(NaturalNews) Most likely in response to a raft of negative press regarding high-sugar content products, as well as numerous reports detailing the nation's worsening obesity epidemic, food giants Nestle SA and General Mills, Inc. have announced they will cut both sugar and salt in the children's breakfast cereals they market jointly outside North America, Reuters reported.
The companies have been involved in their joint cereal venture since 1990, selling Nestle-brand cereals like Cheerios in more than 140 countries outside the U.S. and Canada. Those markets account for some 50 percent of global cereal sales, amounting to about $25 billion.
The food makers said they will reformulate 20 cereal brands that are popular with smaller children and teenagers by 2015, "boosting whole grains and calcium and aiming for average reductions of 24 percent in sugar and 12 percent in sodium," said Reuters, noting that the changes will affect about 5.3 billion portions of cereal sold annually.
The partnership, called Cereal Partners Worldwide (CPW), is the second-largest breakfast cereal producer after Kellogg Co., but it is Europe's leading maker of cereal, with sales of about $2 billion in 2011.
Addressing the global obesity pandemic?
CPW Chief Executive Jeffrey Harmening said the reformulation plan builds on efforts begun in 2003 to improve the nutritional value and content of cereal. Since then, the partnership has reduced salt use by more than 900 metric tons and sugar by 10 times that amount, or 9,000 metric tons.
"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 the newswire service at CPW's new global innovation center, located in the Swiss town of Orbe.
The change may have as much to do with preempting tougher government regulation of the industry as it does consumer demand; the global obesity epidemic is leading politicians and policymakers to make decisions or adopt new legislation that would mandate such dietary changes.
Already, the World Health Organization estimated there are more than 42 million children under the age of five who were overweight in 2010 in Europe, where obesity is already responsible for as much as eight percent of healthcare costs and 13 percent of deaths on the continent.
Moreover, the data against sugar, especially, just keeps piling up.
A study this year by British consumer magazine Which found that 32 of the 50 top-selling cereals were loaded with sugar. Worse, marketing-wise, nearly all of those brands were aimed at children (including Cheerios). Many of the cereals were found to have as much sugar content as many junk foods.
The same study did say; however, that most of the cereals had dramatically lower levels of salt than just a few years ago, judging Nestle's Shredded Wheat the most healthy of them all, with low levels of salt, sugar and fat.
Not all analysts expressed confidence the CPW would carry through on its pledge.
"Reformulating is great, but the question is how they then talk about their products," Malcolm Clark, coordinator of the Children's Food Campaign of Britain's Sustain charity, which seeks to protect children from junk food marketing, told Reuters. "They can't talk about them being healthy. They will be mildly less unhealthy than they were before."
Still marketing unhealthy stuff to kids
But Harmening defended breakfast cereals in general, saying they were mostly low-calorie, high-nutrition alternatives, adding that children who eat them tend to have a lower BMI - body mass index - than those who don't.
A number of surveys have said that Kellogg has some of the sweetest cereals on the market. But that company, too, has reformulated brands in recent years to cut out sugar. So has General Mills, another big cereal maker, for cereals it produces for the North American market.
While it may sound as if the industry is indeed getting the message regarding obesity, some experts say it could be a ruse. In a report released earlier this year, the Center for Food Policy & Obesity at Yale said while cereal makers are cutting sugar and adding whole grains, they are offsetting any benefits by increasing marketing of their unhealthiest cereals to kids.
"There is a fundamental difference between what the food industry thinks is improvement and what the public health community thinks is improvement," Dr. Jennifer Harris, director of marketing initiatives at the Rudd Center, told Reuters.
"The food industry is really focusing on reformulating products that they've always marketed to children, which are some of their highest-sugar products, whereas what we want to see is less marketing overall for unhealthy products."