Breakfast cereals can be a highly nutritious breakfast choice, providing a good source of energy, fibre and key vitamins and minerals to the diet, however it can also be a deceiving choice, with many containing excessive levels of free sugars, salt and saturated fat.
The latest NDNS data (2008 - 2014) found breakfast cereals contribute 6% to the total energy intake of 1.5-10yrs and 4% of 11-18yr olds, contributing 6% of free sugars in 1.5-3yrs and 8% in 4-10yr olds.
Food and drink manufacturers and retailers have been using cartoon characters and animations on packaging to attract children, leading them to ‘pester’ their parents into buying these types of cereals. Currently, foods high in fat, salt and sugar, according to the UK Nutrient Profiling Model, can not be advertised before, during and after programmes commissioned for or likely to appeal to children, and in other media i.e online, that appeals to children or where children make up 25% of the audience1. However despite studies showing that young children prefer branded food over identical unbranded options, these restrictions do not apply to packaging2.
In 2019, Action on Sugar and Action on Salt conducted a survey for the Food Foundation’s ‘Broken Plate Report’ finding 49% of breakfast cereals with child friendly packaging were high in sugar, 86% were high or medium in salt, and 48% were low in fibre. This 2020 survey follows on to see if much has changed.
Click here for the 2020 Broken Plate Report [PDF 3,531KB]
Cereals with packaging that may appeal to children can not only promote ‘pester power’ but can also mislead parents into thinking they may be healthier than the adult varieties. It’s easy to understand why cereal is the go to choice for breakfast; it is quick, easy and when chosen wisely, nutritious and filling. However with such a wide range of cereals on the market, how easy is it for parents to choose the best option for their child?
Efforts are being made to make breakfast cereals more nutritious for children, evident in the increase of the number of breakfast cereals available with green labels on front of pack for salt, sugar and, theoretically, fibre compared to last year’s report. In addition to this, of the 56 breakfast cereals that were included in both the 2019 and 2020 report, 11 increased in fibre (20%), 11 decreased in salt (20%), 8 decreased in saturated fat (14%) and 12 decreased in sugar (21%).
There is still room for improvement however, with only three cereals with child friendly packaging high in fibre, and low in salt, sugar and saturated fat.
Retailers Asda, Co-op, Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Lidl and Aldi have either removed or announced their removal of cartoon characters from their packaging since the 2019 report. Whilst this is a major step forward by the retailers, it is worthwhile remembering why this is so important, which is to stop pester power and to prevent parents from thinking the product is better for their child. With this in mind, when the retailers remove cartoon characters, we want to see the packaging in line with their other ‘adult’ ranges with simple packaging, that doesn’t attract children. Unfortunately, from what we have seen thus far, whilst cartoons have been removed, their styles are still much more animated and child friendly than their other lines, showing children as the clear target audience.
A total of 120 breakfast cereals met the inclusion criteria. Over 1/3 of the cereals were deemed high (red) in sugar, an improvement from nearly half of the cereals surveyed in the 2019 report. The average sugar content also reduced by 3g/100g between the 2019 and 2020 report from 21.4g/100g to 18.4g/100g.
'Malt O Meal Marshmallow Mateys' were the only cereal in both the 2019 and 2020 survey that was high in salt, and actually increased in salt from 1.6g/100g to 1.7g/100g. Otherwise, cereals have, overall, reduced their salt content with 4 in 10 now low in salt, compared to 1 in 10 in 2019.
There has been little change in the amount of saturated fat in cereals, with the majority classed as green (low), however there has been a slight increase in the number of cereals classed as medium (1 in 10 vs 2 in 10) and a slight decrease in the number of cereals classed as low (8 in 10 vs 7 in 10).
Fibre has been the selling point for cereals for a long time, an important part of our diet with many of us consuming too little. However it's important to ensure the fibre we consume doesn't come from cereals high in sugar. Our survey found cereals that are high in fibre but lower, and even low, in sugar that popular sugary brands. Nearly 4 in 10 cereals with packaging that appeals to children were low in fibre, compared to 1 in 10 that were high in fibre.
Examples of healthier options
Only 3 cereals with packaging that may appeal to children had a green label for sugar, salt, saturated fat and fibre combined:
- Troo Calm Porridge +
- Troo Happy Porridge with Flaxseed Omega 3s and Uplifting Cinnamon
- Shredded Wheat Bitesize
An additional 8 cereals with packaging that may appeal to children had a green label for both sugar and salt, but not saturated fat:
- Troo Energise Porridge with Chocolate
- Multi-pack Quaker Kids Porridge Mix-Ups Choco Porridge Combos
- Multi-pack Quaker Kids Porridge Mix-Ups Strawberry Porridge Combos
- Rude Health Fruity Bircher
- Troo Granola Chocolate with Orange
- Troo Granola Super Seedy with Calming Ginger
- Fruit Bowl Banana Wheat Biscuits
- Morrisons Super Smooth Porridge
Breakfast cereals surveyed with the biggest progress in reformulation per nutrient between 2019 and 2020:
- Aldi Harvest Morn MultiGrain Hoops increased in fibre by 4.6g/100g moving from an amber to a green label
- Asda Multigrain Hoops decreased in salt by 0.5g/100g moving from an amber to a green label
- Asda Choco Hoops, Tesco Choco Hoops and Morrisons Choco Hoops all decreased in saturated fat by 0.4g/100g
- Sainsbury’s Frosted Flakes decreased in sugar by 7.1g/100g
Direct Comparison of Products Between 2019 and 2020
Improvements in nutritional quality were made in some breakfast cereals:
- The average fibre content per 100g was 5.1g in 2019 and 5.4g in 2020 (6% increase)
- The average salt content per 100g was 0.59g in 2019 and 0.54g in 2020 (4% decrease)
- The average saturated fat content per 100g was 1.25g in 2019 and 1.23g in 2020 (2% decrease)
- The average sugar content per 100g was 21.2g in 2019 and 20.7g in 2020 (2% decrease)
2 products have had a change in packaging and no longer meet the inclusion criteria to appeal to children, therefore they have not been included in the report:
- Sainsbury’s Puffed Wheat - no change in nutritional content (already low in salt, sugar and saturated fat)
- Kellogg’s Crunchy Nut Peanut Butter Clusters - a reduction in saturated fat content by 1.5g per 100g
A note on retailers removing cartoon characters:
Asda, Aldi and Lidl all made statements to say they were removing cartoon characters from cereal packaging between February and April. Data collection for this survey was carried out before these changes were put in place. Due to the government restrictions on movement, we were unable to determine if this would have an impact on our findings. However, it is not enough for retailers and manufacturers to remove cartoon characters; the resulting design must not be attractive to children, otherwise it defeats the object.
Zoe Davies from Action on Sugar and Action on Salt says:
"Whilst it is encouraging to see that the proportion of unhealthy breakfast cereals marketed to children are decreasing – rather worryingly, the average nutrient content of these cereals hasn’t actually changed very much. In fact, many of these products still contain unnecessary amounts of sugar and salt and are low in fibre – not quite the nutritious kick-start to the day our children need."
"The Government’s new obesity strategy must play a pivotal role in rebuilding the nation’s health by encouraging all food & drink companies to manufacture and promote healthier options, especially to children."
 Introducing further advertising restrictions onTV and online for products high in fat, sugar and salt (HFSS) HM Government https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/further-advertising-restrictions-for-products-high-in-fat-salt-and-sugar
 Hastings G. et al, 2003, Review of research on the effects of food promotion to children, commissioned by the Food Standards Agency http://www.researchgate.net/publication/295704194_Review_of_research_on_the_effects_of_food_promotion_to_children