Oct. 1, 2008— -- How many parents would feed their children a glazed doughnut every morning for breakfast?
Most probably wouldn't consider that a healthy choice for a regular morning meal. But a new study found that some of the breakfast cereals popular with kids contain as much sugar -- or more -- as a glazed doughnut from Dunkin' Donuts.
"We wanted to know what the make-up was of cereals that were marketed to kids," said Gayle Williams, deputy health editor of Consumer Reports.
"We weren't surprised that we found sugar," said Williams. "I think we knew that was there, but I think we were surprised that we found so much sugar in so many cereals."
Consumer Reports took a look at the nutritional content for 27 cereals, including the amount of sugar, salt and fiber. Only four of the 27 cereals rated "Very Good." The best of all was Cheerios, followed by Kix, Life and Honey Nut Cheerios. Quaker Oats makes Life, and General Mills manufactures the rest of the top picks.
At the bottom of the list -- Corn Pops by Kellogg's. Also among the cereals that Consumer Reports rates "fair," at best, were Kellogg's Honey Smacks and Post's Golden Crisp cereal. Both of those choices have more than 50 percent sugar per serving size.
In a statement sent to ABC News, Kellogg's said it recently improved the nutritional content of a number of its cereals, including Froot Loops, Corn Pops, Rice Krispies, Cocoa Krispies and Apple Jacks. Also, cereals that don't meet the company's guidelines for children's nutrition -- such as Honey Smacks -- will no longer be marketed to kids under 12, as of 2009.
That's true for the marketing of Post cereals, as well.
A spokesman for Ralcorp, the parent company of Post, said that Golden Crisp is not advertised in magazines or on TV shows geared toward those under age 12.
Quaker, a unit of PepsiCo, responded to the report by pointing out the whole grains, B vitamins, calcium, zinc and iron in Quaker Life cereal and referred to the lower-rated Cap'n Crunch as a "balanced, low-fat breakfast option when paired with low-fat milk or a glass of 100 percent orange juice."
In a statement from General Mills, a spokesman said, "We're proud of the nutritional credentials of all our cereals," adding that the company's Big G kid cereals have at least 8 grams of whole grains per serving and will have 12 grams of sugar or less per serving by the end of the year.
It's not just the sugar that's a concern. For example, Kellogg's Rice Krispies has only 4 grams of sugar, but it also has no dietary fiber and is high in sodium. So, it received only a fair rating. Kellogg's Frosted Mini-Wheats Bite Size has more sugar than Rice Krispies, but it got a good rating, because it also is low in sodium and has lots of fiber.
The Consumer Reports ratings are based on the recommended serving size. But the magazine found that when kids pour their own cereal, they spoon up far more than the suggested amount. That means, if they're eating one of the sugary cereals, they're consuming even more sugar than listed on the label.
This latest report does not surprise child obesity expert Marlene Schwartz, who examined the differences between cereals marketed to children and adults in a recent study that appeared in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association.
"We found that kids' cereals were worse on every count," said Schwartz, who serves as deputy director for the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University.
Schwartz reported the kids' cereals were higher in sugar per serving, higher in calories and lower in "things you would want, like fiber."
"The question to the industry would be, why are you taking your most poor product, nutritionally, and marketing it to children?" said Schwartz.
So, what is a parent to do, if their children won't give up those high-sugar cereals?
"We've also encouraged parents to use a smaller bowl and to really watch the portion sizes," said Williams. "You may even want to measure to make sure your child is getting a serving of cereal, not two or three servings."
The magazine also notes that some of the cereals have undergone name changes to make them sound healthier. Sugar Smacks is now Honey Smacks. Super Sugar Crisp has become Super Golden Crisp. And some of the same cereals sold in the U.S. have versions that are sold overseas with less sugar and sodium.
It's not only children who have to worry about these breakfast cereals. About 58 percent of "children's" cereals are eaten by people over age 18, according to the magazine. So, even those who might not care about the cartoon character on the box need to pay attention to what's inside.
RATED VERY GOOD
1. Cheerios (General Mills)
2. Kix (General Mills)
3. Life (Quaker Oats)
4. Honey Nut Cheerios (General Mills)
5. Frosted Mini-Wheats Bite Size (Kellogg's)
6. Frosted Flakes Gold (Kellogg's)
7. Cookie Crisp (General Mills)
8. Golden Grahams Honey Graham (General Mills)
9. Lucky Charms (General Mills)
10. Cocoa Puffs (General Mills)
11. Cinnamon Toast Crunch (General Mills)
12. Trix (General Mills)
13. Reese's Puffs (General Mills)
14. Fruity Pebbles (Post)
15. Honey-Comb (Post)
16. Cocoa Pebbles (Post)
17. Frosted Flakes (Kellogg's)
18. Cocoa Krispies (Kellogg's)
19. Frosted Flakes Reduced Sugar (Kellogg's)
20. Cap'n Crunch's Peanut Butter Crunch (Quaker Oats)
21. Cap'n Crunch (Quaker Oats)
22. Rice Krispies (Kellogg's)
23. Apple Jacks (Kellogg's)
24. Froot Loops (Kellogg's)
25. Golden Crisp (Post)
26. Honey Smacks (Kellogg's)
27. Corn Pops (Kellogg's)
Source: Consumer Reports, Nov. 2008
Additional reporting by Kirk Fernandes in Boston