Froot Loops: A nutritious part of a complete breakfast?

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Should sugary cereals like Apple Jacks, Froot Loops, Cocoa Krispies and Frosted Flakes be considered healthy foods?

This is not a trick question. In fact, it has become a hotly debated issue in nutrition circles recently.


All those cereals -- plus other kid favorites like Corn Pops and Lucky Charms -- made it on the list of Smart Choices, the newest food labeling system to hit grocery shelves.

The stated goal of the Smart Choices Program is to help shoppers select foods that meet nutrition criteria set forth in the Dietary Guidelines for America (promulgated by the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Agriculture) and other “authoritative” sources. Foods that qualify for the green Smart Choices label post their calorie content on the front of their packages.

The initiative is sponsored by huge manufacturers, and board members include representatives from Kellogg’s, General Mills, Kraft Foods and Unilever. Also represented are members of the American Dietetic Assn. and the American Diabetes Assn. The board president is Eileen Kennedy, dean of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University and a former top official at the USDA, where she developed the Healthy Eating Index.

But Kennedy and the program have come under fire in recent days when it was revealed that many sugary cereals earned the Smart Choices seal of approval.

Walter Willett, chair of the nutrition department at the Harvard School of Public Health, told the New York Times that some of the so-called Smart Choices “are horrible choices.”

And the Fooducate blog blasted Kennedy for arguing that Froot Loops are healthier than doughnuts:

“Come on Professor -- you are educating the next generations of diet and nutrition professionals. What will you tell your students? That they should recommend Froot Loops to their clients? There has to be a better solution. And we’re looking up to experts like you to help us find them.”

In Kennedy’s defense, a one-cup serving of Froot Loops contains 25% of the recommended daily value of vitamin C, iron, thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, vitamin B6, folic acid and vitamin B12, along with 11% of dietary fiber and lesser amounts of other nutrients. The cereal will set you back only 110 calories, including 10 from fat.

But it also contains 12 grams of sugar, the maximum allowed under the Smart Choices rules. That’s 30% of the total amount of added sugar the USDA recommends for adults who eat a 2,000-calorie-per-day diet. For young kids (who presumably are eating the most Froot Loops), that percentage would be even higher.

A new study published in the September issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Assn. weighs in with some support for Kennedy’s position. It examined more than seven years of dietary data collected from 660 children by the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute of the National Institutes of Health. The study found that kids who ate breakfast cereal had more fiber and micronutrients in their overall diets. The more cereal they ate, the lower their cholesterol and body mass index, though the effect on BMI was small.

The survey data didn’t distinguish between sweetened and unsweetened cereals, but the study found that sugar consumption was higher in kids who ate more cereal, so it’s a safe bet that cereals like Froot Loops were consumed.

Importantly, the study was funded by General Mills – maker of Cheerios and Wheaties, along with Lucky Charms and Trix.

No doubt, critics will continue to keep a watchful eye on the Smart Choices program. So will the USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service and the Food and Drug Administration. In a letter sent last month to Smart Choices, they warned that:

“FDA and FSIS would be concerned if any FOP [front-of-pack] labeling systems used criteria that were not stringent enough to protect consumers against misleading claims; were inconsistent with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans; or had the effect of encouraging consumers to choose highly processed foods and refined grains instead of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.”

-- Karen Kaplan