Most of us have grown up with the mantra that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Yet 56 per cent of us skips breakfast. The consequences can be dire for the body and the brain, especially in children. Recent research from Reading University found that kids who eat sugary snacks instead of proper breakfasts have the mental reaction times of 70-year-olds.
Instead of breakfast, an increasing number of us eat cereal bars, gulped down on public transport, in the car or at our desks. Cereal bar manufacturers have even coined a phrase for it: ‘deskfast’. Amazingly the ubiquitous cereal bar didn’t even exist until 1997. Since then it has grown into a £217 million a year business in the UK and a $2.2 billion a year busness in the US.
Three manufacturers – Kellogg, Weetabix and Cereal Partners (a joint venture between Nestlé and General Mills) – take in 65 per cent of all cereal bar sales. But it was Kellogg that launched the cereal bar as a food category in 1991 with the Nutri-Grain bar. Today Nutri-Grain is the market leader, with a 38 per cent share of the total cereal bar market.
If you are habitual ‘deskfaster’ you may have convinced yourself that a cereal bar is better than nothing. Think again. The box claims ‘wholesome ingredients in every bar’. Yet this fruit filled cereal bar is only around eight percent fruit and 34 per cent cereal. The rest is fillers – mostly sugar, fat and bulking agents – making this product closer to a confectionarey than a breakfast item.
Recently the campaigning group the Food Commission tested 18 cereal bar products and found that all of them were high in fats, sugars, or both. For reference purposes the UK Food Standards Agency defines a high sugar product as containing 10g/100g of product and a high fat product as containing 20g/100g. The Nutri-Grain cereal bar contains 31g/100g of sugar, and 13.5g/100g of fat.
A quick scan of the ingredients reveals not only a mind boggling array of different health depleting sugars, but also the ubiquitous ingredient ‘vegetable oil’. This term can be used to indicate any refined oil (other than olive oil), but is usually polyunsaturated corn or sunflower oil, which adds omega 6 fatty acids to a modern diet already overburdened with them. An overbalance of omega 6 (also known as linolenic acid) in relation to other essential fats has been linked to the development of cancer, immune system damage, hormone imbalance, heart disease and stroke. In short, with every bite of fatty junk food like this we are being polyunsaturated to death.
It gets worse. Greenpeace’s Shoppers Guide to GM survey, confirms that Kellog does not use GM ingredients in its breakfast cereals; but it’s Pop-Tarts, Rice Krispies Squares and Nutri-Grain bars may contain GM soya or maize derivatives. The Nutri-Grain bar also contains a handful of added vitamins and minerals – but it’s worth asking whether such concessions to ‘good health’ are added simply so that the cereal bar can actually be marketed as food rather than Polyfilla.
Cereals ([34 per cent] wheat flour, whole oats, wheat bran), glucose-fructose syrup, apple (eight per cent), sugar, vegetable oil, humectant (glycerol), maltodextrin, honey, dextrose, stabilisers (sodium alginate, cellulose, xanthan gum, carrageenan, locust bean gum), calcium carbonate, modified starch, dried skimmed milk, salt, flavourings, cinnamon, raising agent (potassium hydrogen carbonate), malic acid, calcium phosphate, citric acid, colour (caramel E150c), emulsifiers (E472e, E471, soy lecithin), wheat gluten, starch, niacin, iron, vitamin B6, riboflavin (B2), thiamine (B1), folic acid, vitamin B12
Vegetable oil: Fats act as binders and improve the ‘mouth feel’ of foods. The description is too vague to be helpful. Most vegetable oils in processed foods are based on corn or sunflower oil high in omega 6 fatty acids. Out of balance omega 6 consumption is linked to cancer, immune system damage, hormone imbalance, heart disease and stroke.
Glucose-fructose syrup: Sweetener, texturiser, emulsifier. Glucose syrup is generally known as corn syrup outside the US and Canada. Glucose syrup containing more than fi ve per cent fructose can be labelled ‘glucose-fructose syrup’ or ‘fructose glucose syrup’ depending on the proportions of glucose and fructose in the product. Theoretically this syrup could contain up to 50 per cent fructose, making it high fructose corn syrup – an appetite stimulant and major cause of obesity. Fructose also raises blood fat levels and leeches essential minerals such as copper, chromium and zinc from the body leading to deficiency diseases, immune system impairment and even insulin resistance.
Sugar, Honey, Dextrose: Sweeteners. All refined carbohydrates are metabolised quickly and raise blood sugar levels dramatically. The low that follows a sugar high is called reactive hypoglycaemia and is characterised by extreme fatigue and depression. Studies show that sugar intake dramatically reduces immune function for hours afterwards.
Sodium alginate, Carrageenan: Stabilisers. Alginates, derived from seaweed, have been shown to inhibit the absorption of nutrients in animals. Carageenan has the potential to cause small ulcers in the large intestine similar to those found in ulcerative colitis.
Modified starch: Bulking agent. Usually derived from corn, sorghum, wheat, potatoes, tapioca or arrowroot. It has no nutritional value and is high in calories, devoid of vitamins, minerals, proteins, trace elements and enzymes and incompletely digested by most people, especially those with gut problems.
Flavourings: Synthetic flavours. Flavourings can be mixes of several synthetic chemicals. They are essentially the same chemicals as perfumes and can thus be considered neurotoxins, allergens and potential carcinogens.
Mono- and diacetyl tartaric acid esters of mono- and diglycerides of fatty acids (E472e), Monoand diglycerides of fatty acids (E471), soy lecithin: Emulsifiers. Fatty acid esters are commonly used in junk foods to keep them from going stale. They are often derived from GM soya bean oil. Similarly soy lecithin may be GM derived. The consumption of GMderived foods and ingredients has not been proven safe.
NOTE: Space restrictions prohibit full referencing, however Behind the Label draws on data from published studies and reports in medical, scientific and trade journals, government sponsored databases (e.g. the US National Library of Medicine) and relevant Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS).
Cereal bars are poor meal replacements; try getting up earlier and eating some real food. If, having had a decent breakfast, you still feel the need to snack on a cereal bar, look for those that conform to organic standards. Some won’t be much lower in sugar or fat, but organic and alternative bars generally use fewer fillers and include a better mix of fat.
This article first appeared in the Ecologist April 2007