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TOP-SHELVE THOSE SUGARY CEREALS?

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It's a battle fought daily in cereal aisles across America, and the object is a flashy, colorful box filled with sugar and processed grain.

"Pleeeeaaaaase, Mommy!""No."

"Why not?"

"It's full of sugar, and . . . "

Too late. The 5-year-old has an enviable slam-dunk, and the box is in the basket. The mother contemplates the battle it would take to get the box back on the shelf.

(Sigh.) "OK, but next time we get something else."

After all, how many times can you say no? Are 5-year-olds never to experience the delight of Lucky Charms, their absolutely favorite cereal in the whole wide world?

Now a national consumer group is promoting a solution for peace in the grocery store: put presweetened cereals that are targeted at children on the top shelves, out of sight and out of reach.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (based in Washington, D.C.) conducted a survey of 10 high-sugar cereals in 27 stores in five metropolitan areas. It found in each case that those 10 brands were placed on the middle or lower shelves.

The brands included many Saturday morning advertising favorites, such as Cap'n Crunch, Cocoa Puffs, Fruit Loops and Ghostbusters. The center said that those brands are, on average, 44 percent sugar, as measured by weight. (The highest was Ghostbusters, made by Ralston, with 64 percent sugar.)

"The parental-child conflict around high-sugar cereals is endemic," said Victoria Leonard, director of the children's nutrition project for the center. "We want to make it easier for parents to shop, and we think grocery stores owe it to the adults of tomorrow."

While the center complained that supermarkets often use "marketing tricks to tempt kids to grab the sugary cereals," local retailers said that logistics, not marketing, dictate location of brands on the shelves.

The cereal aisle is one of the largest dry-grocery sections in an average supermarket. Retailers put the best-selling brands, which invariably come in the largest boxes, on the bottom shelves because they are deeper and hold more.

On average, children eat more cereal than adults, so child-oriented brands tend to sell faster, retailers said. According to industry data, children ages 6 to 17 eat 15 to 16 pounds of cereal a year, almost three times as much as their parents.

"There's no ulterior motive," said Bob Spaar, manager at a supermarket in White Bear Lake, Minn. "Adult cereals are on the top shelf because they don't sell as fast."

Retailers pointed out that some of the best-selling brands of cereals - and the ones that hold the premier position on the bottom shelf - are unsweetened brands such as Kellogg's Corn Flakes and General Mills' Cheerios, which are marketed to both adults and children. Cheerios is often flanked by its sweetened siblings - Honey Nut and Apple Cinnamon Cheerios - which also are marketed to adults and children.

At the root of the debate is the question of nutrition. The critical assumption made by the center is that presweetened cereals are not good for children, "and that is not true," said Craig Shulstad, spokesman for General Mills.

Menu studies done by government agencies and the food industry have shown that on average, about 3 percent of a child's daily sugar intake comes from presweetened cereal.

"And that is not a major source," he said.

Moreover, General Mills' market research has shown that children get better nutrition on the days they eat high-sugar cereal than on days they don't.

"On the days they don't eat cereal, they have higher intakes of fat and sodium and no less sugar intake," Shulstad said. "And the most popular breakfast is no breakfast at all."

General Mills' findings may say more about the state of the American diet than the value of presweetened cereals. Leonard of the center suggests that high-sugar cereals be eaten as a snack or for dessert rather than as the main part of a meal.

"Is it too much to ask stores to encourage children to eat healthfully?" she said.

Apparently. The center wrote to 50 of the largest supermarket chains in the United States asking that presweetened cereals be placed higher on the shelves, but only one chain responded. Leonard described it as a "thanks for taking an interest" sort of letter, and she declined to identify the company.

Nevertheless, the message is getting through.

Just ask a 5-year-old to explain the difference between a kids' cereal and a grown-up cereal.

"Those (waving to the top shelf) are more nutish . . . nutris . . . what's that word, Mommy?"

"Nutritious."

"Yeah. That's it. I hear that word all the time . . . "