General Mills steps down sugar in kids' cereals

NEW YORK (Reuters) - General Mills Inc is lowering the amount of sugar in its children’s breakfast cereals to no more than 10 grams per serving from 11 grams a year ago, the latest move from a U.S. foodmaker to address childhood obesity.

General Mills cereals are displayed on a market's shelf in New York, March 24, 2010. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

The growing problem of obesity is leading to more children having adult health problems, such as diabetes or high cholesterol.

The step-down in sugar by General Mills, the maker of Lucky Charms, Cocoa Puffs and Trix cereals, is a move closer to its year-old goal to reduce to single-digit levels the number of grams of sugar per serving in all of its cereals advertised to children under 12.

General Mills, which also sells Progresso soup and Yoplait yogurt, said it must reduce sugar in tiny, incremental steps, lest consumers notice the difference and stop buying.

“Consumers have a very keen idea of what these cereals ought to taste like and if you change the taste dramatically or suddenly, they’ll walk away from the brand,” said Jeff Harmening, president of General Mills’ Big G cereal division, in an interview.

“We will not make changes if it reduces the taste of the product,” he said.

As of December 31, all shipments of the company’s 11 cereals advertised to children will have 10 grams or less, General Mills said.

Too much sugar not only contributes to obesity, but also is a key culprit in diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke, according to the American Heart Association, which recommends that women eat no more than 25 grams of added processed sugar a day, and men no more than 37.5 grams.

Packaged food and beverage companies face mounting pressure to make their products healthier as recently passed U.S. health reform legislation shifts the nation’s focus to ways to prevent disease, instead of simply treating it. Many companies have responded by cutting levels of sugar, sodium and fat in their products.

In 2007, General Mills committed to a ceiling of 12 grams of sugar per serving for cereals advertised to children under 12, which also include Honey Nut Cheerios and Cinnamon Toast Crunch. It said that for products with more sugar than that, such as Count Chocula, it would no longer advertise them to that audience.

Harmening declined to say where in the single-digit range the cereals would eventually end up, though he said he would feel victorious once they all reach 9 grams or lower.

General Mills’ brands targeted to adults often have less sugar. For example, Fiber One has zero grams, Cheerios have 1 gram and Corn Chex has 3 grams of sugar per serving.