Getting up in the morning during my school days was never easy, but I knew that if I could roll out of the bed and into my school uniform, a great prize awaited downstairs. A big bowl of cereal. Weetabix, or Wheat Biscs as the case may be. Cornflakes. If we had both in stock, a Weetabix-Cornflakes combo. On the weekends, we would raid my Granny’s cupboards for the serious stuff. Rice Krispies, Coco-Pops, plenty of milk of course, so that we could guzzle that chocolatey liquid-gold down at the end. During my college days, it was a free for all. Cereal for breakfast, cereal for lunch, and cereal before bed.
And the best thing about it? This stuff is good for you! Heart healthy, whole wheat, part of a balanced diet, fortified with vitamins. A win-win situation. Or is it?
To get to the truth about cereals we need to dive into the dark and murky world of Big Food. Nestlé is the world’s largest food company, which in 2018, spent €6.7 billion on marketing worldwide, with a net profit of around €13 billion. Kellogg’s marketing spend in 2019 was €625 million, with a profit margin of €1.3 billion. The bottom line for these giants multinational companies is financial profit, and they spend billions to make us believe that their products are good for us. They are not. They are highly-processed, junk-food, crap.The marketing strategies of companies such as Nestlé and Kellogg’s are so effective (and well they should be for the money poured into it) that their brand and products are universally accepted as part of a healthy diet. They employ nutritionists to conduct research that is favourable to their products. The language they use in marketing is all about playing up the language of health and nutrition. And it is altogether convincing. Visit the Kellogg’s website and you can read about their passion for nutrition..making quality products for a healthier world. They provide information about the benefits of cereal, and how sugar intake is an important part of a balanced diet..And a 30g bowl of Kellogg’s Special K has less sugar than a banana. Kellogg’s is embedded into the very fabric of Irish society, as the main sponsor of the GAA Cúl Camps since 2012. Over 150,000 children take part in Cúl Camps around the country, complete with their Kellogg’s emblazoned jerseys, balls, and bags. And GAA stars, our country’s role-models, are used to promote Kellogg’s products. Of course, the Kellogg’s Cúl Camp nutrition advice tells us that “a wholegrain based breakfast cereal with low-fat milk and some fruit is a great start for a growing boy or girl. Many fortified cereals provide key nutrients like iron and Vitamin D.“ This sounds entirely reasonable, and it’s the use of language like this that has conditioned us to believe that breakfast cereals are harmless, actually, good for us. They aren’t.
In 2015, Kellogg’s launched ‘Kellogg’s Powering Play’, a nutritional workshop for kids as part of the Cúl Camps, aimed at teaching children the fundamentals of eating well, and to spread the Kellogg’s gospel that a breakfast including ‘fortified, grain based cereal..is ideal’. It’s not.
We need to challenge the marketing language of these products and their dubious health claims, and we also need to understand the dark side of companies such as Nestlé and Kellogg’s.
Cutting through the Crap
First, it is important to distinguish between real foods and food products. A banana is a real food, it grows on trees. It is full of nutrients and goodness. Special-K is not a real food, it is a food product. Implying that Special-K is better for you than a banana because it has less sugar content is ridiculous and insidious.
So, let’s get down to it. Why is cereal bad for you?
Breakfast cereals are made from refined, highly processed grains, and are loaded with sugar. Added sugar contributes to chronic diseases, and of course is highly addictive. A high-sugar breakfast will spike your blood sugar and insulin levels, and this can cause your blood sugar to crash. The research is strong that excess sugar consumption can increase the risk of Type 2 Diabetes, heart disease and cancer. When we take a step back and look at rise in obesity and Type 2 diabetes, particularly amongst our children, it seems obvious that addictive, highly-processed, sugar-laden products are part of the problem, but Junk Food companies fund research refuting guidelines to reduce sugar. The main argument in their toolbox is the energy-balance hypothesis. Calories-in, calories-out. As long as we are in energy balance, there is no problem. We need to exercise more, not cut out sugar. But all calories are not made equal.
