Could this be the end of cereal aisle showdowns between parents and sweet-toothed tots?
New reduced-sugar versions of popular children's breakfast cereals — everything from Froot Loops (search) to Frosted Flakes (search) — certainly sound promising, but consumers might want to hold off chiming in when Tony the Tiger says, "They're Gr-r-reat!"
Experts who reviewed the lower-sugar versions of six major brands of sweetened cereals at the request of The Associated Press found they have no significant nutritional advantages over their full-sugar counterparts.
Nutrition scientists at five universities found that while the new cereals do have less sugar, the calories, carbohydrates, fat, fiber and other nutrients are almost identical to the full-sugar cereals. That's because the cereal makers have replaced sugar with refined carbohydrates to preserve the crunch.
Officials at General Mills, Kellogg's and Post were unable to explain why the new cereals are a better choice, but noted they give consumers more options about how much sugar they eat.
Company officials said they were responding to parents' demands for products with less sugar and that they aren't claiming these cereals are any healthier than the originals.
That may not be obvious to consumers.
On some boxes, the lower-sugar claim is printed nearly as large as the product's name, and only by carefully comparing the nutrition labels of both versions of a cereal would a shopper know there is little difference between them.
"You're supposed to think it's healthy," said Marion Nestle, a nutrition professor at New York University and author of a book critical of the food industry's influence on public health. "This is about marketing. It is about nothing else. It is not about kids' health."
Only one cereal, General Mills' Cinnamon Toast Crunch, saw a true calorie reduction, dropping from 130 calories to 120 per three-fourths cup serving.
The reduced-sugar versions of Kellogg's Frosted Flakes and Froot Loops; General Mills' Cocoa Puffs and Trix; and Post's Fruity Pebbles all have the same number of calories per serving.
Blame the calorie woes on crunch. To preserve cereals' taste and texture, sugar is replaced with other carbs that have the same calories as sugar and are no better for you.
That's also why not even diabetics benefit from these cereals. The body treats all refined carbohydrates the same, whether they are sugars or grains, said Dr. Lilian Cheung of the Harvard School of Public Health.
"The changes don't buy you anything," she said. "From a health point of view, I really can't see the difference."
The new cereals were introduced last year as attention on the nation's obesity epidemic forced food companies to rethink marketing strategies.
The $6.2 billion cold breakfast cereal industry has good reason to pay attention. Nearly 90 percent of children ages 6-12 regularly eat cereal, according to consumer research firm NPD Group. Two-thirds of them eat sweetened cereals.
And while overall cereal sales have been sliding, sales of reduced-sugar cereals grew by almost 50 percent last year, accounting for nearly $357 million in sales, according to ACNielsen.
To create sweetened cereals with cross-generational appeal, Kellogg's simply cut the sugar, and its price for reduced-sugar Frosted Flakes is the same as the original.
However, Post and General Mills replaced some of the sugar with the pricier no-calorie sweetener Splenda, upping the cost per pound by as much as $1.12 over the full-sugar cereals.
Researchers at five universities — including Tufts, Harvard and Penn State — were hard-pressed to find advantages of the lower-sugar cereals. Even the cereal companies had a hard time.
At Post, maker of Half Sugar Fruity Pebbles, spokeswoman Abbe Serphos ultimately said the company is working to develop healthy products, a process that takes time.
Dr. Christina Economos at Tuft's Friedman School of Nutrition said one possible advantage is that less sugar might mean fewer cavities. But she said it's unclear whether the decrease (an average of 7 grams per serving) is enough.
Researchers cited several concerns, however, including that consumers will mistakenly assume less sugar means fewer calories and that the new cereals can help them watch their weight.
Christine Lowry, vice president of nutrition at Kellogg's, said her company never has marketed its lower-sugar cereals as having fewer calories, and encourages people to watch their calories and read nutrition labels.
Economos also was critical of the cereals that use Splenda, saying it keeps children's taste for sugar artificially high and can make it more difficult for parents to cut back.
Sheila Morris, a mother of three from Concord, N.H., has tried to do that. She recently bought her daughters reduced-sugar Trix. But she was dismayed to learn that it's no better than the full-sugar Froot Loops they also enjoy.
Though her girls, ages 7, 8 and 10, seemed to enjoy the new cereal, Morris said she won't buy it again.
"You assume it's healthier by the way it's presented," she said. "It's very misleading."