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In 1941, the American Medical Association’s Council on Foods and Nutrition was presented with a new product, Vi-Chocolin, a vitamin-fortified chocolate bar, “offered ostensibly as a…product of high nutritive value…but in reality, intended for promotion to the public as a [kind of] vitaminized candy.” Surely something like that couldn’t happen today! But that’s the entire sugary cereal industry’s business model. Twelve vitamins and minerals. Way better than those marshmallow Froot Loops with just a measly 11.
Nutrients are added to breakfast cereals “as a marketing gimmick to create an aura of healthfulness.” If those same nutrients were added to soda, would we feed our kids Coke for breakfast? We might as well spray cotton candy with vitamins too. As one medical journal editorial read, “Adding vitamins and minerals to sugary cereals…is worse than useless. The subtle message… is that it is safe to eat more.”
General Mills’ “Grow up strong with Big G kids’ cereals” ad campaign featured products like Lucky Charms, Trix, and Cocoa Puffs. That’s like the dairy industry promoting ice cream to get your calcium. Kids who eat presweetened breakfast cereals may get more than 20 percent of their daily calories from added sugar. Most sugar in the American diet comes from beverages like soda, but breakfast cereals represent the third-largest food source of added sugars in the diets of children and adolescents, wedged between candy and ice cream. On a per-serving basis, there is more added sugar in a cereal like Frosted Flakes than there is in frosted chocolate cake, brownies, or a frosted doughnut.
Kellogg and General Mills argue that breakfast cereals only contribute a “relatively small amount of sugar” to the diets of children; less than soda, for example. This is a perfect example of a psychological phenomenon known as “diffusion of responsibility.” That’s like every restaurant in the country arguing that their individual contribution to the problem of secondhand smoke is relatively tiny, and therefore should be exempted from a smoking ban. Each and every source of added sugar should be reduced.
The industry argues that most of their cereals have less than 10 grams of sugar per serving, but when Consumer Reports measured how much youngsters actually poured, they were found to serve themselves about 50 percent more than the suggested serving size for most of the tested cereals. The average portion of Frosted Flakes they poured for themselves contained 18 grams of sugar (4.5 teaspoons, or 6 sugar packets worth). It’s been estimated that “a child eating one serving per day of [the average children’s cereal] would consume [close to 10 pounds of sugar in a year], nearly 1,000 spoonfuls of sugar.”
General Mills offers the “Mary Poppins defense,” arguing that it’s those spoonfuls of sugar that can help the medicine go down, explaining that “if sugar is removed from bran cereal, it would have the consistency of sawdust.” If we couldn’t add sugar, our cereals would be unpalatable. If one has to add sugar to a product to make it edible, that should be a sign. That’s a characteristic of so-called “ultraprocessed” foods, where you have to pack them full of things like sugar, salt, and flavorings since they have had “their [natural] intrinsic flavors processed out…and [you have] to mask any [unpleasantries] in the final product.”
The president of the Cereal Institute has argued that without sugary cereals, kids might not eat breakfast at all, similar to dairy industry arguments that “removing chocolate milk from school cafeterias” would risk kids skipping lunch. He also stressed we must consider the alternatives. As Kellogg’s director of nutrition once put it: “I would suggest that Fruit [sic] Loops as a snack are much better than potato chips or a sweet roll.” You know there’s a problem when the only way to make your product look good is to compare it to Pringles and Cinnabon.
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