The Low Down On Breakfast Cereal

Wendyl Nissen’s book Supermarket Companion, how to bring home good food, is a wealth of knowledge for those looking to avoid foods laden with dangerous chemicals, there’s a comprehensive list of food colourings and additives so you can shop smarter and be more aware of what’s in processed supermarket food.

This entertaining and enlightening exert looks at breakfast foods, in particular, Nestlé Milo Oats and Kellogg’s Froot Loops (no fruit there!) and the importance of eating a nutritious breakfast that is not laden with sugar and additives.

Make sure you check out Wendyl’s findings at the end of the chapter.

Just for starters!

“Look at what?” I say, as we both gaze at the bags of shopping.Can I look at that, Grandma?” says our four-year-old grand-daughter, Lila, as I’m putting the shopping in the back of the Prius. We have just made our way around the supermarket and Lila has been a great help.

“That one there,” she says pointing at a brightly coloured box.

“Oh, that’s not for you,” I say reaching in and covering the offending piece of garish marketing with a bag of potatoes.

“Why not?” she says, disappointed.

“That’s for Grandma’s work.” I reply and hastily strap her into her car seat. “When Grandma has done her work on it, maybe you can have one next time you visit.”

Most visits to the supermarket require that I look for products that I can review in my column. This box was for some brightly coloured biscuits called Oki Doki Disco Bits. They looked frightening in terms of artificial colours and so I threw them in the trolley. Lila never said a word when I took them off the shelf, nor to my knowledge even noticed they were in the trolley. But when it comes to kid marketing Lila is a perfect target. She has an innate ability to seek and find any brightly coloured foods within a 10-meter radius.

I’m not sure what she thinks Grandma does when she “works” on these foods but she knows that they generally live on a shelf in my office, lined up and waiting for my magnifying glass to hover critically over their ingredients panel.

I know Lila knows this because it’s her first stop at every visit, once we have all been all been greeted with a cuddle, she’s patted our dog, Shirl, and gone out to check that her white hen, who she has named “Mummy”, is still around.

I had an extremely colourful and enticing box of Kellogg’s Fruit Loops sitting in my office when Lila came to visit recently. She regards my office as our “second” kitchen because on any occasion she might find all sorts of wonderful foods lined up on my shelf ready to be analysed for the column. I was in the “first” kitchen, when she appeared clutching the box of Froot Loops with a look of wonderment on her face.

“Grandma, can I please have these in a bowl with some milk?”

Something about the packaging had managed to (tell her that a) she desperately needed to eat these and b) it was a food you had in a bowl with milk.

“Why do you want them?” I asked.

“They look nice,” was all she said.

I gently pried them off her with promises of other treats and hid them in the pantry.

When I went back to get them to write about, I found that my 26-year-old son, Daniel, had succumbed to the same marketing message, but didn’t need to ask first, and ate them.

I am always astonished at the power of packaging and its ability to transfix a small child or her uncle. Lila lives in a household where her parents are very aware of food additives and eat a very healthy, real-food diet. (Not because I pressured them –they are just intelligent consumers, honestly.)

So Lila’s exposure to junk food and the bright packaging is minimal and she would have had no conditioning to tell her that inside these packets are sweet tasting, moreish foods. She just wouldn’t know. Yet something about the design of the boxes sets off a reaction in her brain which gives her the drive to search for it in bags of shopping or reach up onto a shelf and carry it all the way down the hall to me in the kitchen.

It is no secret that kids as young as Lila are directly targeted by advertising, not just on TV but also techniques such as free gifts, competitions, games and puzzles, website games and movie promotions.

And that marketing is why breakfast becomes a minefield for well meaning parents to negotiate.

Next time you are at the supermarket, wander down the breakfast aisle and take note of the packaging. It all looks fantastic. Aside from the relentless use of every bright colour in the rainbow, you will see three elements competing for your attention: chocolate, punchy bright berries and fruit and fibre.

In my house over the years, we have been through most of the cereal crazes as each of our five children has begged to be allowed a new brand and their busy working mum (former) bought them.

Have you ever noticed Jerry Seinfeld’s cereal shelf in the kitchen on Seinfeld? Next time you watch the show have a look. One internet source sets the number at nine, mostly cornflakes and shredded wheat. His cereal shelf looks exactly how ours looked for years, as every child claimed a new brand as theirs.

While you’re in the breakfast cereal aisle, see if you can find one box which lists the sugar content per 100g at less than 15g, which is what we should aim for when buying our kids cereal.

