THE makers of children’s cereal Cheerios and other popular brands have promised to slash the amount of salt and sugar in their products.
Nestle and General Mills have been in a joint venture since 1990 to sell Nestle-brand cereals such as Cheerios in more than 140 countries, markets that account for about half total global cereal sales of some €19 billion.
They say they will reformulate 20 cereal brands popular with children and teenagers by 2015, boosting wholegrains and calcium and aiming for average reductions of 24pc in sugar and 12pc in sodium.
The reformulation will affect about 5.3 billion portions of cereals sold each year.
The 50/50 joint venture called Cereal Partners Worldwide (CPW) is the second-biggest breakfast cereal producer after Kellogg Co but is Europe's leading manufacturer of children's cereal. It had sales of 1.9 billion Swiss francs (€1.54b) in 2011.
CPW Chief Executive Jeffrey Harmening said the plan builds on efforts started in 2003 to improve the nutritional profile of cereals. The group has cut almost 900 tonnes of salt and more than 9,000 tonnes of sugar from its recipes since then.
"A certain number of moms don't want their kids to have as much sugar as they do right now, so that is a barrier for some to purchasing breakfast cereal," Harmening told Reuters at CPW's new global innovation centre in the Swiss town of Orbe.
The move comes as food and beverage companies seek to preempt tougher regulation due to the global obesity epidemic by offering healthier products or smaller portions.
The World Health Organisation estimated there were over 42 million overweight children under the age of five in 2010. It says obesity in Europe is already responsible for up to 8pc of health costs and up to 13pc of deaths.
HIGH IN SUGAR
A study this year by British consumer magazine Which? found that 32 of the 50 top-selling cereals were high in sugar, with almost all those aimed at children - including Cheerios - recording levels of sugar similar to chocolate biscuits.
However it did say that most cereals had significantly lower levels of salt than a few years ago and judged Nestle's Shredded Wheat the healthiest, with low levels of sugar, fat and salt.
Malcolm Clark, coordinator of the Children's Food Campaign of Britain's Sustain charity, which seeks to protect children from junk food marketing, was sceptical about the Nestle move.
"Reformulating is great, but the question is how they then talk about their products. They can't talk about them being healthy. They will be mildly less unhealthy than they were before," he said.
Harmening defended breakfast cereals as a low-calorie, high-nutrition option and said children who eat them tend to have a lower body mass index than those who do not.
Kellogg - which makes some of the sweetest cereals according to several surveys - has also reformulated some brands in recent years to cut sugar, as has General Mills for the cereals it produces for the North American market.
"There is a fundamental difference between what the food industry thinks is improvement and what the public health community thinks is improvement," said Dr Jennifer Harris, director of marketing initiatives at the Rudd Center.