Kids' Cereals: Good Advertising, Poor Nutrition

Kids' Cereals: Good Advertising, Poor Nutrition

Do your kids beg you for their favorite sugared cereals? Learn the facts and don't get swayed by crafty advertising.

By Jane Harrison, RD, Staff Nutritionist, myOptumHealth

You've made a stern vow to steer clear of the sugar-drenched flakes and neon-colored O's that grace the supermarket shelves. But now you're cruising down the cereal aisle, kid in tow. Your daughter is howling for the brand she saw advertised on her favorite cartoon just hours before. You are in a rush, frazzled and tired. Your resolve weakens, and you toss it into the cart. Your 4-year-old suddenly stops crying and sports a big grin. "I won't give in next time," you say to yourself.

Misleading marketing
But the odds are not with you. You're up against a huge advertising campaign out to claim the support of your kids. In fact, studies have shown that:

  • The average preschooler sees 642 cereal ads per year on television. Almost all of them are for cereals with the worst nutrition rankings.
  • The least healthy cereals are the ones most aggressively marketed directly to children. This can be through TV, Internet or in stores.
  • Online, cereal products are often turned into toys or playthings and are thus linked with fun and in some cases, good health.

Further, most ads try to deliver the message that eating a specific food will make you happy or cool or give you friends. These are exactly the messages we don't want kids to have about food.

The ugly truth
Yale researchers studied the nutrition and marketing of 115 cereal brands and 277 individual cereal varieties. Results showed that:

  • Cereals marketed directly to children have 85 percent more sugar, 65 percent less fiber and 60 percent more sodium than cereals marketed to adults.
  • Close to half of child-targeted cereals have artificial food dyes, compared with one fourth of "family" cereals and a fraction of adult cereals.
  • More than 90 percent of the food products advertised on children's TV are high in fat, sugar or salt.
  • Nearly one out of four of these ads were specifically for high-sugar cereals. None promoted fruits or vegetables.

Kids put to the test
Most big food companies have pledged to cut back on marketing unhealthy products to children. But when it comes to cereal, the progress has been only slight. For instance, the average sugar content of cereals targeted to children has gone from just three-and-a-half to three teaspoons of sugar per serving.

Interestingly enough, the research conducted at Yale shows that children will eat low-sugar cereals when they are offered. Even when they were allowed to add table sugar, they ate less sugar overall compared to children given highly-sweetened cereals.

In the end, children enjoyed their cereal equally whether it was highly sugared or not.

Time for a change
It's unlikely you would give your child a low-fat candy bar or ice cream sandwich for breakfast. Basically, though, this is what they are getting with excessive high sugar cereals, sometimes with a few vitamins sprinkled in.

If you're ready to make the switch, here are some guidelines to get you started:

Mix it up. Start by mixing their favorite sugared cereal with a plain cereal, thereby cutting the sugar in half.

Read the label. Aim for brands that have, per serving:

  • No more than 6 grams of sugar (1 1/2 teaspoons)
  • At least 3 grams of fiber
  • No artificial food dyes

Educate. Explain the purpose of advertising to your kids. Ask them to create their own commercial that would promote a healthy food instead.


  • Yale University Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity. Rudd center releases cereal rankings based on nutrition and marketing exposure. Accessed: 11/16/2009
  • Cereal F.A.C.T.S. Nutrition and marketing ratings of children's cereals. Accessed: 11/16/2009
  • Consumer Reports. Better cereal choices for kids? Accessed: 11/16/2009

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