When we think of kids’ breakfast in America, we tend to think of the icons we grew up with: Cap’n Crunch, Tony the Tiger and Count Dracula. This kind of marketing has encouraged kids to demand cereal loaded with sugar and has also eroded our concept of what comprises a healthy breakfast. Cold cereals can dominate an entire aisle in your supermarket, but what’s hiding in those cereals can be doing damage to your child.

Like our expose on peanut butter and what’s really in your orange juice, Mamavation took a look at some of the most toxic ingredients hiding in your child’s breakfast cereal:

Toxic Ingredients in Your Kid’s Cereal

  • Sugar: Many kids’ cereals are high in sugar or high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), which is also called corn syrup or corn sugar. Generally, if you see “sugar” of any kind in non-organic or GMO cereal, very likely it’s HFCS.
  • GMOs: Most conventional cereals contain sugar and corn made from GMO products. Note that these same manufacturers create GMO free cereals for distribution overseas.
  • Hydrogenated Oils: Partially hydrogenated oils contain trans fats, which, as we’ve discussed before, are linked to cancer, heart disease and immune problems. Fully hydrogenated oils are full of saturated fat. In addition, some companies will label partially hydrogenated oils as just “hydrogenated oils,” so you can’t be sure if there is trans fat in the product. (If there is less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving, companies are allowed to write “0 grams of trans fat.”)
  • BHA: Another GRAS additive, BHA has been linked to cancer in some studies. The National Institutes of Health’s National Toxicology Programs has concluded that it can be “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen.” Both BHA and BHT are said to be at low enough levels to be safe for consumption by the FDA.
  • Soy Lecithin: Derived from GMO soy, this additive often contains toxins. According to The Cornucopia Institute, soy lecithin processing often involves hexane, and, though it is removed, trace amounts can be left behind. That residue is unregulated by the FDA even though it is listed by that organization as a potential carcinogen and neurotoxin
  • Annatto: This natural flavoring is now entering into controversy. According to WebMD, it can affect blood sugar levels so if your child has diabetes, please be aware of that. It also has been linked with allergies, and the Food Intolerance Network has gotten reports linking it to headaches and irritability. If you have a sensitive eater or a child prone to allergies, you may want to avoid this flavoring.
  • BHT: Found in many cereals, this food is classified by U.S. law as “GRAS” – “generally recommended as safe” – by the FDA. This means that experts consider them safe and they are approved as food additives without additional testing of their effects. In 2014, the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), an environmental safety watchdog group, released “Generally Recognized as Secret: Chemicals Added to Food in the U.S. (PDF).” This report found loopholes in the GRAS classification, including research data coming from the company themselves and expert opinions that disregarded evidence of allergic reactions, that compromise the real safety of GRAS additives. BHT is also a chemical additive and may be a possible ADHD trigger.

Why You Should Also Care About Processing

Many cereals are manufactured using something called the “extrusion process.” This exposes the grains to high levels of heat and pressure, which changes the nature of the grain, effectively turning it into processed food. FoodMatters.com quotes biochemist Paul Stitt, who notes that this process destroys most of the grains’ natural nutrients. This is why many cereals are fortified, although extrusion can destroy those added nutrients as well.

In addition, the proteins in extruded grains are fundamentally altered, leaving a product that may be toxic. According to “Dirty Secrets of the Food Processing Industry,” two known but unpublished experiments exist testing breakfast cereal on lab rats exist; in both studies, the rats eating breakfast cereal and water died before rats that were either not fed at all or fed the cardboard cereal box and water. One published study showed that these rogue proteins could interact with “each other and other components, forming new compounds that are foreign to the human body.”

The real problem with that the extrusion process is not just the lack of recent research on its effect on proteins, but that organic cereals as well as conventional brands often employ this method.

The Trouble with Fortified Foods

Many cereals try to cover up their high sugar content with fortification, that is, adding back in nutrients after-the fact. As mentioned, extrusion can delete these nutrients. The second problem with fortified foods is that some can contain too many nutrients, which can actually be toxic for your child. The Environmental Working Group did a survey of major brand cereals in 2014 and found that “one serving would over expose children to” zinc, niacin and vitamin A. While many of those brands were geared towards adults, Kellogg’s Cocoa Krispies and Chocolate Krave were in the high Vitamin A list.

