The cereal debate is over. Low-sugar cereals are better for your kids than sugary ones.

Maybe that’s not quite the news bulletin you were expecting because you already know that sugary cereals are not the nutritional winners manufacturers crack them up to be.  (But if this is news to you, read A Spoonful of Sugar? and Manufacturing Magic.)

Here’s the real reason to sit up and take notice:  a recent study found that when kids eat unsweetened cereals they eat healthier meals overall—and it’s not just because unsweetened cereal is healthier than the sweetened stuff.

Rather, eating unsweetened cereal leads kids to make healthier mealtime choices.

In other words, it’s not just the quality of the cereal itself that forms your kids’ eating habits. The quality of the cereal also influences:

  • How your kids eat their cereal—whether they add sugar or fruit, add a glass of OJ to the meal, etc.
  • How much they consume.

The secret of unsweetened cereal is its domino effect.

Want your kids to eat more fruit?  Serve unsweetened cereal for breakfast.

OK, I’m on a roll here…maybe it’s a no-brainer that kids are more likely to put sliced fruit on Rice Krispies than on Froot Loops—after all the Froot Loops are already a really fruity delight—but this study found that most kids don’t even want to put a few strawberries on Cocoa Pebbles (and that might be quite nice: think chocolate cake with raspberry sauce).

  • More than half the kids who ate Rice Krispies, Corn Flakes or regular Cheerios put sliced strawberries or bananas on their cereal.
  • Only 8% of the kids who ate Froot Loops, Cocoa Pebbles or Frosted Flakes added fruit.

Want your kids to learn about proper portion size? Serve unsweetened cereal for breakfast.

  • Kids in this study who were given unsweetened cereal typically ate the recommended serving size.
  • Kids given the sweetened cereal, however, typically ate twice that amount.

Now, you might be thinking, “OK, twice the amount isn’t that bad because at least the kids are also getting twice the milk,” — and getting kids to consume milk is the driving force behind many mealtime decisions — but in this case you would be wrong.

Kids who ate the unsweetened cereal drank the same amount of milk as the kids who ate the sweetened cereal.  How? They drank the extra milk straight up.

Want your kids to learn about proper sugar consumption? Serve unsweetened cereal for breakfast — and then let your kids add as much table sugar as they want.

Although a surprising number of kids felt the sugary cereals still needed more sugar to make them palatable, you probably won’t be shocked to learn that children in the low-sugar cereal group added more sugar to their cereal than kids in the high-sugar cereal group. But what might amaze you is how little the added sugar actually added up. Overall,

  • Low-sugar cereal eaters consumed 0.7 teaspoons of sugar from the cereal.
  • High-sugar cereal eaters consumed 5.7 teaspoons of sugar from the cereal.
  • Including the amount of added table sugar, high-sugar cereal eaters still consumed almost twice as much refined sugar as the low-sugar cereal eaters.

You won’t be torturing your kids by serving them unsweetened cereals.

Even though all the kids in this study stated a general preference for sweetened cereals, everyone said they either liked or loved the cereal they chose.  That’s good news.  It means you can expand your morning offering.  Read Breakfast: The Most Important Meal of the Day.

Lots of foods have domino effects.

That’s why looking for foods with the “best” nutrients to feed your kids is the wrong way to go.  When it comes to shaping habits you have to consider the complex interplay between foods instead.

~ Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits. ~


Source:  Harris, J. L., M. B. Schwartz, A. Ustjanauskas, P. Ohri-Vachaspati, and K. D. Brownell. 2011. “Effects of Serving High-Sugar Cereals on Children’s Breakfast-Eating Behavior.” Pediatrics 127(1): 71-76.