MUNCHING into seven chocolate biscuits before school probably sounds like the ideal breakfast for many sweet-toothed youngsters.
Of course, apart from the fact that little tummies would probably be rumbling by break time, it’s highly unlikely that most responsible mums or dads would ever consider serving anything so sugary and unhealthy for that vital first meal of the day.
Yet according to new research just released to coincide with National Breakfast Week, they’d be just as well.
For despite hopes that cereal manufacturers might answer calls to cut back the amount of sweet stuff in the typical breakfast bowl, it’s emerged that some are actually adding more.
And in some cases, a bowl of our kids’ favourite breakfast cereal – usually poured from brightly coloured boxes with child-friendly cartoon drawings on the front – can contain as much sugar as seven-and-a-half chocolate fingers. According to research by Action on Sugar, many parents remain blissfully unaware of the hidden sugars in their children’s breakfast bowl.
The campaign organisation warns the sugar overload – it found 14 out of 50 cereals contain eight teaspoons of sugar per 100g – along with our generally unhealthy diet, is helping fuel a national childhood obesity crisis that’s not only leaving youngsters facing a lifelong battle with the bulge and teeth rotten from sugar overload but with a host of possible health problems from heart disease to type 2 diabetes.
Now it has called on cereal producers to act once and for all and reduce the high sugar content in their products.
Kawther Hashem, nutritionist at Action on Sugar, says: “It is highly concerning that many parents are still buying cereal products for their children thinking they are choosing healthier products only to find these items are laden with excess sugar and calories.”
Edinburgh nutritionist Emma Conroy agrees it’s often difficult for parents to find their way through the breakfast cereal maze of confusing information in search of the healthiest option – especially if they are also under fire from the pester power of children who crave the brightest and most fun looking packaging.
“There are hundreds of different cereals and it can be difficult to figure out which ones are better than others,” she says. “I’m sure many parents would be gobsmacked to learn that cereals which are heavily marketed as ‘wholegrain’, and which they think might be healthier, have sugar as one of their biggest ingredients. And many will look at all the vitamins and iron and might think that indicates a healthy option but it’s worth remembering that they are all synthetic forms and have been added back into the cereal.”
A quick way of checking, she adds, is to check the label – avoiding all the other potentially confusing information, and just concentrate on that one word: sugar.
“Look at the amount of carbohydrate per 100g and there will be a number for the amount of sugar. It should become pretty obvious if there’s more than you would like.”
There’s certainly often more of the sweet stuff than campaigners would hope to see. They revisited a shocking 2012 Which? report into sugars in cereals which had shown worryingly high levels in 50 breakfast products.
They had hoped to find sugar levels had now dropped and that producers were making products healthier. Instead they found 14 out of the 50 cereals tested actually contained more sugar than three years earlier.
Researchers discovered a 30g bowl of Aldi’s Harvest Morn Choco Rice, with 39g of sugar per 100g, contained the equivalent sugar hit of seven-and-a-half Cadbury Fingers. They also found the sugar content had soared by 18 per cent since the earlier study.
Other sugar culprits included Kellogg’s Frosties with 37g of sugar per 100g of cereal, Morrisons’ Honey & Nut Corn Flakes and Sainsbury’s Honey Nut Corn Flakes both with 36.3g of sugar and Kellogg’s Crunchy Nut with 25g per 100g.
However, the research also found some producers had lowered sugar content, including Aldi’s Harvest Morn Crunchy Honey Nut Corn Flakes which reduced its level by 19 per cent to 28g per 100g of cereal and Honey Monster Puffs, down by 17 per cent to 35g.
A few cereals could even be classed as healthy – Shredded Wheat Original had just 0.7g sugar per 100g and Weetabix 4.4g/100g.
Emma, who runs Edinburgh Nutrition (www.edinburghnutrition.com), a nutritional therapy practice, suggests parents pick a relatively ‘child friendly’ cereal like Rice Krispies which she believes is among the better options.
Or better still, seek out a natural cereal that has had nothing added or stripped away and, for sweet-toothed family members, adding either fruit or Xylitol, a plant-based natural alternative to sugar.
“Cereals are very convenient, they arrived at a time when more and more women were going out to work and they didn’t want the inconvenience of having to spend their morning cooking and cleaning up after breakfast,” she adds.
“But if we spend a little time being organised we can have not only a healthier breakfast but a tastier one.”
Eggs top her nutritional list as the perfect breakfast food, while a close second is Bircher muesli – the forerunner to today’s far less healthy cereal options. Simply soak oats overnight and then add cream or full fat yoghurt, fresh fruits and dried fruits.
“It’s far better to choose a full fat plain yoghurt and then add fruit than one that is flavoured and low fat,” she adds. “Sugar is often added to make up for the removal of the fat, whereas a full fat yoghurt, the fat itself traps the flavour molecules and holds it so it tastes much better.”
Kawther adds: “You wouldn’t give your child chocolate biscuits for breakfast, yet certain manufacturers are effectively doing that for us.
“We urge parents to make more informed food switches such as choosing wholegrain breakfast cereals but not those coated with sugar or honey. ”
Graham MacGregor, professor of cardiovascular medicine at Queen Mary University of London and chairman of Action on Sugar, warns the alternative can be a lifetime of health woes.
“Children quickly become used to the taste of high-sugar cereals and find healthier ones less palatable, which has long-term implications on their health,” he warns.
“Eating too much sugar leads to weight gain, raising the risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease and some cancers.”
For more information, log on to www.actiononsugar.org.