rating breakfast cereals

Have you heard of these new food rating systems being used to grocery stores to help us find healthy food?  The Chicago Tribune reports that

In an attempt to help consumers sort through confusing and sometimes misleading labels, grocery stores are rolling out individual food rating systems. At least five new programs designed to single out healthy foods are in use across the country or are expected to launch in the next few months… But the new systems are anything but simple. Each is based on different criteria. Some exclude snack foods, candy, ice cream and jams from the ratings. Some try to help consumers find the healthiest food within a category, such as cookies. Others allow comparisons of foods in different supermarket aisles. And while a product might be labeled healthy according to one system, it might receive a low score elsewhere.

Can OR be used to help develop the right criteria?

The discussion of breakfast cereals interest me greatly.  The food rating systems rated Frosted Flakes low, yet the American Dietetic Association considers it a “Smart Choice” (!)

My mother developed a early food rating system for determining which breakfast cereals she would allow in the house.  Her method was simple:  only cereals with 9 grams of sugar per serving or less were allowed.  Virtually all of the sugary breakfast cereal marketed at children were banned with my mother’s system (most have 12+ grams of sugar).  The underlying assumption of my mother’s system was that lack of sugar is a good proxy for nutrition.

Now that I have little ones at home that greatly prefer my husband’s sugary cereal to my oatmeal, I have enhanced my mother’s cereal rating system.  I noticed that cereals with low amounts of sugar often are devoid of nutrition (such as Rice Krispies and Kix), so eliminating sugar isn’t enough.  So I’ve developed a series of rules for cereal, much to my husband’s amusement:

  • Sugar:  6 grams or less
  • Fiber:  3 grams or more (preferably soluble)
  • Protein:  2 grams or more

On a practical level, my mother’s cereal rating system was effective because it provided clear, black-and-white guidelines for what was allowed.  And the 9 gram threshold was perfect, since there were few cereals near the 9 gram threshold (most had 12+ or fewer than 6 grams of sugar), so we didn’t have the opportunity to sneak over the line.   My multi-faceted system tends to blur  the line somewhat for my husband .  Maybe my mother knows best.  If I had to choose only a single rule, I would go with the three grams of fiber.  Fiber content may be the best proxy for cereal nutrition (high fiber cereals are virtually all low in sugar whereas low sugar cereals do not all contain fiber).

Last year, Consumer Reports rated breakfast cereals, using criteria that are similar to mine.  They weighed sugar heavily (like Mom) and also included fiber.  I felt slightly vindicated, but I give my mother a lot of credit for being a pioneer and beating Consumer Reports by three decades.  (She had other great rules, too, like eating something green for dinner every night, which eventually fostered my love of broccoli and spinach).

In the end, the goal is to deliver a healthy breakfast to my kids (not necessarily breakfast cereal), which is why I insist on oatmeal in the winter and often slice up a banana or peach along with breakfast.  Consumer reports actually rated steel cut oats (my favorite, too) the highest overall.

Do you use any food rating systems?

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6 responses to “rating breakfast cereals

  • Brian

    There are some very fundamental problems with this idea:

    1. There is widespread disagreement about what is most healthy and the relative priority to give to various issues. Is avoiding saturated fats more important than lowering total calories? Are simple carbohydrates OK, or should they only be eaten in very limited quantities?

    2. There is pretty widespread agreement that what matters is the overall composition of ones diet rather than individual items that we choose to eat, but these proposals look at one food item at a time rather than your entire diet.

    3. There is also agreement that what’s best depends a lot on age, sex, weight, activity level, and various medical conditions. The right food for a 25 year old male who runs 100 miles a week might not be so good for an overweight 50 year old female who lives a sedentary life style.

  • Laura

    Brian, you are completely right when it comes to food rating systems. Our health depends on the total portfolio of what we eat, so rating individual foods while not looking at the total portfolio (which is impossible to do in the grocery store) is meaningless. That was my first concern, too. I think the classic Diet Problem looked at the total portfolio of choices, but I that is problematic (and a topic for another day). It may make more sense to look at foods across the same category (if you’re going to eat a cookie, this is your best choice), but then you lose the opportunity to say “stop eating cookies!”

    The case for breakfast cereal is easier, since it focuses on a single type of food (a single decision) and seeks to eliminate cereals without any nutritional content (like sugar). Breakfast is generally homogeneous. My Mom developed her rule in a specific context that was focused on the individual needs of her kids, which circumvents some of the problems you mentioned.

    But looking at the bigger picture, I wonder if these food rating systems chip away at an individual’s ability to make good decisions regarding their health, as we start to rely on the ratings too much. I’m not worried too much, because my Mom’s rules made me curious about nutrition and ultimately motivated me to think about applying analytical tools to mealtime.

    Anyway, some food for thought (no pun intended).

  • Ian

    I’m not sure about these new ratings systems but I like your mom’s simple approach. Personally I also look for low sugar first then add the sweetness back in with some fruit. I served up a cereal-only diet problem like this in a linear optimization class using Life, Smart Start and Cheerios. The objective was to minimize cost constraining sugar(at most 4.75g), fat (at most 1.75g), protein (at least 3.25g) and potassium(at least 130mg). Cheerios ends up dominating the mix.

  • Adam

    Great discussion. Oddly enough this reminds me of something I learned in Philosophy 101 (bear with me and I’ll show how). Life is pretty complicated, but we need simple rules to get through it. For instance, you are taught it is wrong to hit (slap/punch/kick). The rule is simple: Don’t hit. More to the point – you are not taught the following rule: “Don’t hit, unless you’re defending yourself in which case return sufficient force to keep alive, but not too much to kill, unless killing the attacker is the only way to ensure survival”. So even though an academic can develop a situation to show where any moral/ethical/societal rule may be the wrong thing to do – you need to start with a simple rule (that was the piece from Philosophy 101). Apply that thought to this issue, sure there are complicated explainations of how to eat healthy – but as it was mentioned – when you are in the cereal aisle at the grocery story you need a simple rule. The rule doesn’t have to be absolutely right every time – but it needs to be a balance of “healthy enough” and “simple enough.” Long story short: I like the Fiber rule.

  • David Smith

    There is a similar debate going on in the UK. Our Food Standards Agency has proposed a “traffic light” system showing that cetrain ingredients are low, medium or high. Some manufacturers have adopted the FSA system, others have refused to use it. Some supermarkets (and in the UK, the food retailing sector is dominated by a few large supermarket chains) have chosen their own systems.

    It doesn’t look as if the FSA has used any OR in their research; I would have thought that OR could have helped answer the question that doesn’t really get tackled “What information will people use, and how will they use it?”.

    It is possible to see some of the research reports that led to the FSA recommendations at http://www.food.gov.uk/foodlabelling/signposting/siognpostlabelresearch/alt
    I was surprised at one response that said 25% of consumers always read nutritional labels. The question which led to this response was badly phrased and it looks as if the response was badly uunderstood. Just watch the shoppers in your local shop; do 25% of them read every label?

  • Sanjay

    Nutrition Action Healthletter (published by Science in the Public Interest, see http://www.cspinet.org/nah/index.htm) recently had a roundup of cereals. The difference in fiber content between similar-sounding cereals can be amazing. It caused me to switch from a raisin bran “clusters” to a simple raisin bran.

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