We hear a lot about the health benefits of ‘whole grains’, but these claims are misleading. Most food products containing ‘whole grain’ aren’t ‘whole’ at all, they are processed and pulverised into flour. And small amounts of “whole grains” that are added in don’t make the product healthy, it just allows them to stick “healthy whole grain” on the box, even though the first ingredient on the list is refined flour. The reason that cereals are “fortified with vitamins” is because without them, they are devoid of nutritional value in the first place. ‘Fortified’ is touted as a good thing, but the vitamins and minerals are added to mask the product’s low nutritional quality. Banana’s are a great source of potassium, vitamin B6, and vitamin C3. Nobody has to inject banana’s with it’s goodness.
The Dark Side
We see the TV commercials of happy families waking up and having Cornflakes together. We see the colourful cartoons, and enticing packaging. We are fed the health claims of ‘low-fat’, ‘low-sugar’, ‘low-calorie’, ‘hearth-healthy’, ‘full of fibre’. But far away from all of this is the politics of Big Food companies, who spend millions upon millions on lobbying governments to protect their profits. Nestlé and Kellogg’s are amongst the big food companies such as Coke, Pepsi, Monsanto, McDonald’s and General Mills, that lobby the US government the most, collectively spending hundreds of millions to influence lawmakers. They mobilise when moves are made to restrict the use of dangerous chemicals in foods, against tighter regulation of advertisement laws, against GMO label transparency.
These companies use insidious tactics to get people hooked on their junk-food products. In 2017, New York Times published an investigative series into how global packaged-food companies are aggressively attempting to expand their presence in developing nations. It showcased how Nestlé recruits thousands of women in the poorest towns in Brazil to go door-to-door, giving out Kit Kats and candy, to entice them from their traditional diets and drive up profits.
When the UK broadcasting regulator, Ofcom, tried to draw draw up tighter rules on the advertisement of junk foods to children, Kellogg’s led a ferocious campaign of lobbying against this. Manipulating our children and getting them hooked on their addictive products is central to their mission.
The data is clear. Ultraprocessed foods hurt us in two ways: 1) They are detrimental to our health, and to the healthy development of our children. They are the main contributors of disease and disability in modern society.
2) The practices of growing commodity crops such as corn, soy, and wheat, the main ingredients in cereals, are damaging the environment. The agricultural industry is one of the biggest contributors in the world to climate change.
It doesn’t matter that Kellogs and Nestlé can roll out nutritionists and researchers telling you that cereal is part of a healthy diet, it’s not. In 2017, the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the British Government made recommendations to reduce sugar intake based on the latest evidence, with evidence that sugar-laden products such as cereals are fuelling the obesity crises. In Kellogg’s then spent millions of pounds on funding research to refute these claims. Last year, Nestlé invested €27 million in a new Research and Development centre in Limerick, with a focus on nutrition for babies. Guess what they’re research is going to tell us: that we should be feeding our babies their products. We shouldn’t. It doesn’t matter how many letters you have after your name when you are being paid by the company whose products you are promoting.
Of course, anybody can enjoy a bowl of cereal, but the problem is when it is sold to us under the pretence of health. The cremé-de-la-créme for us growing up was when we’d stay in my Da’s at the weekend, and he’d have packets of those mini multi-packs. I would mix them all together, Coco Pops, Rice Krispies, Frosties, Honey-Nut Loops, Sugar Puffs, the lot. It was cereal utopia. But, then, we didn’t know any better. Now, we do, and we have a duty to protect our children from junk-food conglomerates such as Kellogg’s and Nestlé.
Now, let’s say it one more time, all together: Breakfast cereals are highly-processed, junk-food, crap.
- The Food Fix, How to Save Our Health, Our Economy, Our Communities, and Our Planet – One Bite at a Time, Dr Mark Hyman (2020)
- Eat Your Heart Out: Why the food Business is Bad For You, Felicity Lawrence (2008) Book Extract: https://www.theguardian.com/business/2010/nov/23/food-book-extract-felicity-lawrence