Consumer magazine conducted a survey of our breakfast cereals in 2008 and found that seven products had more than 40 per cent sugar – over three teaspoons in a 30g serve. I’ve listed them at the end of the chapter for you, in case they’re sitting on your Seinfeld cereal shelf. One of them is the aforementioned Kellogg’s Froot Loops which I prevented Lila from eating.

My focus when first studying this cereal was primarily on the three artificial colours used in it (see my findings below) but then I worked out that, if Lila had been allowed her Froot Loops with milk, she would have consumed 4.3 teaspoons of sugar in her bowl.

I can guarantee you will not find a box of cereal in the supermarket with low sugar until you come to Weet-Bix. Plain old Weet-Bix is the star of the cereal aisle, at just 2.8g per 100g. Admittedly, a lot of people add sugar, but at least you can control that and most kids enjoy eating them.

Lila eats two “bix” for breakfast every morning and won’t be swayed from them even when her grandpa is offering to make her sausages and eggs.

My mother, Elis, however, can’t stand them. Something to do with trying to avoid eating them when she was a child by sneezing into them, thinking her patents would deem that a reasonable enough excuse not to have to eat them. But no. She had to eat every last bit and has never touched them since.

As a guide, when you are out shopping, if sugar appears in the ingredients list directly under the name of the cereal, such as rice, corn or wheat, that means that the second biggest ingredient in there is sugar, and you should put it straight back on the shelf.

The other thing you need to think about is salt levels (fewer than 400mg sodium per 100g of cereal) and fibre.

We all know that we don’t get enough fibre in our diets. It’s good for bowel health and digestion and the things that give you fibre – fresh fruit, veges and wholegrains – tend to be really nutritious and good for you. Unfortunately, I’ve noticed a trend for food manufacturers to add what I call “faux fibre” to their processed foods, using vegetable gums and inulin, which is a substance that occurs naturally in root vegetables, particularly chicory. Other additions include polydextrose, which is created out of dextrose (glucose), sorbitol, a low-calorie carbohydrate, and citric acid to add to processed foods, usually to provide fibre. It is called a functional fibre because no one knows if it has the same health benefits as fibre found in real foods.

A good guide for children’s fibre requirements is 5g to 15g per 100g, so look out for that on the label, and if you see inulin or vegetable gum in the ingredients panel, reject it in favour of something which uses wholegrains and fruit to provide fibre.

Another problem with most breakfast cereals is the fact that they are extruded. This means perfectly good wholegrains are ground up, made into a slurry with liquid, heated to high temperatures, then pressurised through small holes to create shapes such as rings, flakes or puffs. You have to wonder just how much nutrition gets killed off in the process with those high heats and pressures.

OFTEN WHEN I’M out and about, people like to talk about the food column and what it has taught them.

“Thank goodness Krispies are okay,” said my aunt. “They’re my favourite biscuit.”

“I haven’t touched a raspberry jam slice since the day I read your column,” said a woman I met at a knitting bee.

And, of course, many people have suggestions for foods I should look at. By far the most disturbing conversation along these lines with a woman I was doing some work with.

“I have this friend who basically throws those cartons of Up&Go at her kids from dawn until dusk,” she said. “That’s all they eat. For breakfast they sit there in the car sucking on them on their way to school, they have another one with their lunch and sometimes dinner too. I’ve tried to tell her they need some real food but she believes they are good for them.  Are they?”

Then I got the emails about UP&Go: “My kids have one every day and I’m wondering how healthy they are,” said one mother.

“I really don’t like this product because it has so much sugar and it’s like this giving your child a milkshake for breakfast,” said another.

I was well acquainted with Up&Go. My son Daniel has never been a great breakfast eater, and so for a while he took one of these with him but in the end he didn’t even eat those, claiming the texture was weird.

Up&Go, for those who are not familiar with it, is a drink which is endorsed by the All Blacks in its advertising campaign and claims on the box to have “the protein, energy and dietary fibre of 2 Weet-Bix and milk”.

It is reasonable that parents like myself would read that and presume that in the little box we are handing over to our kids is simply two Weet-Bix and some milk all mashed up. And presumably it would have the same nutritional benefits.

Wrong.

The label should also state that it has 11.7g more sugar and 13 more ingredients than a simple bowl of Weet-Bix and milk. By the time I’d finished writing the column I was quite angry with Sanitarium for the misconception and wrote: “Is it really that hard to get a kid to sit down at the kitchen table and eat solid food these days? Are we raising a nation of astronauts in training who need to develop a taste for liquid food?”

