Cereals aimed at kids haven’t improved much nutritionally, new report finds

Over the past three years, cereal manufacturers have improved the nutritional content of products marketed to children, but they have also increased advertising aimed at kids for sugary cereals that, despite improvements, still aren’t as nutritious as products aimed at adults. That’s the finding of a report being released Friday by the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity in New Haven, which analyzed more than 100 brands of cereal marketed to children, families, and adults.

The report found that from 2008 to 2011, total media spending—including TV commercials, “adver-games” designed for kids, and Internet banner ads on children’s websites—increased by 34 percent. Nutritional quality improved, with cereals containing less sugar and sodium and more fiber per serving.

But even so, “these products are made up of a third sugar, and they’re still the worst in terms of fiber and sodium,” said the report’s lead researcher, Jennifer Harris, director of marketing initiatives at the Rudd Center. “They’re not healthy products that kids should be eating.”

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That’s despite a six-year-old food industry pledge, called the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, to market only “better-for-you” foods to children. The goal of the program is to “shift the mix of advertising primarily directed to children to encourage healthier dietary choices and healthy lifestyles,” according to the Council of Better Business Bureaus, which enlisted more than a dozen food and beverage companies to set nutritional standards for products aimed at children.

Elaine Kolish, director of the initiative, said in an interview that the Rudd report “paints this false dichotomy suggesting that products advertised to children aren’t good products,” adding that other breakfast foods “like muffins, doughnuts, waffles are far higher in sugar, calories, and fat.”

The Rudd Center report singled out General Mills for launching new websites aimed at children for Honey Nut Cheerios, with games like Honey Defender, and for Cinnamon Toast Crunch, where kids can make a movie or watch “crazy videos”. Honey Nut Cheerios has 9 grams of sugar per serving and Cinnamon Toast Crunch has 10 grams of sugar, compared with 1 gram of sugar in Cheerios, which has a website aimed at parents of babies rather than children.

General Mills issued a statement via e-mail that the company “has been leading the way in reducing the sugar content in our cereals advertised to children. We’ve lowered sugar levels in our kid cereals by more than 14 percent, on average, since 2007. Today, all Big G cereals advertised to children are 10 grams of sugar or less per serving, with some already at 9 grams.”

Post, also criticized in the new report for increasing its advertising for Pebbles cereals, responded via e-mail that it is a “strong supporter” of the advertising initiative and “is in full compliance with the guidelines for all of our products marketed to children, including the Post Fruity and Cocoa Pebbles brands.”

The cereal manufacturers contacted by the Globe declined to say why they associate cartoon characters and online games with brands that contain the most sugar but not the least.

The Rudd Center’s Harris said it could have something to do with how much children eat when given a bowl of sugary cereal compared to one that’s not very sweet. In a 2011 study published in the journal Pediatrics, she and her colleagues found that elementary school children offered several different types of cereal consumed slightly more than a serving on average of non-sweetened cereals such as Cheerios or Corn Flakes compared with about two servings of sugary Froot Loops, Cocoa Pebbles, or Frosted Flakes. They were also more likely to add fresh fruit slices to the non-sugar cereal to sweeten it—which offers additional nutritional benefits, Harris said.

The Rudd Center report did find an overall decrease in TV advertising for children’s cereals, but it found that African-American children’s exposure to kids’ cereal commercials increased by 7.5 percent and that spending on Spanish-language TV ads on children’s programming increased from $26 million to $65 million.

“Latino children are disproportionately burdened by high obesity rates beginning at a very young age,” said Dr. Elsie M. Taveras, co-director of the obesity prevention program at Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Institute. “This is probably the population at highest risk and the most vulnerable to a doubling in advertising” in terms of their propensity to high-sugar cereals, she said.

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