As nutrition experts warn against ultra-processed foods, how worried should I be, asks Sophie Morris
Until recently, if there’s one thing I’ve been happy to take credit for as a parent, it’s my seven-year-old daughter Percy’s virtuous breakfast tastes. Not for her the piles of sugar-laden Crunchy Nut or iced Pop Tarts that were my breakfast staples at her age.
Instead, if asked, she’d request a bowl of “yellow porridge”: oats and whole milk. The yellow part is turmeric and I’ve no idea where she picked that up from. On the side, she’d have fruit and water. Sure, she would eat pastries and bagels and toast and pancakes and waffles, too, but porridge has always been her favourite cereal. If not porridge, she would ask for Bran Flakes or Weetabix.
But oh, how quickly and completely that smug breakfast smile has been wiped from my face. On one supermarket trip, she got hold of Kellogg’s Rice Krispies Multigrain Shapes, advertised as a breakfast cereal made “with added goodness”.
This box of cereal lasted under a week, reminding me of my own evening binges on Crunchy Nut, and why I gave them up. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with cereals per se, but just one bowl would turn me into some sort of crazed addict, and I never had just the one.
Is it the sugar content? Some 38 per cent of us check sugar content on packets, with 54 per cent linking low sugar with health, according to the Retail Insight Network.
According to the label, Kellogg’s Multigrain Shapes have 15g of sugar per 100g, which is a “medium” amount if you look at the Government’s traffic light healthy eating guidelines, but at the upper end of medium if you consider that any food containing over 22.5g per 100g is considered high in sugar, with low coming in at under 5g.
That makes them similar to
Coco Pops (17g) and much better than Crunchy Nut (35g) and Frosties (37g). Corn Flakes have 8g of sugar per 100g, Bran Flakes 14g and Weetabix 4.2g.
Because our next shop is in Aldi, I replace my daughter’s cereal with an own-brand version, Aldi’s Harvest Morn Multigrain Shapes. Not quite the same as the Kellogg’s product, but similar, containing 14g of sugar to the 15g in Kellogg’s, with 55 per cent white rice flour to the 50 per cent in Kellogg’s, and less fibre per 100g at 5.8g to 7.5g.
The number cereals low in in a survey on
She asks to try a few without milk after her dinner that evening. I think the last time I saw her so delighted was when we said we were getting a puppy. She dances around the kitchen, laughing and calling for more, and in the end has three bowlfuls.
Her behaviour reminds me of a scene in Dr Chris van Tulleken’s excellent recent book Ultra- Processed People (Cornerstone, £22), which explains the history and danger of “UPFs”, the ultraprocessed foods that on average make up more than 60 per cent of the calories of British children’s diets, according to a 2021 study by Imperial College.
In the book, Van Tulleken (inset) describes how he decided to eat Coco Pops as part of a month-long experiment into eating UPFs, and the fit his young daughter threw when he said they were not for her - then her erratic behaviour when she did eat some.
“She filled her bowl and started to eat great fistfuls of dry Coco Pops, wide-eyed and ecstatic. Defeated, I poured some milk into her bowl. As I watched Lyra continue eating, it struck me she wasn’t fully in control. Her eating wasn’t just mindless: it was trance-like.”
Breakfast cereals have absorbed a lot of criticism in recent years. In August, Action on Sugar renewed its call for a ban on packaging that appeals to children - such as friendly monkeys and cute elves - on highsugar products.
I ask dietitian Nichola Ludlam-Raine if our beloved breakfast bowls really are the devil.
“If someone is eating a large bowl of chocolate or honeycoated cereal three times a day, then clearly this isn’t healthy in the long term as there’s no variety and their diet would be seriously lacking in key nutrients,” she says. “But if a bowl is eaten for breakfast several days a week with some milk, this is OK.”
She recommends reading the labels, and going for products that provide whole grains, protein, and nutrients such as iron, and are low in sugar. But what if our children love the sugary stuff, and we can’t get them to eat anything else?
Ludlam-Raine suggests that my daughter’s interest in multigrain shapes could be due to their high proportion of white rice flour.
“White rice flour has a higher GI than sugar,” she points out, explaining that pure glucose scores 100 on the glycaemic index (GI), white rice flour is 88-95, and regular sugar is around 65.
The GI score of a food shows how quickly it affects our blood sugar level. High GI foods can give us a sugar spike, and aren’t satisfying in the long-term.
Are there any cereals we should be happily pouring out each morning? Action on Sugar found that only four of those they surveyed were low in sugar and salt, while half contained a third of a child’s recommended daily sugar intake in a single bowl.
of breakfast found to be and salt by Action Sugar “It’s important to make a distinction between the ultra-processed, ultra-sweetened and the less processed wholegrain cereals, like Weetabix, Shredded Wheat, Shreddies, and oats,” says dietitian and nutritionist Priya Tew, the director of Dietitian UK.
“In our family, we encourage the children to have things like Weetabix at the base of their bowl, then the sweeter cereals - at the moment they have some chocolate pillows - on top, so they don’t feel like they’re missing out.”
I love this mix-and-match idea. Ludlam-Raine echoes it by suggesting that we think in terms of “accessorising” our cereals, with fruits, nuts and seeds, thus adding in more nutrients without taking anything away. This is something people do with porridge, but are less likely to think of for Coco Pops.
“We don’t want anything to be off limits, or create a culture where some foods are put on a pedestal, or restricted,” says Tew.
“That leads us down the route of diet culture, and people wanting something even more, or feeling naughty when they do have it.”
She suggests that Percy’s love of this particular cereal may have nothing to do with its sugar content, or even its taste. I hadn’t given much thought to the other things that entice children, apart from the packaging.
“It could be the shape that she likes, the way they fit on the spoon, the texture. There’s a whole science to why we like the cereals we do.”
While I am researching this piece, Kellogg’s gets in touch to invite me to a “unique artistic experience” opening on Friday at London’s Oxo
Tower, called The Kellogg’s Reductive Art Exhibition - A Story of Salt and Sugar.
The event will apparently tell the story of how hard the healthconscious food manufacturer has worked to reduce both salt and sugar across its products, by commissioning expensive artworks made of these very substances.
This process has been going on for years. Kellogg’s, for example, has reduced salt levels by 50 per cent across cereals since 1998, and in 2021 promised to reduce sugar in children’s cereal by 10 per cent by 2022, but campaigners said that this wasn’t enough.
No doubt there’s plenty of room for improvement, but I feel much more confident about my daughter’s cereal habits after talking to the experts, and I’ll try to make sure she mixes up her beloved multigrain shapes with fruit and other cereals - just not Crunchy Nut.