We all know that kids' cereal has way too much sugar. But, especially if you try to buy the “healthier” varieties such as Wheaties, Raisin Bran or Bran Flakes, you may be exposing your kids to unhealthy amounts of added vitamins, too.

According to a new report, “millions of children are ingesting potentially unhealthy amounts” of vitamin A, zinc and niacin, with fortified breakfast cereals the leading source of the excessive intake because all three nutrients are added in amounts calculated for adults.
The excessive amounts of vitamins are due to “flawed government policies and food producers who fortify foods with extra nutrients in the hope of boosting sales,” according to the study by the Environmental Working Group, a Washington, D.C.-based health research and advocacy organization. “EWG compared the prevalence of vitamin and mineral insufficiency among Americans with fortification levels in two of the most commonly fortified foods, ready-to-eat breakfast cereals and snack bars,” the report states. “It reveals a clear disconnect between what Americans actually need and the amounts found in the most heavily fortified foods.”

The report states that routinely ingesting too much vitamin A can, over time, lead to health issues such as liver damage, skeletal abnormalities, peeling skin, brittle nails and hair loss. Taking too much vitamin A during pregnancy can result in developmental abnormalities in the fetus. Too much zinc can impair copper absorption and negatively affect red and white blood cells and immune function. Too much niacin can lead to rashes, nausea and vomiting.

This is a real problem. When you add together food and vitamin supplements, the report calculates that more than 10 million American children are getting too much vitamin A; more than 13 million are getting too much zinc; and nearly 5 million get too much niacin.

The problem is that recommended percent daily values for nutrition content that appear on food labels are based on the needs of adults – even for kids' cereal. And it's not just cereal – fortified snack and energy bars and enriched milk and bread pose issues for kids, too. (Among the most-fortified snack bars are Balance, Kind and Marathon bars.) 

Although the Food and Drug Administration is currently in the process updating nutrition labels that appear on most food packages, none of the proposed changes address the issue of over-consumption of fortified micronutrients, or that the recommended percent daily values are those for adults.

“The current nutrition labeling system puts children's health at risk and is in dire need of reform,” the EWG report says.

EWG's analysis of nutrition facts labels for 1,556 breakfast cereals and 1,025 snack and energy bars found:

* 114 cereals fortified with 30% or more of the adult daily value for vitamin A, zinc and/or niacin.

* 27 snack and energy bars fortified with 50% or more of the adult daily value for at least one of the three nutrients.

* 23 cereals with added fortification of one or more of the nutrients in amounts “much greater” than the levels deemed safe for children age 8 and younger by the Institute of Medicine.

Credit: Flickr/Chelsea Nesvig

Credit: Flickr/Chelsea Nesvig

To reduce overexposure, the EWG recommends that parents limit the fortified cereals and other foods kids eat to those that contain no more than 20% to 25% of the adult daily value for vitamin A, zinc and niacin. Cereals with the highest added nutrient levels included Kellogg's Cocoa Krispies and General Mills Total Raisin Brain. Even Cheerios, heavily marketed to parents, contains 30% of the DV for zinc and 35% for niacin. Many Cap'n Crunch varieties hit over the 30% mark for those nutrients as well. Some hot cereals, such as Maypo Instant Maple Oatmeal and Cream of Wheat Original, were also over-fortified for children. (For the complete list of products, click here.)

The FDA, in a statement, said that proposed daily values for infants (7-12 months) and young children (1-3 years) are being considered, but not for 4-8-year-olds “because they consume the same foods as the general population” and the FDA “is not aware of foods that are sold specifically for this age group.”

“it is critical that the FDA take seriously the question of how food manufacturers may misuse food fortification guidelines and nutrient content claims to sell more products, particularly those of little nutritional value,” the EWG says in its report.

Maybe just have toast.

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