Controversial Ingredient

You may have heard the claims about “antifreeze” being found in cereal. I did a little digging on this topic recently and discovered that the culprit – trisodium phosphate (TSP) – often found in cereal, has gotten a bad rap. According to LiveStrong, this additive affects color, extrusion and adds phosphorus. Antifreeze contains trisodium phosphate powder used in chemicals like paint thinner and antifreeze and acts as a cleaning agent.

Sounds bad, right? So I hopped over to EWG’s website and entered the words. It turns out that TSP is an inorganic salt. EWG gives it a score of “0” on their toxicity scale and lists no known hazard whatsoever. The PAN Pesticides Database also lists this chemical, warning “avoid all contact,” yet there is no conclusive data on that same database of why it is toxic. Perhaps more studies need to be done on this chemical. You should know that it is a chelating agent and a pH adjuster, in case that affects anyone in your household. I’ve listed the top 10 toxic kid cereals that contain this ingredient, so you can make your own decision about TSP.

Top 10 Toxic Kid Cereals

When it came to the listing “most toxic” cereals, we faced a challenge. Should we list those with the most sugar? The most dangerous levels of vitamin? Dyes? BHT? We could go on forever, but I checked some current ingredients and believe these are some of the worst offenders and why. All of these use extrusion processing, contain GMOs and are fortified. Sugars listed are the amount for 1 serving size in grams.

  1. Kellogg’s Fruit Loops: Hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, annatto, BHT, artificial dyes including red #40, 12g of sugar. Fruit Loops with Marshmallows contains 14g.
  2. Kellogg’s Corn Pops: Hydrogenated coconut and soybean oil, annatto, BHT, 9g of sugar.
  3. Kellogg’s Apple Jacks: Partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, artificial dyes including red #40, BHT, 12g of sugar.
  4. Kellogg’s Honey Smacks: Hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, soy lecithin, BHT and topping our list with a whopping 15g of sugar.
  5. General Mills Lucky Charms: Corn syrup, trisodium phosphate, artificial dyes including red #40, artificial flavor, 10g of sugar.
  6. General Mills Boo Berry/Count Chocula/Franken Berry: Sugar, dextrose and corn syrup, canola oil, BHT, trisodium phosphate, artificial dyes including red #40, artificial flavor, 9g of sugar.
  7. General Mills Trix: Corn syrup, BHT, trisodium phosphate, artificial dyes including red #40, 12g of sugar.
  8. Post Foods Fruity Pebbles: Hydrogenated vegetable oil, artificial dyes including red #40, artificial flavor, BHA, 9g of sugar.
  9. Cap’N Crunch CrunchBerries: Artificial flavor, artificial dyes including red #40, BHT, 11g of sugar. OOPS! All Berries contains 15g of sugar.
  10. Post Golden Crisps: Sugar, corn syrup. I had to add this one even though it’s not full of too many toxins because of the sugar content: a whopping 14g per serving!

These are some of the worst offenders and I could have kept going. There were a few brands I wasn’t sure if they still made, like Reese’s Puffs – if they do, please avoid it! The rule, however, is simple: if it’s covered in sugar or has a “flavor” (chocolate, cinnamon, apple), it’s probably very high in sugar. If it’s colored, it most likely contains artificial dyes, especially red #40, which is linked to ADHD. And if it’s a conventional brand, it most likely has additives and artificial flavors.

Cereals: which to avoid, which to buy

For healthy children, the American Heart Association recommends a daily sugar intake of no more than 16.7g per day for preschoolers, 12.5g per day for children ages 4-8 and tweens and teens 21-33g . Naturally, these amounts are subject to their daily caloric intake. As you can see, 1 serving size bowl of these top 10 toxic kid cereals can contain more than all their sugar for the day – and kids commonly pour more in their bowl than the recommended serving.

