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5 Steps to Decode a Cereal Box—or, Where Hidden Added Sugar Lies

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While the health conscious among us may take pains to avoid sugary foods and beverages, a major problem with avoiding added sugar is that it lies hidden in places where we wouldn’t expect to find it—like yogurt and granola bars. Sugar is added to not just obviously sweetened products like soda and cookies and Froot Loops but to seemingly healthy ones, too—some of which are the worst offenders.

Take Cheerios Protein Oats and Honey. Protein is an important part of our diet, but it shouldn’t be exploited to mask added sugar. While allowing General Mills to meet what the food industry views as rising consumer demand for protein-rich products, if you eat the new protein Cheerios, which has a whopping 17 grams of sugar per serving, you might as well be eating Oreo ice cream.

So where is all that sugar hiding? Here are five steps to decode where added sugar lies:

1) Don’t be fooled by Facts Up Front

Facts up front. Photo: Deborah Bailin.

Facts Up Front appears at the top of the front panel and does include sugar content, but all the rest of the images and words on the front reinforce the message that the product is healthy, distracting consumers from its high sugar content. Photo: Deborah Bailin.

Facts Up Front “is a voluntary labeling initiative” engineered by the Grocery Manufacturers Association. Facts Up Front does not provide new information but rather just repeats in a different format on the front of the box what is already printed in the Nutrition Facts Label on the side or back of the package. It was launched just before the Institute of Medicine released recommendations on front-of-packaging labeling to warn consumers about excessive unhealthy ingredients.

Facts Up Front, by contrast, includes information about both healthy and unhealthy ingredients. This is confusing to consumers because additional front-of-package messaging—everything above and beyond the Facts Up Front label—reinforces only the healthy ingredients like protein and fiber, thus misleading people about sugar and doing exactly the opposite of what the IOM recommends.

2) Beware of health claims

Research has shown that consumers routinely misinterpret health buzzwords on food packaging like “whole grain” and “organic.” Whole grains can be healthy, but the current FDA definition of what counts as “whole grain” for the purpose of food labeling falls far short of what experts consider healthy. Fiber is often processed out of the whole grains to make them taste better and have a longer shelf life—and sugar is added to make higher fiber foods more appetizing.

Cheerios Protein Oats and Honey, for example, is marketed as whole grain and a good source of fiber. One serving does contain 16 percent of the daily recommended amount of fiber, but the 17 grams of sugar per serving—about 4.25 teaspoons—is just two teaspoons short of the entire daily allotment of sugar the American Heart Association recommends for women. Imagine dumping 4 teaspoons of sugar on a bowl of regular Cheerios!

3) Distrust packaging that makes you feel rather than think

The back of the Cheerios Protein Oats and Honey box encourages consumers to feel rather than think. It also claims that the cereal will provide energy for fun activities throughout the day -- a claim bizarrely reminiscent of sugar industry advertising 50 years ago that made blatantly false claims. Photo: Deborah Bailin.

The back of the Cheerios Protein Oats and Honey box encourages consumers to feel rather than think. It depicts happy children and claims that the cereal will provide energy for fun activities throughout the day — a claim bizarrely reminiscent of sugar industry advertising 50 years ago, enticing consumers to believe that “No other food provides us with essential energy so fast.” Photo: Deborah Bailin.

The purpose of food packaging is to make consumers buy the food. Except for the Nutrition Facts Panel, which the FDA is in the process of updating, other “information” about the nutritional attributes is there to persuade, not inform. So, when a product says something like “long lasting energy your whole family will love,” ask questions: Where is the energy coming from? Why will my family love it? What is the food company trying to make me feel and how is that feeling influencing my choice of whether to buy it?

4) Read the ingredients

Although it may seem like an obvious step before you buy food “your whole family will love,” food packaging often highlights appealing ingredients on the front of the package intended to reassure consumers about the healthfulness of the food and distract you from bothering with the rest of the ingredients. But it’s the ingredients list that tells the real story.

Cheerios Protein Oats and Honey front-side packaging, for example, says the cereal is made with whole grain oats, granola clusters, and honey. That sounds healthy …. until you read the ingredients list. Whole grain oats and honey are there, but so are sugar, brown sugar, molasses, corn syrup, caramelized sugar syrup, and refiners syrup—a great representative sample of the many names for sugar.

5) Recognize that avoiding added sugar isn’t just about personal choice and responsibility

The brand name Cheerios attracts consumers seeking a healthy cereal. That’s because the original Cheerios has only one gram of sugar per serving (about a quarter of a teaspoon), but its newer, high sugar siblings have as much as 17 times that amount.

cheerios side by side better

It’s no accident that food companies spend billions of dollars annually to advertise high sugar megabrands. Advertising works. And when product messaging informs consumers that Cheerios Protein Oats and Honey tastes “so good” because the cereal contains  11 grams of protein, 27 grams of whole grain, 13 vitamins and minerals, and is a good source of fiber, consumers can hardly be blamed for missing what’s omitted here—especially when the box looks a whole lot like the original, healthy variety of Cheerios. Hidden in plain sight is the REAL reason “they’re so good”—they’re loaded with sugar!

And the policies that have made hidden added sugar omnipresent in our diets? They’re no accident, either.

Posted in: Food and Agriculture, Science and Democracy Tags: , ,

About the author: Deborah Bailin is a democracy analyst for UCS’s Center for Science and Democracy and researches political and societal barriers to formulating science-based policies. She came to UCS in 2012 as an ACLS Public Fellow and holds a PhD in English from the University of Maryland, where she studied the influence of science on literature. Subscribe to Deborah's posts

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  • whamo

    I actually brought some high protein Cheerios, and now I regret my choice. What has the world come to when you can’t even trust Cheerios?

  • Liz Trekkiemaiden Morgan

    It is disgusting how consumers are treated as mere pawns by the the big food companies, to be sucked into their illusions and lies. Sugar is also added to sausages, cold meats and ready sauces. The message should be clear – avoid all processed foods, ie those that come out of a tin or packet. Also don’t forget that starchy food behaves exactly the same way as sugar does once it’s below the neckline!! There is in fact no dietary requirement for carbohydrates at all. The fact of the matter is that there are no nutrients (vitamins,
    minerals, micronutrients) in starchy carbohydrate foods that we can’t
    get elsewhere, and often in a superior form.

    • Deborah Bailin

      Yes, processed foods with hidden added sugar are a big problem. Speaking personally, I think it’s fine to eat a treat now and then — a cookie or piece of cake — if your regular diet does not contain much sugar. But when you get more than a day’s worth of sugar from seemingly unsweetened things like bread, yogurt, pasta sauce, cereal, etc. adding that cookie or piece of cake or single soft drink puts people way over what health experts recommend. And that’s where the illusions and tricks come in. We need to know explicitly where the sugar is coming from — and policies that protect transparency and accessibility of that information — so we can make informed decisions about what we eat. .

    • Weston

      All so very true, Liz. I wish more people would realize these truths. We’re getting there, I suppose, but when I go to the grocery store and see what people are buying …. well, it’s scary. Best thing I ever did was cut out all the refined carbs and cut WAY down on rest of them. The strident critics who say low-carb eating is just a fad are so wrong, it’d be funny if it weren’t so sad.

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