12 Fake Foods of Christmas no.1: Cereal Killers

Gareth MorganHealth

Welcome to the twelve fake foods of Christmas!

Now we don’t want to get all bah humbug about your Christmas celebrations, after all this is the one time of year you should be able to let your hair down a bit and not feel guilty about it. But it is a good time to highlight some of the fake foods that can cause some damage if we get into the habit of eating them. We’ve particularly targeted the foods that are marketed to us as “healthy” in an effort to get us to eat them every day, when in fact they are complete junk and should be confined solely to the annual Christmas binge. 

The first of our fake foods makes up most of the breakfast cereal aisle. Over the past few decades food companies like Kelloggs, Nestle, and even our homegrown counterparts Hubbards and Sanitarium, have sold us on the idea that breakfast cereal is by default a healthy start to the day. After all, any cereal has to be better than nothing. However over time our cereals have had more and more sugar added, and are now more similar to what we eat for dessert.

The fact that Kellogg’s has the gall to call a cereal Nutrigrain when it is 32% sugar beggars belief.

We’ve talked a lot about Nutrigrain, because it is probably the most ostentatious example of this trend, given its high sugar content and blatantly misleading advertising. In the ad the child raised on Nutrigrain grows up to be an ‘ironman’ – he would need all that exercise to avoid becoming a chubby chap. The ad closes with the young champ saying “Thanks Mum” as if the choice to raise her child on sugar was an act of benevolence rather than negligence.

But Nutrigrain is by no means alone. The shocking truth is that the vast majority of breakfast cereals don’t meet basic nutritional standards. A study by Consumer NZ found that two thirds of breakfast cereals had more than the recommended upper limit of 15% sugar. According to the World Health Organisation, to avoid tooth decay and weight gain they should set the bar even more stringently at 10%. On average, ready-to-eat cereals are 20% sugar, with children’s cereals and ‘sports’ cereals the worst offenders. New cereals tend to have higher sugar content than older ones, so the problem is getting worse.[i]

The most sugary cereal according to Consumer NZ was Kellogg’s Frosties which is 41% sugar. The rest of that cereal is highly processed corn, which according to Glycaemic Index tests is absorbed into the bloodstream at about the same pace as table sugar (sucrose). On that test, popped rice cereals are worse – even without much added sugar they are so processed that they are equivalent to jelly beans in how they are absorbed into the bloodstream.

Of course people are waking up to the fact that not all grains are created equal, which is bringing many previous staples like white bread and breakfast cereals into disrepute. That is why the official advice now stipulates whole grains rather than refined (or ‘white’) grains, even though it is nigh on impossible to find any true whole grains in the supermarket. Still the marketing machine behind cereals has now jumped on the wholegrain bandwagon. Even Kellogg’s now proudly announce that their Coco Pops “O”s contain the goodness of 47% wholegrains. They don’t trumpet the 32% sugar they throw in to help the medicine go down.

How has this happened to our breakfast staple? For starters, our focus has been on getting down the fat in our diet, and food manufacturers have leapt on this with great gusto by labelling their cereals as ‘low-fat’ and ‘lite’. Take Sanitarium Lite Muesli, for example. Let’s compare the Lite Muesli with the Sanitarium Toasted Muesli range, which is higher in fat and more energy-dense. It’s true the Lite Muesli has about 50% less fat than the Toasted Muesli, but makes up for this with around 15% extra carbohydrate (including 18% more sugar). On average, the Lite Muesli has about 10% less energy per 100g than the Toasted Muesli range – hardly ‘lite’. The lower fat and higher carbohydrate content mean that Lite Muesli is absorbed more quickly than Toasted Muesli. It gets worse. Thanks to the ‘health halo’ the marketing department cast about foods of this sort, people end up eating more of the food in question, which tends to lead to them eating more food energy than they need.[ii]

Another trick that manufacturers use to distract us from how nutritionally dodgy their products are is to base their information on an unrealistically low serving size. Try serving yourself the recommended serving size of your favourite ceral (usually a piffling 30g) and see if you are satiated. There is no way that a cup of processed cereals is as filling as a cup of porridge. In fact, old fashioned porridge is clearly the cheapest, most filling and healthiest breakfast cereal (with one ingredient it is hardly a fake food); and it only takes a few minutes to prepareAlthough even here you need to be careful, as the fast-cooking versions of porridge are more heavily processed and contain more sugar.

Many food companies argue that if their cereals are combined with low fat milk, the breakfast becomes a lot more nutritious. Ultimately this argument is trying to dress up mutton as lamb. Nutrition-wise, you’d be better off swigging the milk on its own and pouring the cereal straight in the bin.

In short our perfect start to the day has been bastardised. A sweet tooth has combined with our fear of fat to create a killer concoction of breakfast cereals that are high in sugar and grains that are so processed they resemble sugar.

[i] Ministry of Health. 2006. Food and Nutrition Monitoring Report 2006. Wellington: Ministry of Health.

[ii] Gorton, D (2007) Nutrition labelling – Update of scientific evidence on consumer use and understanding of nutrition labels and claims. Prepared for New Zealand Food Safety Authority and the Ministry of Health

12 Fake Foods of Christmas no.1: Cereal Killers was last modified: December 15th, 2015 by Gareth Morgan
About the Author

Gareth Morgan

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Gareth Morgan is a New Zealand economist and commentator on public policy who in previous lives has been in business as an economic consultant, funds manager, and professional company director. He is also a motorcycle adventurer and philanthropist. Gareth and his wife Joanne have a charitable foundation, the Morgan Foundation, which has three main stands of philanthropic endeavour – public interest research, conservation and social investment.