Family Matters

Study: Kids Eat Less Sugar If They’re Allowed to Sweeten their Own Cereal

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Last year, I wrote about a study that showed cereal companies market the cereals with the sugariest nutritional profiles to kids, essentially encouraging children to choose Froot Loops over, say, Cheerios. In response to the study, conducted by researchers at Yale’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, major cereal manufacturers including General Mills and Kellogg’s said kids simply won’t eat unsweetened cereals. Rudd researchers were skeptical. They decided yet another breakfast cereals study was called for. (More on Time.comSweet Spot: How Sugary-Cereal Makers Target Kids)

This time, they ventured into summer camp territory, dividing campers into two groups. In one room, kids had a choice of three low-sugar cereals: Rice Krispies, Cheerios and Corn Flakes. In another room, children were given those cereals’ sugar-glazed equivalents: Cocoa Krispies, Froot Loops and Frosted Flakes.

Kids were allowed to choose among the three, and they were also offered milk, cut-up strawberries, sliced bananas, orange juice and sugar packets. Eat whatever you want, they were told. Researchers then measured how much they took and how much they ate by following behind them and weighing what was left.

The two groups actually ate about the same amount of calories. “What was different,” says Marlene Schwartz, Rudd’s deputy director, “was where the calories came from.” (More on Time.comMaking Breakfast Count)

The high-sugar group ate about two servings of cereal, which contained about 23 grams of sugar; the low-sugar group consumed one serving with 3 grams of sugar. (One teaspoon of sugar equals about 4 grams.)

The low-sugar group dumped an additional 9.5 grams of sugar — more than two teaspoons — on their cereal, while the high-sugar group added just 1.5 grams of sugar. But still, the low-sugar group fared much better: they consumed a total of 12.5 grams of sugar compared with the high-sugar group’s 24 grams.

Another fringe benefit: kids in the low-sugar group put significantly more fresh fruit in their bowls — 110 grams compared with the high-sugar group’s 81 grams. (More on Time.comFTC again condemns Kellogg’s inflated health claims)

What does this prove? That left to their own devices, kids don’t put as much sugar on their cereal as manufacturers do on pre-sweetened varieties. “Even if you let your kids put a couple teaspoons sugar on, it’s not as bad as letting them eat pre-sweetened cereal,” says Schwartz, which is an interesting and even refreshing take coming from an obesity researcher.

Kids like sweet stuff (adults do too!) and letting them sweeten unsweetened cereals could be a way to dramatically reduce morning sugar intake.

In practice, the sugar content for the low-sugar group would likely be even lower. In the study, kids were not monitored and were allowed to tear open as many sugar packets as they wanted. But honestly, how many parents are going to let their children sprinkle two teaspoons of sweet stuff on their breakfast cereal?

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