When I was growing up, we were only allowed “sugar cereal” on special occasions. Our go-to cereal options were the “healthy” cereals, which meant there were no fun colors and sugar was not in the cereal name. Fast forward a couple decades and now I am buying cereal for my boys.
Criteria to consider when choosing breakfast cereal:
1. Look for fiber and whole grains. Breakfast cereals are made from processed grains. All grains are predominantly carbohydrates, which are broken down by the body into sugar. Whole grains include all three parts of a grain: the germ, endosperm and bran.1 Fiber, a key component of most whole grains, slows down the rate the body digests carbohydrates keeping you fuller longer. The FDA recommends consuming at least 25 grams of dietary fiber a day and the American Heart Association states that “dietary fiber from whole grains, as part of an overall healthy diet, may help improve blood cholesterol levels, and lower risk of heart disease, stroke, obesity and type 2 diabetes.”2,3
2. Minimize Refined Grains. Refined grains have some portion of the grain removed (typically the bran and germ, sources of the majority of a grain’s vitamins and fiber).1 Depending on the food and how processed it is, the speed with which the body digests the carbohydrates is highly variable. Highly processed carbohydrates (like those in most breakfast cereals) are broken down extremely quickly and can rapidly increase blood glucose levels (these are known as high Glycemic Index (GI) foods, more on Glycemic Index soon).4 Diets comprised predominantly of high-GI foods are associated with chronic disease and strongly associated with heart disease.4
3. Minimize Added Sugar. The amount of added sugar varies widely across different cereal types and brands, though most breakfast cereals could be considered vitamin fortified cookies. Added sugar has many different names. In cereal, typical added sugars listed in the ingredients include sugar, cane sugar, corn syrup, brown sugar syrup, honey, brown sugar, molasses, fructose, and dextrose. Read more on recommended daily intake of added sugar and why you want to minimize added sugar consumption.
4. Avoid Artificial Preservatives. Many breakfast cereals use vitamin E, a natural preservative, to maintain “freshness.” However, some cereal brands use butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT), a synthetic antioxidant that, while considered safe by the FDA, is considered by the US Department of Health and Human Services to have carcinogenic potential.5 With non-synthetic antioxidants readily available (such as tocopherol), it is advisable to avoid foods that contain BHT.
5. Avoid Artificial Food Coloring, Including Caramel Color. Artificial food coloring is most widely used in sodas, candy, and baked goods. A recent study published in the journal Clinical Pediatrics found that more than 40% of food products marketed to children contained artificial food coloring.6 Though considered safe by the FDA, some children have been found to have negative reactions to artificial food coloring.7 Additionally, many common artificial food dyes have been shown to cause allergic reactions in sensitive people.8 Though only small amounts of artificial coloring are used in baked goods, such as cereal, it is advisable to avoid products that contain any artificial food coloring. We discuss why it is best to avoid caramel coloring in a previous post on choosing a granola bar.
Bottom line: choose a breakfast cereal that is mostly whole grains rich in fiber, has minimal added sugar, and contains ingredients you recognize.
Evaluation of top selling breakfast cereals:
Below are the criteria we used to evaluate the top 10 selling breakfast cereals.9 The cereals were ranked into three categories: Wise (), Acceptable (), and Avoid ().
Wise (): A cereal that is relatively unprocessed, composed predominately of whole grains, contains minimal, if any, added sugar, and does not contain any artificial colors or preservatives.
Acceptable (): A cereal that is composed of at least half whole grains or has at least 5 grams of fiber per serving, contains less than 5 grams added sugar per serving, and does not contain any artificial colors or preservatives.
Avoid (): A cereal that is composed of relatively few whole grains with little fiber per serving, contains more than 6 grams added sugar per serving, or contains artificial colors or preservatives.
Because cereal serving sizes vary widely from ~ 27 to 60 grams, the below table includes both the total grams of added sugar per serving as well as the percentage of added sugar in each serving. The table also highlights the grams of whole grains and fiber per serving as well as any ingredients of concern. All forms of added sugar are listed in red while ingredients of concern are bolded.
Are you surprised to see Cheerios rated as only “acceptable”? Even though they are extremely low in added sugar and are predominantly whole grains, Cheerios are highly processed. Processing cereal grains into flakes, circles, and puffs increases the ease with which our bodies digest the carbohydrates and increases their GI value.4,10 And the second ingredient in Cheerios is corn starch, which is also rapidly metabolized by our body into sugar. Is it okay to feed your children Cheerios? Yes. And the oats used in Cheerios are certified gluten free, so they are a good option for people who have gluten sensitivity issues. However, because they are highly processed and considered a high glycemic index food, they should not be an every day meal or snack.
Raisin Bran is a cereal that is often considered to be a healthy choice. This is likely because of the 7 grams of dietary fiber it contains per serving and predominately whole grain composition. However, there are 18 grams of sugar per serving. Sure, some of the sugar in Raisin Bran is from the raisins but there is still unnecessary added sugar both coating the raisins and in the flakes. A wiser choice would be to purchase bran flakes that are low in added sugar and simply add raisins.
Special K is marketed to us as a cereal that will help us lose weight. While it is very low in fat and low in added sugar, under the criteria outlined above, Special K should be avoided because it is highly processed and does not contain any fiber or whole grains.
Examples of healthier breakfast cereals:
To understand what healthier options for breakfast cereal look like, it is important to look past the top selling brands. Top selling cereals are positioned at eye level on a grocery shelf, so look to the top or bottom shelves for healthier options. As an example of what to look for, the table below contains a few wise and acceptable breakfast cereal options.
So what does my family eat for breakfast? On the mornings that we have cereal, we eat a combination of our favorites. Most fall into the “wise” category, but our boys do have some “acceptable” cereals mixed in. I also make my own homemade granola, which has become a family favorite and is always included in the mix.
- What’s a Whole Grain? A Refined Grain?, Whole Grain Council Website (link)
- FDA Recommended Daily Value for Fiber, Food and Drug Administration Website (link)
- Whole Grains and Fiber, American Heart Association Website (link)
- Always Hungry? Conquer Cravings, Retrain Your Fat Cells & Lose Weight Permanently, David Ludwig, MD, PhD (link)
- Center for Science in the Public Interest. Chemical Cuisine: BHT (link)
- Prevalence of Artificial Food Colors in Grocery Store Products Marketed to Children. A Batada, M Jacobson, Clinical Pediatrics, Vol 55, Issue 12, pp 1113-1119, 2016 (link)
- Mechanisms of behavioral, atopic, and other reactions to artificial food colors in children. L Stevens, T Kuczek, J Burgess, M Stochelski, L Arnold, L Galland, Nutr Rev (2013) 71 (5):268-281 (link)
- Center for Science in the Public Interest. Chemical Cuisine: Artificial Food Coloring (link)
- Cold cereals 2015: Top 10 best-selling US breakfast cereal brands, Bakery and Snacks Website (link)
- What We Eat, Marion Nestle, 2006 (link)