Academics’ criticism of breakfast cereals irresponsible

3 August 2015

A claim by university academics that breakfast cereal is associated with obesity and among “the unhealthiest food available” in New Zealand supermarkets is incorrect and irresponsible, says the NZ Food & Grocery Council.

The claim was made recently by researchers from Auckland University’s School of Population Health.

Food & Grocery Council Chief Executive Katherine Rich says further analysis of the research, which made the claim that 83% of packaged goods were unhealthy, has uncovered flaws in the methodology, factual errors and unreasonable conclusions.

“The methods used to classify foods across unrelated food categories are inappropriate and the expectations about what supermarkets offer New Zealanders are highly unrealistic.

“The report creates the impression that ‘ultra-processed’ foods are automatically ‘bad’ foods, which is completely false.  According to the report, ultra-processed foods include products like cheese, yoghurt, frozen and canned vegetables, bread, coffee, tea, breakfast cereals, pasta, rice meals, fish pies, breakfast spreads like Marmite, Vegemite and jams, and nuts and fruit mixes.

“These are foods that many people regard as part of a balanced diet, yet this report creates the impression they are among the unhealthiest available.

“But it’s the report’s references to breakfast cereals that are the most wrong, and not just because of the embarrassing gaffe where a small organics beverage company is listed in the report as New Zealand’s top breakfast cereal manufacturer with 51 products instead of market leader Sanitarium.   

“The methodology flaws in this study affect the breakfast cereal category the most. When the researchers made the arbitrary decision to ignore fruit, nuts and fibre information (used in a genuine Nutrient Profiling Scoring Criterion system to give foods ‘good’ points) of course breakfast cereals would get lower scores.

“The report makes the crazy claim that breakfast cereals are ‘most likely to be adversely associated with non-communicable diseases’, alongside confectionery and soft drinks. This is completely false. The academic citation used to back the claim of this so-called adverse association between breakfast cereals and non-communicable diseases is a research paper that does not even mention breakfast cereals at all.  Erroneous citations are an academic ‘no-no’.

“It needs to be remembered that many staple foods are manufactured in some way to make them edible.  It would be very hard to eat breakfast cereal if it wasn’t processed to some degree. Even basic foods such as rolled oats, cornflakes, Weet-Bix and muesli need to have some level of processing, but to call them ‘ultra-processed’ and unhealthy because of that is plainly ludicrous.

“A recent systematic review of academic literature was published last year in Advances in Nutrition entitled ‘The Benefits of Cereal Consumption’. It emphasised the role of breakfast cereal as an important part of a balanced diet and that eating a regular breakfast helps reduce obesity and maintain weight. 

“Published by the American Society for Nutrition, the review assessed the impact of breakfast cereal on healthy diets, body weight, obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and bowel health. Its key findings included:

  • Breakfast cereal eaters have more nutritious diets, which are higher in vitamins and minerals and have a greater likelihood of meeting recommended nutrient intakes than people who eat other options, or who have no breakfast at all.
  • Regularly eating cereal is associated with a lower BMI and a 12 per cent lower risk of being overweight or obese.
  • Children who consume cereal have no difference in their overall daily energy intake, total sugars intake or risk of overweight or obesity.
  • Cereal eaters do not have higher sodium intakes than non-cereal eaters.
  • Cereals high in soluble fibre (such as oat, barley or psyllium) help lower total and LDL cholesterol.
  • Regularly eating wholegrain and high-fibre cereal is associated with reduced risk of type 2 diabetes (by 24 per cent) and cardiovascular disease (by 20-28 per cent).
  • Eating breakfast cereal as a meal or snack replacement can assist with weight loss in adults.

“For many, many decades, people have been brought up being told breakfast is a vital meal and now we have totally misleading reports like this that could undo a lot of the work around that without a shred of evidence.”

To see the review ‘The Benefits of Breakfast Cereal Consumption’ go to the Advances in Nutrition website here.