Top 10 Kid-Friendly Cereals to Try

We couldn’t complete this expose without some healthy recommendations. I had a hard time finding any company that did not 100% use extrusion, although I read that Nature’s Path doesn’t use it in all their products. That said, we all know that breakfast cereal has to be kid-friendly. You may be lucky enough to have a child who’ll sit down to a bowl of muesli, but I don’t know any kids like that myself!

Here are my picks for organic brands that have kid-friendly cereals, including replacement cereals for Corn Flakes, Frosted Flakes, Cheerios and Rice Krispies, as well as puffed rice and a berry option. The cereals with flavor tend to have higher sugar content but still lower than any of the conventional brands listed above. Sugars listed are the amount for 1 serving size in grams.

  1. Nature’s Path Fruit Juice Sweetened Corn Flakes: USDA organic and Non-GMO Project certified, they are also gluten free. Contains 3g of sugar.
  2. Nature’s Path Honey’d Corn Flakes: USDA organic and Non-GMO Project certified, they are also gluten free. Contains 4g of sugar.
  3. Nature’s Path Whole O’s: USDA organic and Non-GMO Project certified, they are also gluten free. Contains 4g of sugar.
  4. Envirokidz Peanut Butter Panda Puffs: USDA organic and Non-GMO Project certified, they are also gluten free. Contains 7g of sugar.
  5. Envirokidz Amazon Flakes: USDA organic and Non-GMO Project certified, gluten free and vegan, 6g of sugar.
  6. Erewhon Organic Corn Flakes: USDA organic and Non-GMO Project certified, these are also certified gluten free and are listed at “0” grams of sugar. Also available in Mixed Berry flavor, which contains 2g of sugar.
  7. Erewhon Crispy Brown Rice: USDA Organic and Non-GMO Project certified, these are also gluten free certified. Contain less than 1g of sugar.
  8. Barbara’s Original Puffins: Project Non-GMO certified, this cereal is wheat-free and only contains 5g of sugar.
  9. Cinnamon Puffins: Project Non-GMO certified, this cereal is vegan and has 6g of sugar.
  10. Snackimals Vanilla Blast: USDA Organic and Project Non-GMO certified, this cereal is vegan and has 7g of sugar.

A Better Breakfast

While cereal is what most American families think of as the best fast and easy breakfast, there are healthier options even if your family is on the go every morning. Cereal can be served with nuts or unsweetened almond milk for protein and topped with fruit that has a lower glycemic index. You should also consider finding alternatives to cold cereal for your child’s breakfast. When my kids had to go gluten and dairy free, I found it much easier to switch to cooked meals such as scrambled eggs, gluten free French toast or peanut butter banana muffins, providing my kids with natural sources of protein to start their day.

Another healthy option includes oatmeal – look for organic brands and make it fresh, rather than serving it out of a packet. If you are pressed for time, try non-GMO yogurt topped with nuts or seeds and low sugar fruit. Or consider smoothies made with baby spinach, chia seeds and frozen fruit, like bananas or strawberries. (You can also drop in a dollop of nut butter but watch the sugar.)

Looking to find it all in one place? You can shop for your family at Thrive Market for approved cereals, oatmeal and other breakfast items at prices that are 30-50% off retail. Let’s ditch the standard American breakfast of toxic kid cereals and create meals that are healthier, lower in sugar and give our kids the boost they need to succeed every day!

Disclosure: Bookieboo LLC has an affiliate relationship with Thrive Market. Bookieboo has also worked with numerous brands in the natural space, including Nature’s Path.

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Leah Segedie is the Founder of Mamavation and Bookieboo, a blogger network. After losing over 100 lbs, she started a career mentoring women in health and since then has assisted in over 3,500 lbs lost via the Mamavation community. Leah and her work has been mentioned in Ladies Home Journal, Reader's Digest, Fitness, Women's Day, CNN, ABC, CBS, the O'Reilly Factor, AOL, Entrepreneur, and Yahoo to name a few. She works from home in her fuzzy slippers.
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