Little effort appears to have been made to reduce sugar in children’s cereals nearly three years after a damning report, a British consumer watchdog said today.
A study by Which? said there had been some “positive progress” since it reported on the healthiness of breakfast cereals in 2006.
But it said sugar levels were “shockingly high” and it was “particularly worrying” that so many high-sugar cereals were still being marketed to children.
A survey by the organisation of 100 cereals bought in January from the main supermarkets – excluding hot cereals and muesli – found a lower proportion of high-sugar cereals overall compared to 2006.
But only 8% qualified for a British Food Standards Agency “green light” for low levels of sugar, with 31 out the 100 cereals examined containing more than four teaspoons of sugar per recommended serving.
Only one of the 28 cereals specifically marketed to children was found not to be high in sugar, the consumer group said.
The report highlighted high sugar levels in Kellogg’s Coco Pops Moons and Stars, Frosties and Ricicles which were more than a third, or 37%, pure sugar.
Morrisons Choco Crackles, listed by Which? as the most sugary, at 38.4g per 100g, has been reformulated, the supermarket chain said. It now has a sugar content of 36g per 100g, the chain said, bringing it into line with similar products.
The chain also pointed out that Morrisons Honey Nut Cornflakes – in the list of top 10 worst salt “offenders” compiled by Which? – has also been reformulated and now has a salt content of 0.7g per 100g, a “significant” reduction on the 1.8g per 100g shown in the Which? report.
Many brands thought of as healthy, such as Kellogg’s All Bran, Bran Flakes and Special K, failed to impress the researchers.
The watchdog said starting the day with a recommended serving of Special K would be “almost the sugar equivalent” to waking up to a serving of Tesco Dark Chocolate Fudge Cake Premium Ice Cream.
The research comes after a study published in 2006 by Which? showing more than three quarters of the 275 cereals tested had high sugar levels, with this figure rising to 88% of the 52 products specifically targeted at children.
The report published today, Going Against the Grain, said there had been some “positive progress” since 2006, with the most progress made in reducing salt levels.
Only eight out of the 100 cereals were classed as high in salt in 2009, compared with almost a fifth of the 275 sampled in 2006.
But despite this improvement, Which? said, 100g of Tesco Special Flakes was still found to contain the same amount of salt as 100g of Walkers Ready Salted crisps.
The report added that none of the cereals sampled this year contained trans fat fats, which boost cholesterol in the blood and are thought to cause even more damage to the heart than saturated fats.
This was compared to 11 in July 2006 which listed hydrogenated fat as an ingredient indicating that they could contain trans fats.
None of the children’s cereals in the 2009 basket were high in saturates.
There were also some individual examples of good practice, the report said, such as Weetabix reformulating its cereals so they were a healthier choice and could be advertised to children.
Cereals were also still labelled inconsistently, the report said, with many manufacturers and some shops still not using the government’s “traffic light” labelling scheme.
The system of listing percentage Guideline Daily Amounts (GDAs) can be helpful, the report said, but Which? research had shown the majority of people found the traffic light system the easiest to use to compare products.
The report further called for a ban on marketing cereals high in sugar, salt or fat to children.
It was “disappointing”, it added, that cartoon characters were usually used to promote “less healthy” cereals to children.
Sue Davies, chief policy adviser at Which?, said: “Breakfast is important, and some cereals deserve their healthy image, but most simply don’t.
“It’s especially shocking that almost all those targeted at children are less healthy.
“With such little choice, it’s a daily struggle for consumers.
“Cereal manufacturers need to wake up to the fact that people want to eat healthily and provide them with the means to do so by reducing sugar and salt levels and making labelling clearer.
“With over a billion pounds spent on cereals every year, it’s time they rose to the occasion.”
Responding to the survey, a Tesco spokesman said: “GDA labels are by far the most frequently cited source of nutrition information amongst all consumers - 89% of consumers understand the GDA label concept and 80% of consumers use them to correctly choose healthier products.
“Over the last three years, for example, Tesco has removed nearly 3,000 tons of salt and 2,500 tons of fat from its own label products – the equivalent of four million 750g tubs of salt and 20 million 250g packs of lard.”
A spokeswoman for Kellogg’s said: “Which? say reports like this are part of their drive to curb obesity yet they demonise breakfast cereals that, with milk, have around 170 calories and contain less sugar than a slice of buttered toast and jam or a cup of sweetened tea or coffee.
