Experts Sound Off on Cereal

General Mills' pledge to cut sugar in kids' cereals has experts buzzing.

ByDAN CHILDS via logo
December 9, 2009, 6:01 PM

Dec. 10, 2009— -- The cereal giant General Mills has announced it will cut back the amount of sugar in 10 popular kids' cereals to single-digit grams of sugar per serving.

As this move piqued the interest of nutritionists and other diet experts, the ABC News medical unit sent out a request for comment to some of the nation's top experts in the field.

What ABC News learned was that some support the move. Among them was Dr. Kelly Brownell, director and co-founder of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University in New Haven, Conn., whose recent "Cereal F.A.C.T.S." report raised some of the concerns about the nutritional content of cereals marketed to kids.

"This is a historic announcement -- it comes on the heels of an investigation by the Connecticut attorney general and the FDA of the 'Smart Choices' program and our own Cereal Report," he said.

Not that the change will solve all of the problems with childhood obesity, Brownell said, but it is a start. And others agreed that the resolution by General Mills was a step in the right direction:

Keith-Thomas Ayoob, pediatric nutritionist and associate professor of pediatrics at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx, N.Y.:

"I thought this was terrific and an excellent example of a company reformulating to meet consumer demand... It probably helps, but what I like best is that if there is less sugar, it makes room for more whole grain. Plus, there will still be sugar in the cereal, and kids will still find a sweet taste, just a little less."

Laurie Tansman, nutritionist at the Mount Sinai Hospital's department of preventive medicine in New York:

"I think this is an excellent step, and I hope that General Mills will extend this to all their cereals. To the best of my knowledge, there is some limited research that suggests that taste satisfaction to sweets is enhanced when the total amount of sugars is limited in the diet. I've noted this in several of my patients who were Atkins or South Beach diet followers."

Some, however, said there is much more left to be done -- both in terms of these foods, as well as the industry overall.

Dr. Stephen Cook, lead childhood obesity researcher at the University of Rochester Medical Center in Rochester, N.Y.:

"I see the food industry, as well as the entertainment/activity industry, trying to do all they can to stay ahead of the 'bad guy curve.' None of them want to get tagged as the next big tobacco; they have a lot of lessons and tricks they can take from the tobacco industry. They all want to push more of the obesity issue onto personal responsibility. Ultimately, these companies have to report to their stockholders, and will do whatever it takes to move product and make money."

Others said the change would make little impact when it comes to childhood obesity.

Carla Wolper, obesity researcher at the New York Obesity Research Center at St. Luke's Hospital:

"Unless kids are munching on cereal all day, I don't think this is a big deal... calorie-wise it appears to make no difference which cereal kids eat... This story is a red herring, as nothing has changed!"

Indeed, some diet experts felt that a focus on sugar in cereal misses many of the other factors that contribute to childhood obesity. A statement by the president of General Mills' Big G cereal division, Jeff Harmening, on Wednesday alluded to this point:

"Ready-to-eat cereals, including presweetened cereals, account for only 5 percent of the sugar in children's diets... Still, we know that some consumers would prefer to see cereals that are even lower in sugar, especially children's cereals. General Mills has responded -- and we are committing to reduce sugar levels even more."

And some nutrition experts noted that in the battle against childhood obesity, every little bit counts:

Dr. David Katz, director of the prevention research center at Yale University School of Medicine in New Haven, Conn.:

"There are so many sources of sugar in our kids' diets -- cereals, breads, fast foods, snack foods, soda, dressings, sauces, spreads and desserts -- that yes, that figure is, alas, quite plausible... As for the impact, everything that isn't part of the solution is part of the problem. There is no silver bullet solution -- so improving diet, one food choice at a time, is a valid and important principle."

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