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Breakfast in a box: The debate over cereal's health benefits
Kristin Kirkpatrick - photo by Jennifer Graham
Nine out of 10 Americans stock cereal in their pantries, and the breakfast staple invented by Seventh-day Adventists was designed to create a wholesome alternative to meat. Many of today's varieties are made with whole grains, contain nuts and seeds, and are fortified with vitamins, minerals and fiber.

So why, to so many people, has cereal become the other white bread?

Cereal has been called nutritionally vacant, "candy in a box," the cause of bodily dysfunction and disease and a brain killer. U.S. sales have declined by more than $3.5 billion in the past 15 years, in part because of a movement away from processed food, even as cereal manufacturers are busily cutting sugar and adding healthier ingredients, like flax seeds and quinoa. The industry, meanwhile, insists that the downtick is temporary and cereal will rebound.

Cereal has been around for more than 100 years, and its in 90 percent of households. We live in a world of changing food values, and its part of that conversation because its such a loved food, said Lauren Pradhan, senior marketing manager for General Mills cereal, whose brands include Cheerios, Wheaties and Trix.

With hundreds of types of available cereal is the only supermarket product with its own aisle it can be hard for families to distinguish what types of cereal are healthful, and aggressive marketing makes it even more difficult. Cereal makers spent $264 million in 2011 advertising childrens cereals alone, an increase of nearly 35 percent over the previous five years, according to a watchdog group of researchers who run the website

But there are easy ways to distinguish the wheat from the nutritional chaff, experts say, if consumers choose to eat cereal. Whether they will continue to do so is another story.

Box full of change

A report in The New York Times earlier this year said that 40 percent of American millennials dont eat cereal because they find the job of washing the spoon and bowl too onerous. While this made for much gleeful jousting at Americas young adults, it also reflected a much-documented trend: the decline in family mealtimes, replaced by on-the-go noshing.

But cereals troubles go deeper than millennials aversion for housework. (They could, after all, slit a mini-box and eat it in the box like the baby boomers used to do.) It suffers from best-selling books like Dr. David Perlmutter's book "Grain Brain," which says even the most healthful cereals can cause conditions such as dementia, ADHD, anxiety, chronic headaches and depression, plus research that has shown cereal breakfasts can cause late-morning hunger and that a protein-rich morning meal is best.

In one such study, published in January in the journal Eating Behaviors, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing said that children who had eggs for breakfast ate less at lunch than those who ate cereal or oatmeal.

Cereal manufacturers, however, tout other research, like studies that show cereal is a good way to regulate weight.

"Numerous studies have shown that those who start the day with a cereal breakfast have improved nutrient intakes and tend to weigh less. Fortification of cereals with vitamins and minerals has been done for a number of years and is a way to help people get the nutrients needed to support a healthy lifestyle," said Lisa Sanders, Kellogg's director of global nutrition and scientific affairs.

But fortification is one of the reasons that Jessie Inchauspe, a 23-year-old who lives in San Francisco, doesn't eat cereal, which she considers cooked, ground, dried and reshaped wheat or corn, coated with sugar, food coloring and synthetic vitamins. Instead, she opts for a paleo-form of granola, with toasted nuts and no sugar.

To try to win back consumers like Inchauspe, some cereal manufacturers are touting the protein content of their product, a trend watched carefully by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which last year sued General Mills for what it calls misleading marketing in its Cheerios Protein brand.

Kellogg's says it's "reimagining cereal" and "wants to earn a place at your table," Post promises "to make better happen every day," and General Mills announced last week that it is doubling the amount of its organic acreage to meet the demand for organic products. It has also pledged to remove all artificial flavors and colors from its cereal by the end of 2017, no small task when it comes to brightly colored varieties like Trix and Lucky Charms.

"The marshmallows in Lucky Charms are the most difficult, but we're working aggressively toward that goal," Pradhan said.

