Despite a historic pledge by more than a dozen major food companies to advertise healthier food to children, the least nutritious cereals are still the ones most aggressively marketed to kids.
Cereal companies do sell healthy options. But the ones advertised to youngsters have a whopping 85 percent more sugar, 65 percent less fiber and 60 percent more sodium than those aimed at adults, according to a study from the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University.
At the same time, some companies promote their high-sugar cereals as a "nutritious way to start the day." And products with dubious nutritional profiles average three to four health claims on every box, the Yale study found.
For parents, the advertising can make for an agonizing stroll through the cereal aisle, the epicenter of the debate over food advertising to children.
Kendra Morrill says her 4-year-old son, Trevor Johnson, asks for Cocoa Puffs by name every morning, even though he doesn't read yet and she monitors his television viewing. She remains steadfast: Not for breakfast.
On rare occasions she lets Trevor and his 7-year-old brother, Alex, have presweetened cereal as a dessert or after-school treat.
"It seems you have to choose between 'fortified but sugary,' 'palatable but not fortified' or 'fortified but tasteless to kids,'" said Morrill, of Evanston. "It's always a balance to figure out what to eat that's good for them."
Responding to a federal report that found the marketing of junk food to children contributes to obesity, 16 leading food and beverage companies agreed in 2006 to change how they advertise to children younger than 12.
The intent was not to reduce the amount of advertising; instead the voluntary program — which was praised by legislators as well as nutritional and child health experts — sought to change the mix so healthier products were marketed to preteens.
By all accounts, the participating food giants are changing the products advertised to children. The sugar content of some leading cereals has dropped, and many products are fortified with whole grains, iron, vitamin D and calcium. Companies say they have spent millions of dollars changing their products or creating new ones.
"Reformulating is a technical challenge that requires an investment," said General Mills spokeswoman Heidi Geller. "These are brands that consumers know and love, and we don't want to sacrifice the taste. But at the same time, we're committed to lowering sugar levels."
Now more than two-thirds of the cereals advertised by members participating in the Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative — including General Mills, Kellogg, Post and Quaker — have 11 grams of sugar or less per serving. General Mills guarantees at least 8 grams of whole grains in each serving and has fortified its entire line with calcium and vitamin D.
Before the agreement, "pretty much anything went," said Elaine Kolish of the Council of Better Business Bureaus, who is vice president and director of the initiative. "Maybe 12 grams of sugar isn't the perfect place to end up, but we're getting standards where there were none."
Critics argue that industry isn't doing enough. The latest efforts have not shielded children from a steady barrage of advertisements for unhealthy cereal or encouraged them to eat more healthful cereal products, said Jennifer Harris, lead author of the Yale study.
Food companies spent more than $156 million promoting cereal to children in 2008, more than any other category of packaged food.
"When we looked at the nutritional quality of cereal, we realized it's not just that the companies are marketing unhealthy products to children," said Harris, the director of marketing initiatives at Yale's Rudd Center. "It's that they are only marketing unhealthy products."
Though breakfast cereals may be enriched with vitamins, "they're also highly saturated in simple sugars that spike our blood sugar and give us a temporary rush, followed by a crash," said Toronto nutritionist Dorothy Lyons.
Sugar content may have been reduced, but it is still high. Some cereals are up to 43 percent sugar. And because most people pour more than one 3/4-cup serving into a bowl, the amount of sugar consumed is often at least twice the amount listed on the box.
"Making incremental changes in the ingredients to an unhealthy product doesn't make it healthy," Harris said. "General Mills makes a big deal about whole grain in their cereals, but most of the products have 1 or 2 grams of fiber and more sugar than whole grain. It makes people think the product is healthier than it is."