The Toronto Star
October 27, 2009
By Nicole Baute
The cereal your kid wants for breakfast might be as unhealthy as a chocolate doughnut.
"A doughnut probably has a little less fibre but it's not much less healthy than the sugared cereals," said Jennifer Harris, the lead author of a new Yale University report aimed at the big players in the cereal industry.
Research from Yale's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, presented at a conference Monday, confirms what most parents already know: the least healthy cereals for kids are the ones being marketed to them most aggressively.
It might taste good and come with a toy, but cereals like Reese's Puffs, Corn Pops and Lucky Charms are chock-full of sugar and sodium, and low in fibre. Compared to cereals marketed to adults, the cereal aimed at kids has 85 per cent more sugar, 65 per cent less fibre and 60 per cent more sodium, according to the report.
And cereal companies are spending huge sums to draw in their target demographic. In the U.S., cereal companies spend $156 million each year marketing to children on television alone, and attract thousands of children to company-sponsored websites full of games and virtual worlds.
"We knew that the unhealthy products were being marketed most to kids, but we didn't realize how much marketing there was," said Harris.
One of the most surprising findings was the cereal companies' robust online presence, Harris said. General Mills draws 767,000 kids per month to its colourful virtual world at www.millsberry.com, where kids can create an avatar and play arcade games featuring Lucky Charms, Reese's Puffs and Honey Nut Cheerios.
Another surprise: the average U.S. preschooler sees 642 cereal ads per year, almost all of them for cereals with the worst nutrition rankings.
In Quebec, companies cannot target children under age 13 with television advertising, but Alan Middleton, a professor of marketing at York University, says such regulations are difficult to enforce.
He puts the onus on food companies to respond to 21st-century health concerns by changing their products and informing their customers — and says that despite what kids might want to eat, it is still the parents who are buying.
"In most cases, even where the kids have money themselves ... mostly they don't go out and buy cereals. That's not the top of their buying list," he says.
The report also suggests that children will eat healthy cereals if that's what is available. When given sugary cereal instead, kids were likely to eat two servings instead of one.
Katherine Morrison, an associate professor of pediatrics at McMaster University, says obesity is a huge concern in Canada, where 28 per cent of children are overweight.
But she says a sugary breakfast might be better than no breakfast at all. "I am happy that they're at least getting some milk with it," she says.