Despite these efforts, market analyst Euromonitor reported a 19 percent decline in U.S. cereal sales between 2005 and 2015. During that period, consumers went from buying an average 12.3 pounds of cereal each year to 9.9 pounds. Euromonitor predicts cereal makers will lose another $1 billion in sales in the U.S. market in the next five years. Cereal manufacturers do not agree. Kellogg's CEO John Bryant has said he expects growth of "a couple of percent" in the coming year.

Sour on sugar

The main problem with cereal is that so much of it contains excessive amounts of sugar, even after some manufacturers have decreased sugar in response to consumer demand. General Mills says it has cut sugar by 20 percent in many of its cereals. But Jennifer Harris, director of marketing initiatives at the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at the University of Connecticut, notes that, in many cases, this means a serving has three teaspoons of sugar, not four, and that's still not something parents should feel good about.

(Cereal manufacturers) position is that their products are healthy, but I think its going to be harder and harder for them to make that claim now that the USDA has come out with new guidelines for sugar consumption, Harris said. If you look at what theyre recommending, one bowl of cereal, that pretty much does it for the day.

In its new dietary guidelines, released in January, the U.S. Department of Agriculture urged Americans to cut their sugar intake by nearly half, going from 22 to 12 teaspoons a day. (The recommendations vary by age and gender; that's for a 2,000-calorie adult diet.)

As Harris notes, this presents a problem for cereal aficionados. The current best-selling brand, General Mills' Honey Nut Cheerios, has 9 grams of sugar in a serving, more than twice what Kristin Kirkpatrick, manager of wellness nutrition services for the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute, recommends.

"Cereal gets bad press, and a lot of them deserve it. One of the worst things you can do in the morning is have a sugary cereal. We function better having protein," Kirkpatrick said. "I tell my patients to look for cereal that has less than 4 grams of sugar per serving. I also urge consumers to look at where sugar lies on the ingredient list.

"As a mother, I find it incredibly challenging to go down the cereal aisle and see the cereals marketed to kids and not have a meltdown. If it's in the first four ingredients, move on and find another cereal."

Kirkpatrick also warns that a high-sugar cereal may not list sugar as an ingredient. Synonyms for added sugars include brown-rice syrup, fruit concentrate, honey, molasses and malt syrup, she said.

The best bets

Although advocates of low- or no-carb diets, like "Grain Brain" author David Perlmutter, say no cereal is a good cereal, other experts say cereal can be part of a good diet, so long as you choose high-fiber, low-sugar options and go light on the portion size. (Kirkpatrick says when she asks people how much cereal they eat, they often respond "as much as fits in my bowl," which is probably not a good idea.)

Michele Simon, a public-health attorney and president of Eat Drink Politics, speaks blisteringly about the marketing of cereal to children most children's cereal, she has said, is "candy in a box" but she says cereal can be nutritious.

"I personally eat plain shredded wheat, and I put raisins in it, and so forth. I also like Natures Path, and others are coming into the natural realm. As long as its not too processed and not high in sugar, its fine," Simon said.

Post, the third-largest cereal manufacturer in the U.S., also has a popular healthy option in its iconic brand Grape-Nuts, developed by C.W. Post in 1897.

C.W. Post was a contemporary, and patient, of John Harvey Kellogg, the doctor who ran a wellness retreat in Battle Creek, Michigan, where clients were encouraged to cure their physical ills with natural remedies like sunshine, exercise, rest and diet.

As a Seventh-day Adventist, Kellogg also shunned meat, and he and his brother, W.K. Kellogg, wanted to make their own version of a newfangled product called granola (invented in 1863 by Dr. James Caleb Jackson) to serve at the center.

As the Kellogg's website tells it, "In a fortunately failed attempt at making granola, our companys founder, W.K. Kellogg, and his brother, Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, changed breakfast forever when they accidentally flaked wheat berry," which led to the creation of Corn Flakes. (The website neglects to mention that Jackson sued Kellogg in a short-lived granola war.)

Cereal has endured ever since, and so has granola, but don't be fooled by thinking that granola is the healthier choice, Kirkpatrick says. "It's marketed beautifully as a healthy food, but it's loaded with calories, sugar and sometimes fat. Given a choice between whole-grain cereal or granola, I'd go with cereal every time," she said.
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