I think if you’ve got a kid who needs something quick to eat in the car you can throw them a banana. And if you’ve got a kid who only likes to drink their meals, whip up a smoothie, put it in a bottle and let them drink that. On the Sanitarium website they even recommend that you throw a Weet-Bix into the smoothies.

I also took a look at Nestlé Milo Oats, mainly because Pearl had picked them up in the super-market and loved them. I’m a big fan of oats, as not only are they a good source of fibre but they also do wonderful soothing things to your digestive system.

Nestlé have a range of breakfast cereals marketed under the Milo name and some are better than others. Milo Oats is a better one.

I found that they weren’t too high in sugar and were a good source of fibre. I saw them as a great food to get kids interested in porridge for breakfast. I also found a study which showed that children who had oats for breakfast had better spatial memory (which means being able to remember geographical details like the interior of your house), better short-term memory and better listening attention than children who ate ready-to-eat cereal or no breakfast at all. Pearl was very relieved.

PUTTING THE CHOICE of cereal for your kids aside, there is a bigger problem emerging on the horizon for families, and that’s the kid who just won’t eat breakfast. This is cause for concern because every study you read emphasises the importance of breakfast for kids to kickstart their brains and give them the energy to see them through a day of learning school.

One University of Sydney study, conveniently commissioned by Kellogg’s, looked at the type of breakfast eaten by 800 New South Wales children aged eight to 16, across 19 different schools. The students who ate breakfast before their tests performed better, and those who ate the most nutritious breakfasts, such as cereal and milk, or eggs on toast, got the highest scores. They also scored higher on literacy and numeracy tests than their classmates who ate only toast.

It is easy to see why many parents faced with a non breakfast-child will be less fussy about the food they consume, reasoning that at least they’re eating something. We let two of our children, Daniel and his step-sister Alex, go to school on a diet of Pop-Tarts (basically jam-filled pastries you heat up in the toaster) for months because we were just so glad they were eating something.

In the end we settled on toasted sandwiches, smoothies and, if all else failed, a banana. I have yet to meet a child who doesn’t like the taste and as a food they have a lot going for them. They have lots of carbohydrates for energy, are low in fat, and are potassium-rich, which is great for muscles. They also have some protein and iron.

Instead of throwing an Up&Go at your child on the way to school, swap it for a banana a carton of milk, which will give protein, calcium, zinc, vitamins A and B, and iodine.

I’m very much a toast and a cup of tea girl at breakfast, and it gives me enough energy, even with a gym work out to see me through to lunch. Which is when I go outside to raid the chicken coop and find some delicious, bright yellow-yolked eggs.

MY FINDINGS

Nestlé Milo Oats

I see this as a great transition product to get children who may be used to the a diet of high sugar processed breakfast cereal used to the taste and texture of oats which are a very healthy option for the reasons above. By the time they’ve gone through a packet of these, they might just like a bowl of real porridge with some fresh banana and honey mixed in which is less sweet option than this product and better for them. It also means that your child sets off on a cold winter’s morning with a warm breakfast in their stomach, which is a nice old-fashioned thing to do, and the effect of the oats on their memory and listening skills might be good too.

Summary:

Three teaspoons of sugar in every serving if made with milk, but with water only one and half teaspoons.

20g of oats in every serve which is a great option for good nutrition, and oats have proven benefits for your child’s memory and listening skills.

A great transition food to get your child interested in eating porridge on a winter’s morning.

**Nestle still use palm oil so be sure to read your labels**

Kellogg’s Froot Loops

There is just something irresistible to children about food which comes in fun colours and Froot Loops certainly fulfils that expectation. It even has the sell line “a fun fuel for adventurous kids.”

There is no doubting your kids will love this cereal and hoover it down. But why not teach your children that real food doesn’t come in six fun, mostly artificial colours? Most children are quite happy to eat Weet-Bix which by comparison has only 0.8g of sugar per serve or 6.8g per serve with milk. It also uses wholegrains and has more fibre. Top it with some fresh fruit, like strawberries and peaches, and you have a great breakfast with plenty of natural colour.

And perhaps follow a rule for eating by the author of Food Rules, Michael Pollan, who says “Don’t eat breakfast cereals that change the colour of the milk.’’

Summary:

Contains 38 per cent sugar.

Has three artificial colours which are banned in other countries.

Uses natural flavourings.

Wendyl Nissen

Photos by Fischer Twins  Etienne Girardet  rawpixel  Peter Lewicki

 

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