The nutritional content of most breakfast cereals is enough to warrant a re-evaluation of the day's first meal, according to an extensive analysis of the popular packaged foods.
A survey of 59 ready-to-eat cereals by Consumer Reports magazine found that some of the best-known brands have more sodium than potato chips, may contain fat levels equivalent to almost two pats of butter or are loaded with sugar.
The findings come at a time when cereal is consumed, at least occasionally, in nine out of 10 homes where breakfast is served. As a result, more than 100 different brands compete for the public's attention and $4.5 billion in total annual sales.
The story, in the magazine's October issue, was mostly critical of the category. For instance, those cereals specially formulated for children and advertised as such on television are particularly heavy-handed with the sweeteners. In some cases, the report found that 50% of the cereal's content was actually sugar. And not just childrens' products oozed sweet--only 18 out of the 59 brands surveyed could actually be considered low in sugar.
Furthermore, the economy-minded would be better off buying plain cereal and scooping the sucrose themselves. Manufacturers of the highly sweetened brands charge as much as four times more for sugar-coating the puffs, flakes and pops than if a consumer took on the chore at home.
On a more positive note, several cereals were found to be exemplary sources of fiber while keeping sugar, sodium and fat to a minimum.
Consumer Reports rated the breakfast centerpieces according to nutritional content and included comments on overall taste. The categories of comparison included fiber, protein, sugar, sodium and fat.
The survey's best and worst designations predictably fell to those products targeted to different ends of the age spectrum. As such, childrens' cereals generally fared poorly while the adult-themed products were more nutritionally balanced.
The highest rating, 73 points, was given to two Nabisco products: Shredded Wheat 'N Bran and Shredded Wheat Spoon Size. Neither cereal contained sugar and only the bite-size version had a trace of sodium.
The lowest point total, 22, went to Quaker Oats' Cap'n Crunch, which had the equivalent of three teaspoons of sugar per one-ounce serving. General Mills followed closely behind at 24 points for its Cocoa Puffs which had a similarly high sugar level.
Other aspects of the review included:
--The highest fiber cereal was Kellogg's Fiber One, which finished fourth in the rankings with a 67-point score. Fiber One offers a surprising 12 grams of fiber in a one-ounce serving, or the equivalent of five apples or three cups of spinach, according to the magazine. (The National Cancer Institute recommends a daily fiber intake of between 20 and 35 grams.) The product is also a weight-watching bargain, with only 60 calories per serving.
--Two of the biggest names in breakfast cereals, Cheerios and Wheaties, also share the distinction of offering the most sodium. "Wheaties, with its 370 milligrams of sodium, turns out to be the worst. Ounce for ounce, it has about twice the sodium of potato chips," the article said. Cheerios is not far behind with 330 milligrams. The sodium issue was examined because of medical research that indicates a link between hypertension and salt intake.
"People who want to cut down on sodium might not think to look in their cereal bowl," Consumer Reports stated.
Both Wheaties and Cheerios are made by General Mills.
--Fat's presence is primarily a result of oil added to the granola-type cereals to keep the products from becoming "buckshot hard," the review said. Some of the highest levels are in Quaker Oat's 100% Natural with 6 grams of fat, Sun Country Granola with 5 grams and Kellogg's Cracklin' Oat Bran with 4 grams. A fat level of 4 grams, or higher, is equivalent to 1 1/2 pats of butter.
Fewer Farming--The source of all that wheat, corn and sugar found in the various breakfast cereals--the American farm community--continues to undergo significant demographic changes.
In the last five years, 12 out of every 100 U.S. rural residents left the farm, according to data compiled jointly by the Census Bureau and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The departures from agrarian areas follow a long-term trend, but the recent exodus was most frequently attributed to "economic uncertainties."
The federal study, reported in California Farmer magazine, stated that in 1930 one out of every four Americans lived on a farm. That figure dropped to one out of seven in 1950.
Today, the ratio is only one out of 45, for a total national farm population of 5.3 million.
Yolk of the Day--Demand for only the freshest ingredients has prompted a French poultry firm to begin spraying the "date of lay" on each egg it sells. The latest idea in monitoring perishability was requested by a grocery company, Euromarch, one of Europe's largest chains.
Le Gouessant, an egg cooperative in the Brittany region of France, has found the public receptive to its stamped eggs and now sells the product to three additional supermarket companies, according to a report by the California Grocers Assn.
The eggs are wrapped in clear plastic and are sold six to a package. The co-op reports sales of 500,000 dated eggs weekly.