Fact Checking: Cereal Package Claims Versus The Food Label Facts

It’s been said before, and is usually true. If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. The same holds true for the food industry. Let’s face it. Marketing of products is big money and companies are targeting your senses to get you to buy their product over the competition. Did you know, the grocery industry makes over 700 billion in sales annually? This next series in Food & Health communications will highlight a few food labels that may or may not live up to the hype. We’ll start with breakfast cereal. 1

A popular frosted breakfast cereal boasts “colors and flavors from natural sources”. But what does “natural” mean? According to the FDA, the term natural flavor is defined as a “substance extracted, distilled or similarly derived from plant or animal matter, either as is or after it has been roasted, heated or fermented, and whose function is for flavor, not nutrition”. Natural flavors include spices, fruit or fruit juice, vegetables or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herbs, bark, buds, root leave or plant material. They may or may not be vegetarian. Dairy products including yogurt or kefir, meat, poultry or seafood or eggs may be considered natural flavors.  Several flavors make up “natural flavors” and are considered on the GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe) list, though many have not been studied for long term safety or approved by the FDA. 2

Added colors in food are used to improve color lost from light exposure, extreme temperatures, moisture or storage conditions, to correct variations in color that occur naturally, to enhance naturally occurring colors or to provide color to otherwise colorless foods. Colors that are allowed are either certified by the FDA or exempt from certification. Certified colors are synthetic colors that are certified each time a new batch is produced. Both undergo rigorous testing for safety before being added to foods. Natural colors are colors that are sourced from vegetables, minerals or animals. They are usually more expensive than certified colors and may impart an unintended flavor to food. Some examples include annatto extract (yellow), dried beets (bluish-red or brown), caramel (yellow to tan), beta-carotene (yellow to orange) and extract from grape skins (red, green). 3

While most natural colors and flavors may be considered “safe”, the food containing them may or may not be nutritious. For example, a breakfast cereal with natural colors and flavors may still be full of sugar. Remember, four grams of sugar is equivalent to 1 tsp. added sugar. In the case of Frosted Mini Wheats (above), each serving contains 11 grams of added sugar, which is nearly 3 tsp. per serving. Sugar is the second ingredient in the nutrition facts panel.

Cookies for breakfast? It may as well be. Keep your cart going if you pass this gem in the cereal aisle. Oreo cereal has almost no food in its food. The “cereal” has 13 grams of sugar, .5 grams of fiber and 1 measly gram of protein per 1 cup serving. Over 40% of the calories come from added sugar. 4

How about some Fruit Loops(R)? Fruit for breakfast sounds healthful, right? The package claims to have 25% of the Daily Value for vitamin C AND no high fructose corn syrup. In addition, if you buy them on Amazon, the claim “good source of fiber” is also included. Unfortunately, fruit loops are not made with significant amounts of real fruit and will add a mere 2 grams of dietary fiber and 10 grams of added sugar (2 ½ tsp.) to your morning routine. For vitamin C, you’d be better off eating a bowl of strawberries or a few cuties with breakfast.

A popular breakfast throughout the year is oatmeal. The front of the popular package claims “Heart Healthy since oatmeal is a source of soluble fiber. But the flavored varieties provide 12 grams of added sugar (3 tsp), which is far from heart healthy. A better option would be to use either plain rolled oats, which take 2 minutes in the microwave or instant oats in a cylinder. Either can be flavored with cinnamon, vanilla or a small amount of brown sugar. Chopped nuts, ground flax seed or chia seeds can also be added to oatmeal to improve flavor, texture and nutritional value.

To reduce sugar at breakfast, clients can mix half of a serving of sweetened cereal with half of a serving of unsweetened/high fiber cereal (such as shredded wheat, bran flakes or plain Cheerios). This cuts the sugar in half but does not compromise the dose of fiber or flavor in the cereal. I use the rule of thumb of 5 and 5. Five grams of sugar or less and 5 grams of fiber or more per serving. Other cereals can be combined in this manner, too.

References:

  1. https://www.fmi.org/our-research/supermarket-facts
  2. https://www.accessdata.fda.gov/scripts/cdrh/cfdocs/cfcfr/cfrsearch.cfm?fr=101.22
  3. https://www.fda.gov/food/food-additives-petitions/color-additives-questions-and-answers-consumers
  4. https://www.postconsumerbrands.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/OreoOsCereal-NFP.pdf

Submitted by Lisa Andrews, MEd, RD, LD

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