A healthy start?
Katy Brown and Jane Turner find that the most important meal of the day may not be as healthy as the companies say it is.
Once upon a time, simple cereal grains, cooked either as porridge or bread, were the staples of breakfast in the UK and around the world. But, in the last hundred years or so, we have succumbed to an American temperance movement invention and today the British and the Irish are the largest eaters of puffed, flaked, flavoured, shaped, sugared, salted and extruded cereals in the world.
Most of the health benefits claimed for cereals depend on fortifications to replace the nutrients stripped away by the manufacturing process. As long ago as the 1970s, it was recognised that most breakfast cereals were empty calories. An advisor to President Nixon testified that rats fed a diet of ground-up cereal boxes with sugar and milk were healthier than rats fed the cereal itself!
Start the day the sugar way...
A comparison of the breakfast cereals and own-brand equivalents in 2012 by Which? showed that far too many breakfast cereals don’t deserve their healthy image.(2) While a lot of positive action has been taken to bring down salt levels, sugar levels remain a problem, particularly for products aimed at children. Cereals are promoted as healthy foods but some products are on the wrong shelf and should be among the biscuits.
Using the manufacturers’ own declarations of the levels of salt, sugar, fibre, saturated fat and total fat we surveyed the top 15 best selling cereal brands for this product guide.
Our survey found:
- The Food Standards Agency’s 2012 salt target suggested a maximum level of 1g per 100g but 5 of the top 15 best selling brands in our survey are still exceeding this maximum amount. This included brands marketed as healthy, like Special K and All Bran, and brands marketed to children, such as Rice Krispies.
- Organic brand Whole Earth had the highest level of salt in our survey
- 50g servings of Rice Krispies, Special K, Kellogg’s Cornflakes, Cheerios, All Bran, Whole Earth and Krave all had more salt than a packet of ready salted crisps
- 10 of the brands were high in sugar, with 4 of them being over a third sugar including two children’s brands – Frosties and best selling children’s brand, Coco Pops
- Frosties have more sugar in them than chocolate chip cookies
- Shredded Wheat was the only brand to score low for salt, sugar and fat
- Plain porridge oats are low in salt and sugar but levels rocket for flavoured varieties like Oat So Simple Golden Syrup
- 50g servings of Coco Pops and Frosties contained over 20% of a child’s (5-10 years) guideline daily amount (GDA) of sugar
- On children’s brands, only Nestlé gave GDAs for 5-10 years whereas other brands just showed the GDAs for an adult woman
- Nutritional information per serving was also given inconsistently making it difficult to compare products i.e serving sizes, or whether they included milk.
Top 15 brands (by value, 2011)
g per 100g with traffic light colour coding
Original versions unless otherwise stated.
Traffic light colour codes: Red = high, Amber =medium, Green = low. See page 31 for more info.
* sodium x 2.5 if salt not stated
* Kellogg’s cornflakes have twice the sugar of Whole Earth which has twice the sugar and salt of Doves Farm
**Weetabix organic has virtually the same nutritional info as original Weetabix.
*** Sugar Puffs and Puffed Wheat are made by the same company but have markedly different nutritional information, notably Sugar Puffs have 17 times more sugar and half the fibre.
**** Compare plain variety to Oat So Simple Golden Syrup.
Ban high sugar cereals
Regulations limiting the amount of sugar, salt and fat in processed foods should be considered if the food industry does not take action itself, according to Labour’s Andy Burnham, who began a consultation in January 2013 on how to tackle obesity. He is proposing a 30% cap on sugar in cereals.
The Which? 2012 survey found high sugar levels in 32 out of the 50 breakfast cereals it examined, with Kellogg’s Frosties the highest being 37% sugar.
A report by the Organisation for the Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) found that English children were the third fattest in Europe, after Italy and Greece – but almost twice as obese as the French. Almost 27% of girls in England were overweight and 23% of boys.
Unsurprisingly, cereal giant Kellogg has said that parents, not the government, should make cereal choices for children, and rejects the proposal for a sugar limit.
In 2007, Ofcom introduced regulations to stop food high in sugar, salt and fat being advertised on television to children. But cereal companies are big advertisers and had a lot to lose. Kellogg’s European president told a House of Commons inquiry into obesity in 2004: “if we were not to have that capability [of TV advertising] there is a probability that the consumption of cereals would actually drop... that is not necessarily a positive step forward.”(1)
Kellogg’s led a lobbying campaign against the government to stop the restrictions. It resulted in the ‘nutrient profiling’ model which uses a scoring system, combining the contribution made by beneficial nutrients, like vitamins and minerals, with components in the food that children should eat less of.
This means that products high in sugar and salt which would score red on the traffic light labelling scheme can still be advertised to children because of the added nutrients they might have.
Rather than eating overpriced sugary processed cereals why not start the day more naturally?
Porridge and muesli best buys on the score table are a healthier option and weight for weight will generally give much better value for money than more processed cereals. Always look for no added sugar options.
To save money, avoid big brands and, if you don’t have to go for the cheapest option, spend a little extra and go organic. The cereals market is a great example of the healthiest and most sustainable options being much cheaper than the mainstream offerings.
Contrary to claims that ethical always means more expensive, organic oats offer great value for money compared to branded non-organic cereals.
Fruit is a healthy way to start the day. Some argue you should eat only fruit in the mornings, but others claim that it won’t fill you up enough to last until lunch, so should be combined with other foods. Everyone is different and for many people, work patterns will dictate what is practical. All agree that fruit is an important part of any healthy breakfast and it makes the perfect addition to a bowl of porridge or muesli as well as being something easy to grab as you walk out of the door.
Bread or toast is another option – see our product guide to bread for the health pitfalls here.
