Count Chocula may have finally met his match: nutritionists.
Even as General Mills rolls out a record five Halloween-theme "Monster Cereals" this month, three nutritional experts are speaking out to warn that parents should think twice before carting the seasonal cereals home, adding to the Halloween season's sugar overload.
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At issue: too much sugar, too many dyes and not enough fiber. The cereals, which sell for about $2.50 a box, go by the kid-friendly names of Count Chocula, Franken Berry, Boo Berry, Frute Brute and Fruity Yummy Mummy.
"Amidst Halloween's tsunami of junk foods, kids certainly shouldn't be encouraged to consume even more sugar, refined flour and artificial colorings in the form of breakfast cereals," says Michael Jacobson, executive director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
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For major food companies such as General Mills, holidays are a unique opportunity. For the stagnant, $7.7 billion ready-to-eat cereal industry, Halloween-theme cereal is a way to create excitement. But in a nation increasingly concerned with nutrition, some seasonal promotions that have been popular for years are now getting second looks.
"Maybe they hope that moms will be happy the products aren't candy and snap up the boxes," says Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition at New York University. "But the cereals sure look like candy to me: sugar and marshmallows."
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General Mills executives declined to be interviewed. But Carla Vernon, marketing director for the General Mills "Big G" cereals line, says, in an e-mail, that 60% of the consumption of Count Chocula, Franken Berry and Boo Berry is by adults, not kids.
There is no direct advertising support for Monster cereals. But the promotion is getting at extra lift at Target stores, which is selling the cereal in special "retro" packaging.
Six years ago, General Mills reduced the amount of sugar in Monsters Cereals from 15 grams per serving to 9 grams. "So, a cereal like Count Chocula has 100 calories and 9 grams of sugar per serving," Vernon says in the e-mail. All the cereals contain at least 8 grams of whole grain per serving and are fortified with calcium and vitamin D.
While the nutritionists generally applaud the sugar reduction, they remain critics of the cereals.
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Jacobson, at CSPI, notes that nearly one-third of the cereal is still sugar, and much of the flour is refined - meaning the ingredients are low in fiber. Also, he says, the dyes "trigger hyperactivity in some children."
At a time when many food makers are responding to consumer concerns about empty calories and questionable ingredients, "this Halloween promotion looks like business as usual," laments Kelly Brownell, dean of the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University.
Nestle, the nutrition professor, advises parents who want their kids to eat healthy to abide by her general rule: Never buy a food product with a cartoon on the front.
By Bruce Horovitz, USA Today
Gannett / USA Today