In the several decades since the last nationwide rationing of sugar during World War II, companies have slowly made foods sweeter and sweeter, until American tastes have become cloying, even shocking to most other cultures. No food, perhaps, is so iconic of the sweetening of America than breakfast cereal -- to the point where "sugary cereal" is a common phrase often synonymous with the idea of predatory marketing to children.General Mills has long been a star among these sugary cereal lists. On a top ten list last fall prepared by Yale's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, its Trix made #5; Cocoa Puffs was #4; and Lucky Charms clocked in at #3 -- that's 41% sugar. More surprising was Honey Nut Cheerios, ranking as the second-worst cereal thanks not to its relatively (umm) modest sugar content -- 32% -- but for its many healthful claims.
The number one spot? Yep, General Mills again, its Cinnamon Toast Crunch winning thanks to its high marketing expenditures targeted at kids.
What's a maligned cereal maker to do? Well, about a year ago, the folks at General Mills thought fast and unveiled a plan to reduce all the sugar in its cereals marketed to kids (the ones marketed to adults are spared the sweetdown, though traditionally those had been much lower in sugar, anyway). At the time, the company said all its kid-focused cereal boxes shipped after December 31, 2009 would have 11 grams of sugar per serving, or less.
Last week, the company announced its next small step toward reversing American kids' dependence on sugar: as of December 31, 2010, all of its cereals marketed toward kids 12 and under will have just 10 grams of sugar per serving.
It's truly a baby step. Jeff Harmening, president of General Mills' Big G cereal division told the Chicago Business Review that it didn't want to change anything too drastic so that the taste would be altered. "Consumers have a very keen idea of what these cereals ought to taste like and if you change the taste dramatically or suddenly, they'll walk away from the brand," he said. Victory would be his and the company's, he went on, when all of the cereals reached the nine-grams-per-serving threshold.
Compared to the American Heart Association's recommended daily allotment of added sugar for kids under 12, this is pretty hefty. Children should have no more than 12 grams of sugar in their diet, total, each day. So, even if kids have just one serving of Lucky Charms at nine grams' worth, they couldn't eat one serving of Honey Maid graham crackers (8 grams sugar), or one Uncrustables peanut butter and grape jelly sandwich (14 grams sugar), or one Dora the Explorer Yoplait strawberry yogurt cup (6 ounces, 13 grams sugar) -- they're nearly double their RDA. And as we know: these sugary foodstuffs are not only available at every turn for most American kids, but marketed six ways to Sunday, on kids' television, in the colorful newspaper circulars, on the end of the cereal aisle and all the way up and down it.
I'm glad the industry generally and General Mills specifically is taking steps to cut sugar content down a tiny notch. I'd be happier, though, if the industry also made steps to take out artificial flavors and colors, highly-processed grains and additives, and chemical preservatives. All these, too, contribute to obesity and overeating and ill health. Sugary cereals are not on our family's shopping list, and neither are the low-sugar kind, because the nutritional value per dollar spent is minimal. In my opinion, every chemical ingredient is a net debit against whatever healthful ingredients are present. And in cereal, the healthful ingredients are already so minor as to render my personal should-I-buy?-score negative.
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