Cereal Companies Cut Artificial Ingredients—Is Sugar Next?

Last Update: April 27, 2023

Anyone who has stared deeply into a bowl of Lucky Charms will acknowledge that while sinfully tasty, the cereal is anything but “natural.”

The yellow moon and purple heart “marshmallows” are a dead giveaway. Nobody eats Lucky Charms thinking they’re not ingesting copious amounts of artificial colors and ingredients. Until now.

On Monday, General Mills joined five other food companies in announcing that they would eliminate artificial flavors and colors from their cereals, including Lucky Charms. General Mills will replace the artificial dyes and ingredients found in 40 percent of its cereal line with natural coloring and ingredients from sources like vegetables. Currently, many of the 3,000 chemicals that appear in our food supply come from petroleum, insects, wood shavings, and other undesirable sources—some of which have been linked to a number of potential risks, including obesity and even hyperactivity in children.

“We’re simply listening to consumers and these ingredients are not what people are looking for in their cereal today,” wrote Jim Murphy on the company’s website Monday.

In the case of Lucky Charms, specifically, company officials told NPR’s The Salt blog that the cereal’s less artificial recipe will take more time to reformulate because of those pesky marshmallows. General Mills is giving itself until the end of 2016 to introduce the new and nutritionally improved Lucky Charms cereal.

This move is certainly a step in the right direction. But it may be a diversion, intentional or not, from the real problem with most breakfast cereals. It’s sugar, which comprises as much as a third of each serving—and it’s even more outrageous in cereals marketed to kids.

In Lucky Charms, there are 10 grams of sugar in every 27-gram serving. In other words, the sweet stuff—both cane sugar and corn syrup—comprises 37 percent of the cereal.

Despite pledges in the last five years from several companies (including General Mills) to reduce sugar content in its cereals, progress has been minimal: Most cereals are still loaded with sugar. A 2014 Environmental Working Group analysis of more than 1,500 cereals found “that most pack in so much sugar that someone eating an average serving of a typical children’s cereal would consume more than 10 pounds of sugar a year from that source alone.” And many of these companies are still marketing these sugar bombs directly to children through ads during kids’ TV programming and websites with games, despite promises by some to scale back that practice.

This is wrong. Sugar may even be a poison, after all.

With 32 percent of American children either overweight or obese, many of them also staring down serious long-term diet-related diseases as well, a gradual elimination of artificial ingredients is not enough. Risking a loss of profits, cereal makers should dramatically scale back the amount of sugar they put in most cereals. The federal government should even consider capping the amount of added sugar per serving at 5 grams—still plenty sweet.

At this point in our nation’s health history, we’re beyond questions about whether consumers should forgo taste or even whether businesses should be forced to cut profits. For cereal makers to do anything but dramatically reduce the sugar they’re pouring into our kids’ bowls is, well, to entrust our futures to blind luck.

Photo credit: Chris Metcalf via Flickr

This article is related to:

Healthy Families, Natural Grocers, Sugar

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Steve Holt

Steve Holt's stories about food, nutrition and food politics are found at Civil Eats,, Boston Magazine, and elsewhere. He's been featured in the Best Food Writing anthology. Follow his tweets and Instagrams @thebostonwriter.

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