Nestle and General Mills recently announced that they’re going to make some of their breakfast cereals healthier by reducing the amount of sugar and salt they use. Sounds great but being the realist that I am I think that this is more of a ploy to improve their image than to actually improve their products.
One of the biggest problems I see with their announcement is that they’re only making the changes in formula outside of North America. Even though childhood obesity, and probably (although this is speculation on my part) sugary cereal consumption is far more of an issue in Canada and the US than it is overseas. We also know that many brand name food product formulations differ from country to country and products sold in Canada tend to have the highest levels of salt (1). Why wouldn’t Nestle and General Mills make the changes to the products that are likely the worst offenders?
The pledge that these companies has made is to reduce sugar by 24 packets and salt by 12 packets in twenty brands. I wish I knew what these brands were so that I could provide a more thorough critique. Based on some rough calculations using the nutrition information for Lucky Charms cereal I came up with a serving of reformulated cereal now containing 2.4 teaspoons of sugar and about 11 mg of sodium. While this is a fairly significant reduction it’s important to note a few things. For one, the serving size is 3/4 of a cup. I think it’s pretty safe to assume that most children (and adults) are having larger bowls of cereal than this so they would be getting more sugar and sodium than is listed on the box per serving. The second thing to note is that these reductions are not carved in stone. They are the “average” change so some cereals may have greater reductions in salt and sugar than others. The final point I want to make is that the absence of unhealthy ingredients does not guarantee that a food is healthy. Yes, they’re also pledging to increase whole grains and calcium but this still doesn’t mean that these breakfast cereals are going to be a nutritious choice. These are still highly processed products to which vitamins and minerals are added to improve their nutrition profiles.