On most hectic weekday mornings, a bowl of cereal may be all that many parents have the time to offer — not to mention it’s often one of the only breakfasts many finicky kids will eat without a fuss.
While a new study published by the Environmental Working Group reports children might be consuming too many vitamins from fortified cereals, Cleveland Clinic Children’s dietitian Jennifer Willoughby says parents can still safely rely on cereal as a healthy pick for the most important meal of the day. Here’s why:
Breaking down the findings
The Environmental Working Group scrutinized the nutrition labels of 1,500 breakfast cereals. They concluded 114 of these include hefty doses of vitamin A, zinc and/or niacin, and could potentially put children at risk for getting too much of these nutrients.
The group says the “daily values” you see on the back of the boxes are flawed because they are based on recommendations for adults and the Food and Drug Administration hasn’t updated them since 1968.
EWG also identified 23 “excessively fortified” cereals, or those that would provide children with more than the Institute of Medicine’s recommended doses of key nutrients in just one serving. While the vast majority of these were varieties of bran flakes not likely popular among children, a few — such as Kellogg’s Cocoa Krispies with their Snap, Crackle and Pop iconic mascots — are marketed directly to kids.
And just what do too many vitamins and minerals do? Gastrointestinal upset is the most likely short-term problem. In the long run, overexposure in certain cases (vitamin A, zinc and niacin, in particular) can lead to liver and skeletal damage and a weakened immune system.
Why you don’t need to stress
Willoughby says she isn’t overly concerned about the study’s findings. Here’s why: The study focused on children ages 4 to 8. The EWG reports that children may be at risk for getting too many vitamins because kids tend to eat more than one serving (or 2.5 servings according to the study) of cereal in one sitting.
“With ¾ of a cup as a serving, that’s saying these kids would eat two and a quarter cups of cereal,” she notes. “This should not be a typical intake for a 4- to 8-year-old. That portion size would be rare in children of a healthy weight. Most children that age would eat a half cup of cereal.” The Institute of Medicine nutritional guidelines, she adds, are higher for older children and teenagers who may be gobbling down a heaping bowl or two in the morning or after school.
“It’s kind of a tricky study. I think it’s making people more worried than they need to be,” she says. “I would hate to see parents whose kids are at a healthy weight restricting their cereal intake because of this.”
Follow these 3 tips
Instead, Willoughby recommends parents follow these three tips to ensure their children are eating a healthy diet and not getting too many vitamins:
1. Focus on age-appropriate serving sizes. Make sure your kids are at a healthy weight and serve them appropriate portions (not overdoing carbohydrates and starches). Willoughby recommends parents follow the recommendations at choosemyplate.gov.
2. Mix things up. “If your kids are eating the same thing every single day, they could be at risk for either toxicity or deficiency,” Willoughby notes. So, if your kid does have cereal — and even overdo it — the next day, serve oatmeal or whole-grain waffles. Variety is the key.
3. Rethink the multivitamin. The biggest threat to kids getting too many vitamins and minerals, Willoughby says, is actually from supplements. “If your kid is eating a healthy, balanced diet, you don’t need to give them a multivitamin,” she says. “If they’re a really picky eater, vitamins are a good insurance policy. But make sure they are taking the recommended dose.”