Breakfast just got a little less sweet

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Want to feed your kids a healthy breakfast without drowning them in sugar? It’s a challenge — but it’s getting a little easier.

Major cereal makers are rolling out less-sugary versions of some of their sweetest brands. In December, General Mills — maker of Lucky Charms, Trix and many other breakfast staples — announced that it would cut the sugar levels in all of its children’s cereals to 9 grams or less per 3/4 cup serving. Last month, Post Foods announced that it had already lowered the sugar in its Fruity Pebbles and Cocoa Pebbles cereals to 9 grams per serving.

Those are big changes: Lucky Charms and Trix used to pack 14 grams of sugar per serving, and Fruity and Cocoa Pebbles used to weigh in at 12 grams of sugar per serving.


Children can still load up on sugar at breakfast time, warns Dr. Wendy Slusser, medical director of the Fit for Healthy Weight Program at UCLA’s Mattel Children’s Hospital. Just check out the nutrition labels on other popular brands such as Quaker Oats’ Cap’n Crunch (12 grams of sugar per serving) or Kellogg’s Honey Smacks (15 grams of sugar per serving).

At those levels, a bowl of breakfast cereal could go a long way toward the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s recommended limit of 48 grams of added sugar for children consuming 2,200 calories a day. In fact, children with big morning appetites could easily get half their quota before their day really starts.

“Most children don’t have a single serving — they fill up the whole bowl,” said Jaimie Davis, assistant professor of preventive medicine at USC’s Keck School of Medicine.

But there is some heartening news: Children seem to be happy to eat low-sugar cereal if it’s offered to them, said Marlene Schwartz, deputy director of Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity.

In a study published in the journal Pediatrics in December, Schwartz and colleagues served breakfast to a group of children ages 5 to 12. Half of them got to choose from one of three sugary cereals (Froot Loops, Cocoa Pebbles and Frosted Flakes), while the other half chose from one of three low-sugar cereals (Cheerios, Rice Krispies and Corn Flakes). Children in both groups poured their own cereal and added their own milk, table sugar and pre-cut strawberries and bananas.

The children given the high-sugar cereals ate two servings on average, but the children given the low-sugar cereals consumed more fruit and less cereal (just over one serving). The children eating Cheerios and the like also consumed far less added sugar: just under 3 grams, compared with 24 grams in the high-sugar group. When given a chance to add their own sugar, the children actually showed far more restraint than the cereal companies.


Most important of all, Schwartz said: “None of the children in the low-sugar cereal group complained.”

Sugary cereals aren’t the top source of added sugars in children’s diets, Davis said. In fact, they rank below dairy desserts, fruit drinks, cakes, candies and, of course, soft drinks. (For comparison, consider the 39 grams of added sugar in a 12-ounce can of Coca Cola.)

But cereals are an easy target for parents who want their children to cut back on sugar, Davis said. If children are already hooked on Froot Loops or Frosted Flakes, she recommends mixing the sugary cereal with a low- or no-sugar cereal to start. Then parents can gradually make the shift toward Cheerios or other less-sweet options.

Low-sugar cereals can also easily be made more appealing, Slusser said. Raisins, freeze-dried berries and fruit slices can add sweetness to low-sugar cereals without adding empty calories, she said.

And children can sweeten low-sugar cereals on their own. About a teaspoon of sugar (which is equivalent to 4 grams) usually does the trick, and that’s far less than what’s included in most pre-sweetened cereals.