When cereals and snack bars become dangerous

shutterstock_200982983I had cereal from a box almost every morning growing up. It’s convenient, tasty (especially with miniature marshmallows) and, once you add your milk, you’ve got pretty much a complete meal with calcium, protein, fiber, minerals and vitamins.

Mom always had us eating a bit of fresh fruit, too, to cover all the nutritional basis.


I remember as a young adult, environmentalist David Suzuki coming to speak in my home town, and hearing him talk about all that boxed cereal as having the food value of cardboard.

Worse than that, a new report says many of those popular cereals are likely overdosing us with excessive vitamins and minerals. So when you think the health claims, such as “original antioxidants” and “extra vitamin A,” on the boxes are delivering extra goodness that your body needs, you’d be wrong. In fact, too much of a good thing can set you up for liver damage, hair loss, and osteoporosis and hip fracture, to name a few of the risks.

The report, “How Much is Too Much?,” was released by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a national environmental health research and advocacy group. It comes as a wake-up call to reach for something other than processed cereal to start your day or pick. The EWG has found that cereals and snack bars that are fortified with extra vitamins and minerals – to appeal to health-conscious consumers – may be harmful to your health.

While most Americans don’t get enough calcium, vitamin D and E, for example, over-consuming certain vitamins and minerals for a long period of time can have negative health implications, particularly for kids because food labels list daily requirements for adults per food serving, according to the report.

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Renee Sharp, EWG’s director of toxics research, says, “Manufacturers use vitamin and mineral fortification to sell their products, adding amounts in excess of what people need and more than might be prudent for young children to consume.”

EWG focused on three nutrients that are regularly consumed in excess: Vitamin A, zinc, and niacin. Researchers looked at more than 1,550 cereals and 1,000 snack bars. They found 114 cereals fortified with 30 percent or more of the adult Daily Value for vitamin A, zinc or niacin. They include General Mills Total Raisin Bran, General Mills Wheaties Fuel, Kellogg’s Cocoa Krispies and Kellogg’s Krave, among others.

The EWG also found that 27 commonly available brands of snack bars, such as Balance Bars, Kind bars and Marathon bars, were fortified with 50 percent or more of the adult Daily Value of at least one of these nutrients.

So if you had a serving of cereal in the morning and a snack bar in the afternoon, you’ve already consumed at least 80 percent of the recommended amount of some nutrients. What about the rest of your food you’re eating in any given day?

Nutrient overload, over time, might be riskier than you think.

Studies have suggested a number of illnesses associated with excessive intake of these nutrients. The EWG has outlined the effects of over-consumption as follows:

Vitamin A: Liver damage, brittle nails, hair loss, skeletal abnormalities, osteoporosis and hip fracture (in older adults), and developmental abnormalities (of the fetus)

Zinc:Impaired copper absorption, anemia, changes in red and white blood cells, impaired immune function

Niacin: Skin reactions (flushing, rash), nausea, liver toxicity.

Part of the problem is the intake recommendations for food nutrients. You think you’re being smart by reading the nutrition labels closely before you make a purchase, but those labels may be misleading. EWG says these recommendations, which were calculated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1968, are out of date.

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“Those values were set at a time when people were worried about nutrient deficiencies,” Sharp told Mother Jones in June. “Scientists just hadn’t done as much research on the potential pitfalls of over-consuming nutrients. Things have changed.”

Take zinc, for example, as reported by Mother Jones: The FDA recommends 15 milligrams of zinc per day for adults and 8 milligrams per day for kids under five. But food packaging still says that adults should consume 20 milligrams per day, based on Nutrition Facts labels that have remained consistent since the 1960s.

FDA is now accepting comments on proposed changes to the Nutrition Facts labels, which is step in the right direction.

I think we have to be smart consumers. We need to be aware of slick food marketing strategies. Nutrient fortification suggests that getting more nutrients means we’re getting a more nutritious food, but that’s not the case.

These are still processed foods, and EWG’s report points out the pitfalls of excessive nutrient consumption.


What we do know for sure is that whole foods provide us with the nutrient types and amounts for best nutrition and least risk. Fresh fruits, vegetables, grains, plant and animal proteins are always a better choice for your health.

It should come as no surprise that a bowl of oatmeal – which you make yourself from old fashioned rolled oats – with added berries, honey and a few nuts is a healthy morning meal.

Karen Hawthorne is managing editor at Health eTalk and BelMarraHealth.com. Karen has worked for the National Post, Postmedia News, CBC Radio Vancouver, the Edmonton Journal, the Kitchener-Waterloo Record and the Cobourg Daily Star, reporting on health news and lifestyle trends for over 15 years.