Cereal: How Sweet Is It?

Cereal is a good breakfast choice, right? Yes, if it’s made from whole grains, which are packed with nutrients and fiber. But not if it’s loaded with sugar—as many are. According to a new report from the nonprofit Environmental Working Group (EWG), a lot of cereals are so sweet that if you ate a serving every day for a year, you’d consume more than 10 pounds of sugar. That’s 960 teaspoons of sugar, with 15,400 “empty” calories.

Of 1,556 hot and cold cereals analyzed by EWG, 181 were cold children’s cereals, as indicated by cartoon characters on the boxes (but eaten by lots of adults too). All had added sugar, sometimes with as many as six different sweeteners. On average, they contained 10.4 grams of sugar (2.6 teaspoons) per serving, with sugar providing 34 percent of the calories. (Note: 4 grams of sugar equals one teaspoon and has 16 calories.) Sugar-wise, eating children’s cereal is like having two or three cookies for breakfast—or even a Hostess Twinkie.

A few children’s cereals have been reformulated with less sugar since EWG’s previous analysis in 2011. But the sugar content has remained the same in most of them— and has even increased in some. Any improvements have been “slight.”

Cold “adult” cereals were less sweet overall, but still averaged more than 7 grams of sugar per serving, supplying nearly 20 percent of the calories.

What about all those “healthy” granolas? They actually had more (albeit only slightly more) sugar than children’s cereals.

Hot cereals fared best: Overall they contained the least sugar (less than 6 grams per serving, on average), with grits having near-zero sugar. Instant flavored oatmeals, however, had the most sugar of all hot cereals, rivaling some sugary cold cereals with 8 grams per serving.
How much sugar is too much?

There is no daily value for sugar on nutrition labels, so it’s hard to get a handle on how much is too much. Labels aren’t even required to separately list added sugars (which are the problem, as opposed to naturally occurring sugars), though that’s set to change under new FDA regulations. The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends a strict limit of 25 grams of added sugar (6 teaspoons) a day for the average woman and 37.5 grams (about 9 teaspoons) for the average man—and just 3 to 4 teaspoons a day for children. Americans consume about 90 grams of added sugar (22 teaspoons) a day, on average, largely from sugary beverages, but also a lot from cereals.

To put cereals into perspective, a serving of a store-brand Honey Puffed Wheat, for example, provides 45 percent of the AHA daily sugar limit for a man and 70 percent for a woman—and exceeds the limit for kids.
Seven sensible cereal suggestions:

Avoid cereals depicting cartoon characters, prizes, or games on the box—clues that the cereal is likely loaded with sugar.
Look for cereals made from unsweetened whole grains—or at least ones with whole grains as the first ingredient(s) and no more than 4 to 6 grams of sugar per serving.
Beware of low-sugar cereals that are made from refined grains and have negligible fiber. The real challenge is to find a low-sugar cereal that is also high in fiber (3 grams or more) from whole grains.
Ignore nutrient claims on the front of boxes, like “excellent source of vitamin D” or “good source of fiber.” Such labeling is “designed to distract consumers from focusing on the unhealthy sugar content,” says EWG. In fact, 11 out of 13 of the most sugary cereals, including Froot Loops with Marshmallows, carried such claims.
Be aware that you may be eating more than a serving of cereal at each sitting, since the listed serving sizes are small—in which case you would get even more sugar (and calories) than the label indicates. The average person pours 30 percent more cereal than the listed serving size, according to FDA data.
Check out “health-food” brands, which often have less sugar, more whole grains, and more fiber than their conventional counterparts. Compare nutrition labels.
Lastly, if your favorite cereal is very sugary and you don’t want to give it up altogether, you can moderate the sweetness by mixing it with a cereal that has little or no added sugar.