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Ethical Food & Drink – Breakfast Cereals

There was a time when a bowl full of sugar-drenched cornflakes and cold milk was thought (at least by the breakfas‍‍‍t cereal manufacturers) to be the ideal start to the day. The high levels of salt and sweeteners in many of these products have since come under close scrutiny by healthy eating campaigners, and the companies themselves have been criticised for persistently targeting the least nutritious of these brands at children.

A heal‍‍‍thy start?

Breakfast cereals have long been the product of how food companies take perfect‍‍‍ly healthy food apart and put it back together again for profit.Inevitably, these foods lose much of their nutritional benefit in the process, which is why the companies have to put all those vitamins back in again at the end. They can then claim that these ‘added vitamins’ make their products healthier and more nutritious than any others.

Some companies make healthy eating claims about their products which are not, according to the Food Commission, substantiated with proper evidence. There was concern when Kellogg’s claimed that they were ‘serving the nation’s health’, while their Corn Flakes had been found to contain one of the highest salt levels on the cereals market. In July 2006, Which? published a report which found that over three quarters of the 275 cereals it tested rated ‘high’ for sugar content if measured according to the Food Standards Agency’s guidelines. Many products which were marketed as healthy contained alarmingly high levels of salt.

Sweet‍‍‍ening the kiddies

The children’s sector makes up about a third of the British market for breakfast cereals, and that is why many products such as Quaker’‍‍‍s Sugar Puffs are deliberately packaged to attract children. Such cereals can be high in salt as well as low in fibre. One food author has complained that with sugar accounting for up to half the weight of the ingredients, some products are ‘twice as sweet as a jam doughnut’.

It is for this reason that the Food Standards Agency has made efforts to introduce more transparent labelling on foods such as breakfast cereals. The system is becoming more familiar as it is adopted by the major supermarkets, and often involves the companies giving percentage values for each of the main ingredients in the cereal. These will usually include salt, fat and sugar, as well as recommended daily amounts of vitamins and minerals. 

Be warned though – the figures may be skewed according to what the company decides is a ‘recommended serving’ of their product. Suffice to say that 30g of cornflakes may be enough for a child, but the average adult might fill their bowl with twice that amount.

Oth‍‍‍er concerns

Pesticide residues are regularly detected in corn-based cereals even after processing, and research has shown that these residues find their way into 10-30 per cent of conventional breakfast cereals.

Until the tide turned against GM products, there was considerable doubt about the GM content of products made from soya or maize. Now Kellogg’s products are reportedly free from proteins from GM crops. Weetabix Ltd stated that no GM ingredient, additive or derivatives are used in any of its processes. Quaker Oats Ltd claimed that it does not use ingredients containing GM material in any Quaker product and that it had tested all lecithin used in its products to ensure freedom from any such material. The company also said it would only consider using ingredients derived from GM crops in the longer term if they had been fully approved by the relevant regulatory and scientific authorities.

A hea‍‍‍lthier start

There are now a number of companies offering organic and ethical breakfast cereals, such as cornflakes and bran flakes, which use reduced quantities of pesticides and are free from GM ingredients. Most of these are easiest to find in specialist health food shops, although some are slowly making their way into the mainstream retailers.

Many nutritionists believe that one of the best ways to start the day is not with cereal but a hearty bowl of porridge. Look for organic oats from one of the companies with a good Ethical Ranking on the tables above and below, heat with a little water or organic milk and serve with a sliced (fair trade) banana on top.

Key Research

Below you will find links to the key sections of our ethical research in Food & Drink:

‍‍‍We have created ethical rankings for the following brands, based on the activities of the company group (see above tables): Doves Far‍‍‍m, Infinity, Jordans, Mornflake, Kallo, Whole Earth, Weetabix, Kashi, Kellogg’s, Quaker Oats, Shredded Wheat


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