Yoghurt is another option – go for soya to avoid the animal welfare and health concerns associated with dairy (and if you do have cereal, opt for non-dairy milk for the same reasons).
The health implications of cooked breakfasts and patisserie items are fairly obvious. Suffice to say that Danish pastries and croissants are generally loaded with sugar and butter. If you are opting for a cooked breakfast, a veggie option is a much healthier choice that will set you up for the day.
The great cereal rip off
Less talked about than the health concerns associated with breakfast cereals is their inflated cost. Take a perfectly healthy grain that can be eaten as it is with nothing added, process it, add sugar and salt, package it and sell it to the consumer for twice the price – at least. A good like for like comparison is branded oats and branded oat cereal. Quaker Oats are available on Asda’s website for 17p per 100g, Oatibix (oat equivalent of Weetabix) comes in at a whopping 50.5p per 100g (and that’s a ‘reduced’ price) – over three times as much.
In November 2012 a controlling stake in Weetabix was bought by the Chinese state-owned company Bright Foods, China’s second largest food company, which is also a dairy farmer and sells canned and fresh meat.
The remaining stake is still held by British private equity firm Lion Capital which also has stakes in American Apparel, Findus, Young’s Seafood and Cotswold Outdoors shops.
Weetabix states that all its wheat and oats are sourced from the UK, with all of its wheat being sourced from within 50 miles of its Burton Latimer headquarters.
The world’s biggest cereal company, Kellogg, was founded in 1906 by John Harvey Kellogg as the Battle Creek Sanatorium, Michigan – a mix of health spa, holiday camp and hospital. He wanted to cure two common ‘ills’ of the day, constipation and masturbation, which he attributed to a lack of fibre, both dietary and moral.
Kellogg bought Pringles from Procter & Gamble in 2012 and is now the world’s second largest snack food company behind PepsiCo.
Kellogg’s Kashi Summer Berry Granola, available in the USA, had a calorie content equivalent to more than three 40g bags of chewy sweets in a single serving!(6)
Kellogg is being boycotted by the US Organic Consumers Association for refusing to commit to non-GM ingredients in the USA.
Raisio is the company behind Sugar Puffs but it also makes another version of puffed wheat. This version is aimed at the 45 plus audience and contains 100% puffed wheat, unlike its Sugar Puffs brand, which is aimed at children and has over 17 times the amount of sugar and half the fibre of its healthier counterpart.
PepsiCo is number two to Coca-Cola in the world of soft drinks but leads the world in snacks with its Doritos, Walkers and Red Sky brands. It also makes the UK’s number one juice brand, Tropicana, as well as Copella fruit juices.
Whilst it is the only one of the bigger companies to get our best rating for environmental reporting, it scores worst for workers’ rights in its supply chain, palm oil, animal testing, GM and tax avoidance.
There is currently a petition running on change.org to get PepsiCo to remove a flame retardant, brominated vegetable oil from its Gatorade drinks in the USA. Potential health effects include altered thyroid function, reduced fertility and neurological damage. The ingredient is banned in the European Union and Japan.(8)
Outside the USA and Canada, Nestlé brand cereals are a joint venture between Nestle and General Mills so Nestle-branded cereals get half of Nestlé’s rating and half of General Mills.
The US company General Mills is one of the world’s biggest food companies famous over here for Green Giant, Haagen-Dazs, Old El Paso, Yoplait and Jus-Rol.
Nestlé failed to label GM ingredients in its products in South Africa and Brazil, even though national laws there required it to do so. Nestlé was also said to have made several donations, totalling US$1.7 million, to fight a vote which took place in California, which would have resulted in products containing genetically modified organisms to be labelled. All this despite a statement on its website that “In the absence of a global agreement on the labelling of ingredients derived from genetically modified crops, and recognising governments’ responsibility for the regulatory process, Nestlé strictly adheres to national laws and regulations regarding their labelling.”
In 2012, Nestlé commissioned independent auditor, the Fair Labor Association (FLA) to map its cocoa supply chain in the Ivory Coast. The FLA says it found “multiple serious violations” of the company’s own supplier code especially with regard to child labour.(9)
In 2012, the Colombian trade union SINALTRAINAL filed charges against Nestlé for failing to take precautionary measures to prevent the murder of trade union leader Luciano Romero in 2005. The case will be held in Switzerland and will be the first time a Swiss company has been held liable for a crime committed abroad.(11)
Nestlé owns 30% of Body Shop owner L’Oreal and is still the subject of a boycott over its marketing of baby milk.
Owners of Dorset Cereals, Lydian Capital Partners, were implicated in a care home scandal last year when workers were jailed for physical and psychological abuse at a private hospital owned by its subsidiary company Castlebeck.(10)
Doves Farm receives a mark in the animal rights category for breeding mule ewes on its farm which its website says are sold to local butchers.
1 Eat your heart out, Felicity Lawrence, 2008
2 Which? finds breakfast cereals high in sugar, 15th February 2012
3 Why Kellogg saw red over food labelling scheme – Guardian 28/12/06
4 Front of pack nutrition labelling, Which?’s Consultation Response – August 2012
5 Financial Times – ‘Nestlé spurns ‘traffic light’ food labelling’, 24th October 2012.
6 Daily Mail Online, 11th January 2012
7 The Guardian, Chinese food firm wolfs down Weetabix for £720m – 3rd May 2012
8 The Guardian – Would you like flame retardant in your soft drink?, 5 Jan 2013
9 Fair Labor Association, 29 June 2012
10 BBC News website www.bbc.co.uk ‘Care workers jailed for abuse’ October 26 2012
11 Business & Human Rights Resource Centre - Nestlé Test Case: Charges filed on murder of Colombian Trade Unionist, 6th March 2012
This product guide is part of a Special Report on the Food Industry. See what's in the rest of the report.