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EWG names top sugary kids' cereals, but are natural cereals truly better?

It's no surprise that big-brand cereals marketed to children are like ticking sugar bombs. Yet while natural cereals may have topped the Environmental Working Group's list as the healthiest, you might be surprised at how much sugar is still included.

Earlier this week, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) released a report detailing the atrocious amounts of sugar (as well as salt and saturated fat) in common kids' cereals. Of 84 big-brand cereals like Cheerios, none passed all three FDA guidelines for sugar, salt, and fat content. Even plain, unflavored Cheerios—what I grew up on, still a popular choice among healthy-minded parents for its whole-grain oats and low sugar content—failed to meet sodium guidelines. These failures are not surprising, given Yale research a couple years ago that showed that cereals marketed to children have 85 percent more sugar, 65 percent less fiber, and 60 percent more sodium than those marketed to adults.

That big brands have pumped their boxes full of nutrient-devoid ingredients that are making us sick is hardly news to me or to other natural products shoppers who shun the cereals for these reasons. The report’s “10 best cereals,” in fact, are straight from the natural products store cereal aisle, including offerings from Ambrosial Granola, Go Raw, Grandy Oats, Kaia Foods, Laughing Giraffe, Lydia’s Organics, and Nature’s Path.

That’s good news for natural products retailers and shoppers. But, not so fast! As a parent who adheres to strict guidelines for my kids (under 4 grams of sugar per 1-cup serving, whole-grain first ingredient) I’ve been very disappointed in how borderline some of the cereals on natural products shelves are, too. Read the labels and you’ll find refined flours and sugars top ingredients lists. Granolas tend to be among the worst offenders, some having as much as 11 grams of sugar in a 1/2 cup serving (who eats just 1/2 cup?).

Natural cereals drop the ball on sugar

So, is it okay for a natural or organic product not to live up to these nutritional standards because it’s healthier and free of pesticides? Personally, I think we deserve better. Yes, I understand natural brands have to compete with their mainstream counterparts, and that most children’s tastebuds have been trained by super sugary packaged foods. But I think that retraining is necessary. In my book, it’s not okay to buy a cereal just because it’s organic or natural, or because it contains fiber or whole grains.

Forgetting about cereal bowls altogether is another option. Or, at the very least, making sure kids get plenty of protein and healthy fats from eggs, avocados, yogurt, nuts, or seeds at breakfast can offset any carbohydrate consumption, helping them to reach the next meal without blood-sugar drops (a precursor to tantrums in our house—not good!). And it’s never too early (or too late) to educate your kids about what processed sugar does to the body. It’s good to say, even to a young child, “it makes you sick,” or “it doesn’t give your body what it needs to do ______” (favorite activity). They won’t stop wanting sugary treats—mine haven’t!—but they will understand better why you say “no” to most cereals, even the organic ones.

For more on what the EWG found, read the "Sugar in Children's Cereals" report.

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