“Whilst this grabs headlines and sells magazines it shouldn’t be confused with sound scientific research that consistently shows that people who eat breakfast cereals, regardless of sugar content, are slimmer than those who don’t.
“One in five of us skip breakfast, so cereals should be seen as part of the solution and not the cause of the obesity epidemic we now face.”
She added that the traffic light system was based on assessing the nutrition credentials of 100g of any given food.
She said: “Cereals are eaten in 30g portions – more than three times less that weight.
“That means you’d have to eat three bowlfuls of cereal to get to the values called out in the tables listed at the end of the report.”
The Association of Cereal Food Manufacturers (ACFM), whose members include Kellogg’s, Weetabix and Dorset Cereals, said people examining the nutritional content of breakfast cereals should look at the portion size and not 100g samples.
“People should take this report with a massive pinch of salt. There is indisputable evidence of the benefits of eating breakfast but a large proportion of the British public don’t,” it said in a statement.
“The government’s Food Standards Agency recommends ’don’t skip breakfast’ and the advice included in their 'Eat Well' brochure is to ’choose wholegrain cereals’, yet data shows that one in six children skip breakfast every day.
“As highlighted in the report, there is a wide range of cereals to meet every occasion and breakfast cereal manufacturers are continually working to improve their nutritional profile.
“In addition, breakfast cereals provide an invaluable source of vital nutrients, ensuring that millions of Britons have a healthy start to the day.
“By choosing to report their findings in such a sensationalist way, Which? will just add to the confusion felt by many people about what foods they should or should not be eating.
“The message is simple, ’don’t skip breakfast – breakfast cereal can play an important role in a healthy balanced diet’.”
A statement from Morrisons said: “Morrisons has a concerted programme of development on its own label brands and both of the findings highlighted in the Which? report are in fact from old products which have now been completely reformulated.
“The new versions of the product are already available in stores the length and breadth of the country.”
A Sainsbury’s spokeswoman said the salt content of Sainsbury’s Be Good To Yourself Balance had been reduced by more than half since the test was carried out by Which?
“Over the past 18 months we have undertaken a massive reformulation of our breakfast cereals.
“We have exceeded the Food Standards Agency’s 2010 salt targets on the cereal category, two years ahead of schedule. On average our cereals contain 40% less salt than previously.”
She added that traffic light labelling on the front of breakfast cereal packs enabled customers can make informed nutrition decisions, adding that Sainsbury’s Be Good To Yourself Balance – which she said was not marketed to children – had an amber (medium) traffic light for salt.
The spokeswoman said Sainsbury’s is also reducing sugar in its products where it can be done without negatively affecting the taste.
:: Here are the top 10 worst offenders for sugar and salt according to the Which? survey of 100 cereals bought from the main supermarkets in January 2009:
Top 10 Worst Offenders (per 100g)
Morrisons Choco Crackles (38.4g) (Morrisons has pointed out that this product has been reformulated reducing the sugar content to 36g per 100g)
Kellogg’s Coco Pops Moons & Stars (37g)
Kellogg’s Frosties (37g)
Kellogg’s Ricicles (37g)
Sainsbury’s Choco Rice Pops (36g)
Tesco Choco Snaps (36g)
Nestle Cookie Crisp (35.3g)
Nestle Cheerios Honey (35.1g)
Kellogg’s Crunchy Nut (35g)
Nestle Nesquik (35g)
Top 10 Worst Offenders (per 100g)
Tesco Special Flakes (2.0g)
Kellogg’s Corn Flakes (1.8g)
Kellogg’s Honey Loops (1.8g)
Morrison’s Honey Nut Corn Flakes (1.8g) (Morrisons has pointed out that this product has been reformulated with a salt content of 0.7g per 100g)
Whole Earth Organic Corn Flakes (1.8g)
Kellogg’s Rice Krispies (1.65g)
Sainsbury’s Be Good To Yourself Balance (1.60g) (Sainsbury’s has pointed out that this product has been reformulated with a salt content of 0.73g per 100g)
Tesco Corn Flakes (1.60g)
Kellogg’s Fruit and Fibre (1.4g)
Kellogg’s Bran Flakes/Sultana Bran (1.3g)