Are Froot Loops and Lucky Charms a breakfast food or a snack?

Younger Americans increasingly see such highly sweetened cereals as the latter. And the cereal industry has taken notice.

Sales of cold cereal have declined 17 percent since 2009 — not such sweet news for manufacturers, even though the cereal market remains a $9 billion a year business.

A report from the market research firm Mintel attributed the decline in cereal sales in part to consumers turning to a greater selection of breakfast alternatives, including yogurt and breakfast bars.

John Owen, senior food and drink analyst at Mintel, said cereal manufacturers could reverse the trend by “emphasizing great taste and a greater variety of occasions to encourage consumers to purchase and eat more cereal.”

“While younger consumers may question the suitability of heavily sweetened cereal for breakfast when compared to more satiating or protein-rich alternatives, they may consider it to be a perfectly acceptable snack or treat,” according to the Mintel report.

Mintel reported that 43 percent of people in the United States say they eat cereal as a snack. That includes 56 percent of millennials, compared with 33 percent of baby boomers.

Research showing the increased popularity of “on-the-go” cereal packages reinforces the trend toward snacking.

“While cereal is primarily a breakfast food, we are seeing the trend of cereal being consumed at various times outside of breakfast,” Mike Siemienas, a General Mills spokesperson, told Healthline. “Examples include morning snacking (“second breakfast”), which is the fastest growing snacking occasion, and cereal already does well at that moment. It is also a great snack at the office or after school, and after dinner as a dessert or late-night snack.”

“We have been focusing on all the different times that cereal can be eaten,” he added.

Taste or nutrition … or both

Amy Margulies, a dietician and diabetes educator at the Chicago-based wellness company Retrofit, tells Healthline that her adult clients seem to be eating less sugary cereal.

“Those that still have an affinity for them seem to snack on them every so often or consume for breakfast as a treat once in a while,” she said.

According to Mintel, 29 percent of Americans say they are eating less heavily sweetened cereals. But 30 percent say they choose their cereal based on taste, not nutrition.

Out of the best-selling cereals in the United States, Cheerios, Raisin Bran, and perhaps Frosted Mini Wheats check the “healthy” box in some significant way.

Raisin Bran and Frosted Mini Wheats are high in fiber but have added sugar. Cheerios is made of whole grains and has only one gram of sugar per serving.

Others — Honey Nut Cheerios, Frosted Flakes, Honey Bunches of Oats, Cinnamon Toast Crunch, Froot Loops, and Lucky Charms — are heavily sweetened.

In recent years, cereal manufacturers rolled out a reduced-sugar version of Frosted Flakes, a high-fiber and high-protein version of Honey Bunches of Oats, and a version of Trix that substituted natural colors for the vibrant artificial coloring used originally.

All of these “healthier” options are now off the market.

Meanwhile, manufacturers have added new sweetened cereals, such as chocolate versions of Cheerios and Frosted Flakes. Post also reintroduced Oreo Os, a cereal based on the popular cookies.

“One cereal does not meet everyone’s needs which is why we are working hard to ensure we have a cereal to meet nearly everyone’s individual needs,” said Siemienas.

General Mills’ Honey Nut Cheerios is the top-selling cereal in the U.S., perhaps because it appeals to both indulgent and health-conscious consumers, including parents of young children.

“Honey Nut Cheerios is a sugar cereal, but it borrows the whole grain of Cheerios and claims to lower cholesterol. Most importantly, it gains meaning from the Cheerios brand,” notes a marketing analysis of cereal brands by Stealing Share Inc.

“We are always listening to our consumers and we continually innovate and renovate our products to ensure we’re meeting consumer preferences,” said Siemienas. “Not everyone likes the same thing, and that’s perfectly OK. Our job is to make cereal people love it, because we know taste is king.”

Healthier choices, better labels

The good news from a health perspective is that more consumers are eating ancient-grain based cereal, muesli, granola, and high-fiber cereal, according to Mintel.

Cereal companies market their products using healthy sounding terms such as “whole grain” even when they contain high levels of sugar.

But new Nutrition Facts labels from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) may help consumers make healthier choices by distinguishing between added and naturally occurring sugars.

“Naturally occurring sugars in raisins or milk powder that may be included in the cereal would not count as added sugar,” Mindy Haar, PhD, a nutritional and health professor and assistant dean of the New York Institute of Technology’s School of Health Professions, told Healthline.

For example, in Raisin Bran “sugar is added to the flakes and to the raisins, so some added sugar would still be indicated,” said Haar. “It would still be considerably less sugar than Trix, Cocoa Pebbles, etc., and include seven grams of fiber/serving, so I wouldn’t have a big problem hearing that this was anyone’s daily breakfast. Yes, there are even healthier cereals, but given current eating habits across the nation, we nutritionists have to have realistic expectations for choices people will make and keep for the long run.”

The new labels also will be based on more realistic serving sizes and will bar cereal labels from counting added synthetic fiber, which may not have the health benefits of natural fiber.

“This will make new labels better reflect the healthfulness of the cereal,” said Haar.

Currently, “taking a quick look comparing cereals like Frosted Flakes or Cocoa Puffs with cereals with far less added sugar, the difference in calories does not seem as stark,” Haar added. “With the new labels that will include standardized, consistent portion sizes and the separate line for added sugar, the differences between the two types will be much more glaring.”

The revised labels, unveiled in 2016, were set to appear on food containers this year, but manufacturers were recently given to 2020 or 2021 (depending on their size) to comply.

Trish Brimhall, a registered dietitian and nutritionist, suggests making sugared or sweetened cereals a “once-in-a-while” purchase, rather than banning them completely and turning Cocoa Puffs or Trix into “forbidden fruit.”

“Another option is mixing sweetened and unsweetened cereals in your child’s cereal bowl, allowing them the creativity of making their own cereal recipes” or “using sugared cereals as occasional, dessert-type snacks instead of routine breakfast fare,” Brimhall tells Healthline. “And above all, keep an eye on balance. Are you incorporating some fruits or veggies in at those breakfast or snack times? That likely is the habit that deserves more of our focus than what exact cereal our child chose.”