Are kids' breakfast cereals horrible or helpful?

Froot Loops up close
CC BY 2.0 Rosana Prada

Breakfast cereals have been contentious for a long time. In 1985 a humour columnist named Dave Barry wrote the following exchange that still applies today:

“Dear Mister Language Person:

I am curious about the expression, ‘Part of this complete breakfast.’ The way it comes up is, my 5-year-old will be watching TV cartoon shows in the morning, and they’ll show a commercial for a children’s compressed breakfast compound such as ‘Froot Loops’ or ‘Lucky Charms,’ and they always show it sitting on a table next to a some actual food such as eggs, and the announcer always says: ‘Part of this complete breakfast.’ Don’t they really mean, ‘Adjacent to this complete breakfast,’ or ‘On the same table as this complete breakfast’? And couldn’t they make essentially the same claim if, instead of Froot Loops, they put a can of shaving cream there, or a dead bat?”

“Answer: Yes.”

When you think about it from a nutritional perspective, many of the breakfast cereals marketed toward kids – Froot Loops, Apple Jacks, Cap’n Crunch, etc. – are an absurd addition to the breakfast table. Full of sugar, bleached flour, artificial colours and flavourings, and with a lengthy list of unpronounceable ingredients, breakfast cereals are more of a snack or sweet treat than a nourishing breakfast food. Giving kids a sugar high right before they leave for school is hardly wise.

And yet, according to Calorie Lab, breakfast cereals may be a ‘necessary evil.’ A study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics examined the diets of 7,250 children between the ages of 2 and 18 and found that “processed foods fortified with vitamins and minerals, such as certain cereals and enriched-flour bread, provide one-half or more of a given child’s daily intake of thiamin and vitamin D, and ‘significant percentages’ of nine other minerals and nutrients.”

Calorie Lab explains that the study overlooks added-sugar calories, and that much of the thiamin and vitamin D come from milk, but the basic takeaway point is that many children do benefit from fortified breakfast cereals. From the study’s abstract: “Without added nutrients, a high percentage of all children/adolescents had inadequate intakes of numerous micronutrients, with the greatest inadequacy among older girls.”

Isn’t it sad, though, that children in North America – the supposed land of plenty – must rely on fortified processed foods in order to get enough nutrients? If only every child ate a well-rounded diet of fresh whole foods, then fortified processed foods wouldn’t need to exist. Call me idealistic, but I think that providing access to high quality food should be a national priority and a human right.

Admittedly, I find studies such as this to be frustrating because I worry that they legitimize parents’ poor nutritional practices and discourage people from changing their eating habits. There are much better breakfast options out there that are healthier and cheaper. A bag of rolled oats costs less per serving than breakfast cereal, takes only a few minutes to cook, and offers low-glycemic carbs to fuel kids longer. If porridge is still too much work, try granola with milk.

While it’s great to know that breakfast cereals are helping kids, I don't think we should pat ourselves on the back too heartily. I'm still not convinced that breakfast cereals are the best choice for breakfast, nor will I be letting my kids fill up on Froot Loops first thing in the morning. We as a society can do better than that.

Are kids' breakfast cereals horrible or helpful?
One study shows that cereals prevent nutritional deficiencies in American kids, but that's also really sad.

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