Submitted by: Emily Seferovich
Edited by: Marcia Bristow MS RDN CD
The typical neighborhood supermarket carries anywhere from one to three hundred types of breakfast cereal – have you ever wondered what led you to purchase the ones in your pantry? Manufacturers can label their boxes with images or statements to convince people to buy their product over alternatives. Unfortunately, this often includes plastering cereal boxes with misleading health claims. This deceptive type of advertisement is everywhere, which can have a significant impact on what we buy, and ultimately, on our health.
How to tell if your cereal is 100% whole grain (or not): Whole grains are an important part of the diet. They provide an array of essential vitamins and minerals, fiber, healthy fats, and complex carbohydrates. Many consumers want whole grain products and some cereal companies rely on this when generating health claims. Specifically, some products are misleadingly labeled with statements such as “made with whole grains”, “contains whole grains”, or “whole grains first ingredient”. Unfortunately, none of these labels mean that the product is 100% whole grain. In order to tell if your cereal is 100% whole grain or not, look for the statement, “100% whole grain” on the package1. This is a safe indicator because the Food and Drug Administration requires that products touting this label own up to it.
How to tell if your product is made with authentic ingredients: In order to appeal to consumers, marketing wizards make fake ingredients appear real by influencing the way packages are labeled. For instance, cereal companies are always looking for the next buzz-word to attract consumers and stay under the radar of the FDA. An example is the word “simply” – products are labeled with statements such as “Simply fruit and cereal”, or “Simply sweetened”, while in reality this doesn’t mean anything in terms of the ingredients, the quality of the product, or its nutritional value2. Another trick used by some cereal companies are statements like “chocolatey” or “fruity”. While we’d like to think that these phrases mean the product actually contains chocolate or fruit, they’re likely adding a distant chemical relative to the cereal (think of Fruity Pebbles, for instance). If you want cereal made with authentic ingredients, become a label detective. The nutrition label on a cereal box is required by law to list exactly what’s in it, and ingredients are listed in order of quantity! If you want actual fruit (or chocolate) in your cereal, check for it on the ingredients label.
The serving size snaggle: Another trick up the sleeves of cereal companies is the serving size used on nutrition labels. If you ever see a cereal box labeled with “only 100 calories per serving”, remember to check how large a serving size is (for some cereals, this can be as little as ¼ cup)! While claims like this intrigue health-conscious customers, what matters is how many servings you pour yourself. Even if a cereal is 100 calories per serving, pouring yourself five servings means you’re still eating 500 calories!
Cereal Box Psychology: Have you ever bought a cereal with a character on the box? A white rabbit, adventurous sea captain, or favorite athlete perhaps? Research from the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab showed that consumers are more likely to buy products that have faces that lock eyes with them3. Although it may not be a health claim, this sort of psychological manipulation is what leads consumers to make choices in the grocery store – sometimes without even realizing it.
Before you take your next trip to the grocery store, remember to have your wits about you when perusing the cereal isle. While some cereal companies win the love of consumers through using manipulative labeling tactics, reading nutrition labels and knowing what phrases to watch out for can help you become more informed about what you are buying.