By Carolyn Crist

(Reuters Health) – Parents may allow kids to eat too much sugary breakfast cereal because the suggested serving size is smaller than they realize, according to a new study.

The cereals with the most sugar per ounce also tend to have child-oriented marketing such as mascots, games, colors and fun cereal shapes, researchers found in a study of brands that have pledged to help reduce added sugars in kids’ diets.

“For many children in the U.S., daily sugar intake exceeds the levels recommended by health organizations,” said co-author Sarah Vaala of High Point University in North Carolina.

The American Heart Association recommends that children and teens consume less than six teaspoons or 25 grams of added sugars per day. For breakfast cereal in particular, federal guidelines recommend 6 grams or less per ounce of cereal. Sugary cereals often contain much more per serving, the study team notes in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior.

“Cereal boxes appeal to children when families are actually making purchasing decisions,” Vaala told Reuters Health by email. “Prior studies indicate that features like friendly mascots and familiar TV characters attract children’s attention and interest, and children’s requests for food products are often more successful than not with parents.”

Vaala and co-author Matthew Ritter analyzed sugar content and child-oriented marketing features on 159 cereal boxes. They focused on cereals manufactured by companies that participate in a voluntary initiative launched in 2007 by the Council of Better Business Bureaus to limit the food products that are advertised to children on TV and other media based on certain sugar, fat, salt and calorie guidelines.

The researchers studied whether cereal manufacturers applied the same standards to packaging and whether those standards seemed sufficient to promote low-sugar cereals to children.

Although the manufacturers seemed to apply the same nutritional standards to cereal packages, that wasn’t enough to promote healthier products to kids. The guidelines are oriented around sugar per suggested serving, but serving sizes vary based on cereal density, which can be tough for consumers to calculate, the study authors note.

“Because different cereals weigh different amounts, the information on the label can be confusing,” Ritter told Reuters Health by email. “Listing a standard metric applied across all weights of cereal would enable consumers to make more informed choices with a quick glance and no complicated math.”

New U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulations around these serving size designations went into effect in January in response to a creeping trend in recent years of consumers eating more cereal at each sitting, Ritter added.

“When you compute the amount of sugar by weight of the cereal, the sugar content is quite high and higher than federal recommendations,” said Jennifer Emond of the Dartmouth School of Medicine in Hanover, New Hampshire, who wasn’t involved in the study.

“There is a long history of the food industry being at odds with public health advocates when it comes to child-directed foods,” she said by email. “Raising awareness of this issue is important.”

On January 1, manufacturers in the voluntary initiative pledged to limit added sugars to 12 grams or less per serving of cereal, which is half of AHA’s recommendation for total daily consumption.

“These cartoon characters are cute and hard to resist. They are also used to market to adults through ‘nostalgic marketing’ because we all remember them from when we grew up,” said Vivica Kraak of Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia, who also wasn’t involved with this study.

“But we are in the middle of an obesity and type-2 diabetes crisis in the United States and worldwide and need companies to do more to either meet recommended nutrient targets or stop using them to attract children,” she said by email. “Parents and concerned consumers can use social media to ask manufacturers to strengthen their pledges and make meaningful actions to be part of the solution and not part of the problem.”

SOURCE: Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, online March 6, 2020.