It’s getting kids to eat what parents serve that causes so many problems.

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DINA ROSE, PhD is a sociologist, parent educator and feeding expert empowering parents to raise kids who eat right.

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Entries in Cereal (9)


The Secret of Unsweetened Cereal

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.


Manufacturing Magic

Food manufacturers want you to engage in magical thinking.

But what seems to be a miracle “Cereal with as much protein as an egg,” (As Kashi claims about GOLEAN) is really a clever slight-of-hand.  Don’t be fooled.

Product claims (like magicians) never tell the whole truth, and the facts they “forget” are never trivial.

But even if Kashi’s claims were on the up-and-up, and there were no nutritional nightmares lurking in the shadows, eating cereal because it’s been pumped up on protein is kind of like drinking Coke because it’s been fortified with vitamins.  From a habits perspective, it’s never a good idea. Read Coke Beats Juice.

Here are 3 ideas to consider:

1) “Look…over there!”

You probably don’t have to think long and hard to know that what Kashi is hoping you won’t notice is that, in addition to the protein, each serving of GOLEAN cereal delivers 10 grams of sugar.  An egg?  None.

Kashi isn’t the only company that plays fast with the facts.  Researchers recently examined the labeling claims on foods marketed to kids and found that 84% of the products in their study were unhealthy.  84%. That's not a small number!  Read The Truth About "Child-Friendly" Foods.

Sugar, salt and fat are the primary culprits. Maybe advertisers should practice a little more truth in advertising!

  • Kellogg’s: Apple Jacks: A Good Source of Fiber! Made with Whole Grains! And a good source of sugar, too! 
  • Apple Jacks: Cereal with as much sugar as a Glazed Donut!

The nutritional trade-off (getting protein—or in the case of Apple Jacks, fiber— at the cost of added sugar) isn't worth it. Research is beginning to show that when foods are manufactured with fat, sugar and sodium they produce an addictive response in eaters. Not exactly the kind of food lesson you want your kids to learn.

2) No matter how much protein you pack in, you can’t make cereal equivalent to an egg.

It’s not just that GOLEAN cereal has sugar and an egg doesn’t.  It’s much more complex than that.  Summarizing some commentary on this topic, nutritionist Marion Nestle recently wrote:

"Nutritionists’ focus on nutrients, rather than foods, has led to the assumption that if foods contain the same nutrients, they are the same – even though it is never possible to replicate the nutritional content of foods because too much about their chemical composition is still unknown."  Read Nestle’s comments.

In other words: 1) Foods are multi-dimensional in (currently) unknowable and irreproducible ways, and 2) It’s the interaction of all a food’s properties that produces its nutritional power. When manufacturers ask you to overlook these facts, they’re asking you to engage in magical thinking.  Science simply can't compete with nature.

3) Giving your kids cereal because “it’s as good as an egg” won’t teach them a lick about eating  eggs, egg salad, eggs Benedict, or even egg foo yung. 

For me, that’s the main point.   

Avoid food products that make health claims,(Michael Pollan’s Food Rule #8) not just because they’re never as healthy as they seem, but because eating these foods will never teach your kids anything about eating healthily.

Kids eat foods, not nutrients. Giving your kids cereal teaches them to eat cereal (and sometimes even cookies), but it never teaches them to eat other foods.   

So don’t give in to the hype.  Your kids can't live on cereal alone.

~ Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits.~ 


Additional Sources:

Kessler, D. A., MD, 2009. The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite. New York, NY: Rodale.

Pollan, M., 2009. Food Rules: an Eater's Manual. New York, NY: Penguin.

Sims, J., L. Mikkelsen, P. Gibson, and E. Warming, 2011. Claiming Health: Front-of-Package Labeling of Children's Food. Prevention Institute. Accessed online 1/28/11.


Virus Sufferers Choose Granola

If you think of granola as a healthy snack then you are probably suffering from a condition I call Selective Attention and the Feel Better Approach (SAAFBA).  You should seek medical attention immediately!

This disease, known to afflict a wide range of people, is particularly virulent when it strikes parents.  Sufferers of SAATFBA typically develop a unique form of tunnel vision: undesirable nutrients are rendered invisible thereby causing victims to recognize only select (positive) attributes of the food they (or their kids) are eating.

If you look at granola and see a variant of cookies there’s no need to worry: you’re SAATFBA-free.

Sufferers of SAATFBA have been known to wander around playgrounds saying things such as:

  • “At least it is made from whole grains.”
  • “But it has calcium.”
  • “They’re baked, not fried.”

Whereas mild cases of SAATFBA are not known to have lasting effects, chronic cases in families often produce children who prefer junk to real food.

Why? Child sufferers of SAAFBA end up developing such a strong attachment to undesirable nutrients that they end up eating only the foods that contain them.

Sometimes, children even end up preferring food that is “worse” than the original offering.

For example, children frequently exposed to chocolate milk for the calcium end up developing a preference for chocolate – and other similarly sweet foods -- and not for milk.

In the same way, granola creates a preference for cookies, not for oats or other whole grains.  Read Cookies for Breakfast?

If you and your family are afflicted with SAATFBA the treatment is easy (but I have to warn you, many people find it painful).  You must…

1) Avoid reading both the nutrition labels and the nutrition claims printed on food products. Read Why Nobody Needs Nutrition Labels.

2) Classify processed foods according to the habits they produce, not their “best” nutrients.  In other words, chocolate milk must be classified as chocolate and granola classified as a cookie. 

3) Dole out foods according to how frequently you want your children to eat the food’s “worst” incarnation, not its “best.”  In other words, granola shares time with cookies not with oatmeal (unless it’s highly sweetened oatmeal and then it shares time with cookies too).

When people recover from SAATFBA they automatically treat granola like cookies.

These numbers --  for 30 grams of granola and the equivalent (one) Kashi cookie -- show you why:


  • Quaker Granola Bites - Chocolate Flavor: 135
  • Kashi TLC Oatmeal Dark Chocolate cookie: 130


  • Quaker Granola Bites - Chocolate Flavor: 9g
  • Kashi TLC Oatmeal Dark Chocolate cookie: 8g


  • Quaker Granola Bites - Chocolate Flavor: 5g
  • Kashi TLC Oatmeal Dark Chocolate cookie: 5g


  • Quaker Granola Bites - Chocolate Flavor: 45mg
  • Kashi TLC Oatmeal Dark Chocolate cookie: 65mg


  • Quaker Granola Bites - Chocolate Flavor: 3g
  • Kashi TLC Oatmeal Dark Chocolate cookie 4g

Of course, the Quaker Granola Bites - Chocolate Flavor comes in a 20g packet – a smaller amount than the 30g cookie -- so if your children eat the Granola Bites they’ll consume fewer calories, less sugar, etc. than the numbers presented here, but the effect on their habits will be the same.

SAATFBA CAN be eradicated.

Since children develop food preferences from the “kid-friendly” aspect of a product – the sugar, the crunch, etc. -- and from the other foods they associate an item with – i.e. granola with cookies – parents seeking a cure from SAATFBA must see every food through their children’s eyes, and then administer it accordingly.

~ Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits. ~

=============================================== accessed 6/10/10. - accessed 6/10/10