EWG’s letter comes approximately a month after the FDA mandated new nutrition label standards, including increasing the serving sizes on labels for some food categories. (Here’s a brief review of some major changes.)
The agency established a two-year deadline for companies to comply. “What's considered a single serving has changed in the decades since the original nutrition label was created. So now serving sizes will be more realistic to reflect how much people typically eat at one time,” the agency said.
It’s been 20 years since the nutrition labels have been revamped. The recently announced standard was first proposed in 2014, and includes amendments based on input from a public comment period. It has been met with some opposition, such as by the American Bakers Association, who cited the difficulty in meeting a two-year deadline for implementing the new labels, took issue the daily reference value and labeling of ‘added sugars’ on pack; as well as confusion with the definition of dietary fiber.
EWG, on the other hand, wasn’t too content with the given two-year deadline. The organization is calling on cereal manufacturers General Mills, Kellogg, and Post to “update the information on their websites as soon as possible and to expedite changes to the labels on packages ahead of the FDA deadline.”
The organization specifically addressed breakfast cereals because, based on its analysis, “kids who eat a bowl a day of the most popular pre-sweetened cereals could consume five to nine pounds more sugar a year than parents might think from reading nutrition labels.”
“Breakfast cereals are the fifth-highest source of added sugar in the diets of children under 8, only behind sugary drinks, cookies, candy and ice cream,” said Dawn Undurraga, EWG nutritionist, in a press release.
“Parents who depend on the nutrition labels to tell them how much sugar is in cereal should know that current labels are based on what the average American ate in 1977, and their kids are eating up to twice as much sugar as the labels might lead them to believe,” she added.
Companies on stealth mode
Several of the companies EWG addressed have publicly announced its sugar reduction efforts on their websites. "General Mills has steadily reduced sugar in the food we make in the U.S. for more than 10 years and has made significant strides, especially in cereal, while maintaining the great taste that consumers demand," a spokesperson for the Minnesota-based company told FoodNavigator-USA.
General Mills' website says that since 2007, the company has reduce the sugar in many of its products into the single digits per serving. However, the Wall Street Journal wrote that the company's attempt can only go so far—for products like Lucky Charms, there was only so much sugar that can be reduced because taking any more sugar out will result in cereal that will sink in milk before three minutes, a company standard.
"Most people associate sugar with bringing sweetness to food. However, many people are surprised to learn that sugar also contributes to bulk and crispiness, and to the toasty brown color of cereal. It’s also critical in staving off sogginess, which presents a technical challenge in reducing the sugar in cereal. But our cereal experts are up for the challenge," the company says on its website.
"The FDA’s proposed changes are complex and it will take some time to fully assess," the General Mills spokesperson said in response to EWG's letter.
Another example is Kellogg, who says that it has been reducing its sugar “by stealth since 2010.” It also added that by 2020, 90 percent of its cereals will have 10 g of sugar or less per 30 g servings, an amount which EWG has criticized for not being a “real-world serving size.” The FDA’s new standard will refer to one serving size as 40 grams, but the EWG argues that American children still eat more than that daily.