW appears to be doing it to curb a loss of sales overseas.

“A certain number of moms don't want their kids to have as much sugar as they do right now, so that is a barrier for some to purchasing breakfast cereal,” CPW Chief Executive Jeffrey Harmening told Reuters.

And what about North America? The current sugar levels in Europe’s Honey Cheerios and the equivalent Honey Nut Cheerios brand in the United States appear to have similar sugar levels (8 grams per 30 gram serving, according to a study by Which? magazine in Great Britain and Cheerios’ own site.) Is General Mills committing to the same “reformulations” in North America?

While it did not offer specifics, a statement from General Mills said this about its strategies to improve nutrition in North America:

"CPW’s strategy is very much aligned with General Mills on this topic. General Mills’ commitment may pre-date CPW’s, but it is very similar in its approach. Both rely upon and require fundamental product reformulation, and both seek to lower sugar without reducing taste."

We were also given a link to a nearly two-year-old press release in which General Mills reported an eight percent average sugar decline in its kids’ cereals between 2009 and 2010.

If past actions are any indicator, children abroad are about to experience an even bigger onslaught of advertising for CPW’s sweetest cereals. Earlier this year, Yale University's Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity reported that when U.S. cereal producers cut sugar and added whole grains to many of its cereals, it offset the benefits by targeting kids with more ads for their unhealthiest products.

The report—titled Cereal FACTS (Food Advertising to Children and Teens Score)—revealed that since while nutrition has improved in 13 of 16 kid-targeted cereals since 2009, some companies began to market more aggressively to children. Children’s exposure to TV ads, for instance, increased between 2008 and 2011 for certain cereals, such as Foot Loops (up 79 percent) and Reese’s Puffs (up 55 percent). And overall spending by cereal companies on media promoting kids’ cereals was ramped up by more than a third in that time span to $264 million in 2011.

Not surprisingly, General Mills contests the Rudd Center's findings.

"The report was substantially off the mark, and—as with much of what Rudd produces—was so pejorative that we didn’t respond to it at all," read a statement from the company.

The fact remains, cereals marketed to children contain 56 percent more sugar, 52 percent less fiber, and 50 percent more sodium compared with adult-targeted cereals. Some believe that while cutting out a few grams per serving of sugar certainly helps, continuing to market these products to unknowing children is tantamount to aggressively peddling cigarettes or alcohol.

Think about it: No one disputes the health effects of cigarettes, which is why we certainly don’t allow Marlboro to market directly to children. Increasingly, though, medical professionals are beginning to view and treat sugar as it would tobacco and alcohol, and a study published in February by University of California-San Francisco researchers asserts the sweet stuff has similar long-term bodily effects as booze and cigarettes.

Researchers are finding that humans may get addicted to sugar in a similar way to cigarettes and alcohol. The UCSF study prolonged exposure to sugar results in “habituation, if not addiction.” Dr. Jacob Teitelbaum, author of Beat Sugar Addiction Now, says he has identified four types of sugar addiction in the patients he treats.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention notes that childhood obesity has reached 17 percent in the United States alone—triple what it was one generation ago. But it appears this fact alone won’t convince the cereal companies to either pull or dramatically reformulate the cereals that are the greatest risk to children.

If CPW’s example is any indication, significant change may not come until consumers—“moms,” as chairman Harmening put it—stand up en masse and refuse to buy sugary poison for their children.

Given the obesity and diabetes rate among children, should certain kids' cereals be pulled off the market?