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Sugar in breakfast cereals

How concerned should you be?

There has been a lot of attention around the nutrient content of our food, in relation to fat, sodium and sugar, with recent media coverage focusing on the level of sugar in breakfast cereals. Breakfast cereals make a significant contribution to our daily intake of protein, carbohydrate, fibre, vitamins, minerals and some antioxidants and should not be grouped with ‘high sugar foods’ such as sweets, soft drinks, cakes and sweet biscuits (which offer little nutrition and are energy dense).

About sugar
‘Sugars’ on a nutrition information panel of a product label is a total of naturally occurring and added sugars. Sugars occur naturally in fruit and dairy foods in the form of fructose and lactose. Fruit in a product, adds to the sugar content. Sugar is also more concentrated in dried fruit as it loses its water content during the drying process. Products containing dried fruit will therefore have higher sugar content, such as breakfast cereal, but this does not mean it is bad for you. Dried fruit also provides beneficial nutrients including dietary fibre, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. Products labelled ‘no added sugar’ may contain naturally occurring sugars such as fructose and lactose, but no further sugars have been added to the product. ‘Sugar’ will appear in the ingredients list for foods with added sugar.

The sugar concern
The concern with eating too much sugar is that it provides empty kilojoules and can contribute to weight gain. However, this is also a concern for other nutrients such as fat and total energy which can also contribute to weight gain, in particular because we tend to be inactive, sit for so long, and generally eat too much. Placing blame on a particular nutrient alone surely is not the solution to the obesity problem. We must also consider our energy balance that is energy input versus energy output. The quality of a food should therefore be determined by its total composition and not by a single ingredient.

Choosing a breakfast cereal
Breakfast cereals are not necessarily ‘healthier’ if they are lower in sugar. The Glycaemic Index (GI) of a breakfast cereal is also not the only indicator of a healthier choice, as the GI value of a breakfast cereal will tend to be lower when you add milk or yoghurt. Consider the total composition of breakfast cereal, as it should be rated on how nutrient rich it is. Look for those that are higher in fibre per serve, preferably contain ‘wholegrain’ in the ingredients list and are less energy dense. Some nutrients to consider when selecting breakfast cereals:

(Source: National Heart Foundation of Australia, 2009)

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