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Junk for breakfast

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Esther Cepeda
December 12, 2011
— Here’s a side note about the sugary cereals headlines you saw last week: It’s actually much worse than you think.

If your eyebrows rose when you saw news stories topped with lines such as “Kids’ cereals more like dessert than breakfast” and “Kids’ cereals pack more sugar than Twinkies and cookies,” consider that the cereals were compared to other junk foods only in single-serving sizes.


The Environmental Working Group made waves by equating the sugar content in popular kids’ cereals to the famous snack cake and Chips Ahoy, Oreos and homemade sugar cookies, but should have gone even further and told us what number of each is equal to the amount of cereal kids actually pour themselves. In other words, the Working Group missed the opportunity to talk about that wily sneak, portion size.


For instance, the report compared a “one-cup serving of Honey Smacks cereal” to a Twinkie. But if you look on the side of the Honey Smacks box, you’ll find that Kellogg’s considers a single serving to be a mere three-quarters of a cup—an even less filling expenditure of 100 calories and 15 grams of sugar.


Then consider that if you drop that small amount of cereal into a standard-size bowl, it leaves that bowl well short of being half full. Even including the milk, you’re looking at two full servings of cereal to make up a bowl.


If I allowed my 13-year-old son to eat Honey Smacks, I would have to pry the box from his sugar-twitchy hands before he downed half of it in one sitting. And there’s no way he would feel as if he’d eaten anything at all if he had less than two bowls, or, by my calculation, 400 calories and 60 grams of sugar—the nutritional equivalent of about three Twinkies, not counting the milk.


Not exactly the breakfast of champions.


I’ve actually been happy about the level of surprise and public interest in the Working Group’s finding’s because in an October column on whether parents should be trusted with their kids’ breakfast I noted that a serving of Cheerios was nutritionally similar to three Chips Ahoy chocolate chip cookies—and some readers thought it was a strange and unfair comparison. Hopefully, people stopped to think about the everyday foods their families have grown attached to.


If the Working Group really wanted to drive the point home, it would create an online visual calculator that would translate the number of bowls of cereal—and other fake nutritious foods such as sugary yogurts and candy-coated granola bars—a person eats, and convert them into the nutritional equivalent of treats such as sports drinks, sodas, candy bars and salty snacks, which most people acknowledge should be a very limited part of their diets.


Think what a wake-up call it would be to learn that junior’s breakfast is as filling and healthy as a Snickers bar and can of Mountain Dew.


Esther Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

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