Breakfast cereals contain shocking levels of sugar (up to 35%) in spite of manufacturers' claims over the last 20 years

Embargoed until 00.01 (UK time), Wednesday 8 February 2017

According to a new study by Action on Sugar and Consensus Action on Salt and Health (CASH) at Queen Mary University of London1 , published by the Public Health Nutrition journal, the salt content of popular breakfast cereals sold in the UK since 2004 has decreased by approximately 50% over the past 10 years owing to the successful salt reduction programme – particularly the target-based approach to gradually reduce salt added to food. The Department of Health’s average salt target for breakfast cereals is <0·59 g/100 g and 53% (143/270) of products surveyed in 2015 met this target. However, despite this, cereals STILL remain a major contributor to salt intake. It is vital that the government revive the national salt reduction programme to ensure that reductions are still made and maximum numbers of people are saved from unnecessary strokes and heart disease.

In stark contrast, sugar content in the same breakfast cereals has been steadily high since 1992 and calls have been made for food manufacturers to adapt the successful salt reduction programme by setting sugar targets for different categories of food and drink with immediate effect. This will successfully reduce sugar intake across the whole population and help to prevent obesity, type 2 diabetes and tooth decay.

This research demonstrates that the sugar content of breakfast cereals in the UK is of major concern, particularly in children’s breakfast cereals, with a typical serving (30g) containing a third of a 4–6-year-old’s maximum daily recommendation (19 g/d or 5 teaspoons of sugar) for sugar intake in the UK.

Based on data collected in 2015, on average, flakes with additions (0·81g) contained the most salt per 100g. Whereas crunchy nut-style (32.22g) cereals contained most sugar per 100g, examples of products currently available in supermarkets are included below2.

Joint first author Kawther Hashem, Registered Nutritionist for Action on Sugar at Queen Mary University of London, says:
“Breakfast cereals can be a healthy choice, as they contain fibre and are fortified with vitamins; however our study shows that the sugars content in breakfast cereals has been steadily high since 1992, despite the ever-increasing evidence linking sugars with dental caries, obesity and type 2 diabetes. There has been no national sugar reduction programme, as there has been for salt, which is imperative if we want to see real and measurable improvements.

“The variation in sugar content between similar products clearly demonstrates there is no technical reason whatsoever why cereals contain such high levels of sugar. Public Health England is due to announce a major national sugar reduction programme, as part of the Government’s Childhood Obesity Plan3,  in March 2017.  All manufacturers must support the programme and start reducing sugar now.”

Graham MacGregor, Professor of Cardiovascular Medicine at Queen Mary University of London and Chairman of Consensus Action on Salt and Health says:
“Manufacturers should be congratulated for making significant reductions to the salt levels, thanks to a structured salt reduction programme.  However further reductions are needed as cereals remain far too high in salt, and are still a major contributor to salt intake.  

“Reducing salt is the most cost effective measure to lower blood pressure and reduce the number of people suffering from strokes and heart disease – one of the commonest causes of death in the UK.”

Alison Last, Corporate Communications Manager for Kellogg's UK and Ireland says "We are committed to providing people with more of what they want and need in our food, like grains and ingredients they recognise, and less of what they don't, like salt and sugar.We have tackled salt, reducing it in our cereals by 57% over the last two decades. Thanks to our ongoing sugar reduction work, by the end of 2017 we will have removed 2000 tonnes of sugar from the nation’s diet too.

Our long-term sugar reduction efforts have already seen sugar come down in some of our biggest brands like Special K and Bran Flakes and more recently we have reduced sugar in our biggest selling children’s cereal Coco Pops by 14%*. We will continue to reduce sugar while providing people with great tasting food they love.

*in stores from March

Dr Alison Tedstone, Chief Nutritionist at PHE, said: “Reading food labels and choosing lower-sugar cereals means they still  can be part of a healthy breakfast, but some simply contain too much sugar. We announced our programme to take sugar out of everyday products, including cereals, in September last year and we’ve been working with industry and NGOs ever since. We’ll publish our first progress report in late March or early April.”

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Notes to editors

1 The study investigated the salt and sugars content of breakfast cereals sold in the UK between 1992 to 2015
The full embargoed paper, being published on 8 February 2017, can be found at this URL: www.cambridge.org/phn/saltandsugar . Free to access for two weeks.
2
Data was collected in store or online from w/c 30th January 2017 from the following supermarkets: Aldi, ASDA, Co-operative, Lidl, Morrisons, Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Waitrose.
3
Childhood obesity: a plan for action - https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/childhood-obesity-a-plan-for-action/childhood-obesity-a-plan-for-action