A bowl of cereal now rivals eggs as the quintessential American breakfast. That cereal is big business—not just for children any more—is immediately apparent in the supermarket, which often devotes an entire aisle to it. The array of choices is huge (there are now 13 varieties of Cheerios alone). But more choices mean more confusion as you try to discern what’s healthful and what’s simply misleading. That's why we offer tips to help you sort through the options when buying cereals.
Cereals and your health
Study after study, often funded by cereal makers, confirms that eating a morning meal is beneficial to your health, your weight, your brainpower and your mood. A good breakfast is one that’s filling, tasty and nutritious. Cereal can do all that, if you choose wisely.
Cereal offers a prime opportunity to start your day by fulfilling a big chunk of your whole grain and fiber goals. The fiber in breakfast cereal can help keep you regular, especially if you choose one with a significant amount of insoluble fiber, like wheat bran. Cereals made of oats—yes, even a kid-friendly standby like Cheerios or its generic equivalents—provide significant soluble fiber, which helps lower cholesterol levels and keep blood sugar steady.
Another health perk of a cereal breakfast comes from the milk you add—a source of bone-building calcium, as well as protein, which helps keep you full longer and also blunts the blood-sugar-raising effect of a meal more than eating carbohydrates (as in cereal) alone.
Understanding cereal products
When faced with all those cereal choices, the three things to consider are whole grains, fiber and the amount of sugar per serving. A good cereal is one that is 100 percent whole grain and provides 16 grams of whole grains per serving—a third of the way toward the goal of 48 grams of whole grains a day. Next, focus on fiber (out of a daily goal of 20 to 35 grams). Cereals range in fiber from less than 1 gram to more than 10 grams per serving. Then, check the sugar content. Cereals often contain many forms of sugar under different disguises. The nutrition label will tell you how much sugar there is, in grams, per serving. Many cereals have more than 12 grams per serving, which is the equivalent of 3 teaspoons of sugar. Cereals that contain dried fruits, such as raisins, blueberries or cranberries, also tend to be high in sugar, not only from the fruits themselves but also because they may be coated in more sugar.
Pay extra attention when selecting granolas and muesli. These dense cereals pack lots of nutrition into each bite, but they also usually have more calories from the extra sugar and fat found in the dried fruit, nuts and coconut. Note the smaller 1⁄4-cup serving size for these cereals, too. In addition, some granolas have added fat to coat the grain clusters.
What about vitamins and minerals? Do you really need 100 percent of the “Daily Value” from your cereal, a boast you used to hear often in cereal ads? That depends on your diet the rest of the day. It may be good insurance for some nutrients, but if you eat well—and especially if take a multivitamin/mineral pill—there is no need to double up. Many cold cereals provide at least 25 percent of the Daily Value for the basic B vitamins, plus other nutrients.
Label reading is a must. Don’t rely on front-of-package claims, which can be misleading. For example, if the package says the cereal is “now made with whole grains,” the amount might be small. When perusing the nutrition label, first check the serving size, because cereals may list a smaller portion than you normally eat. In that case, your numbers for everything will be considerably higher than the label is telling you. That’s good for fiber, but not so good for calories, sodium and sugar.
Cereals: good-to-know facts
- Beware of brand extensions. Marketers realize the importance of brand loyalty, so they often keep a brand name, even if the product inside has changed significantly. For example, original Cheerios is made with whole grain oats, with no sugar added. But some of the newer varieties are not 100 percent whole grain and have added sugar. Lesson? Check the nutrition labels and ingredients of all cereals, even of your favorites and brands you trust.
- Cereal may be the leading example of a product that costs very little to make but has its price inflated because of the millions of dollars spent on advertising. The price of national brands may cause you to do a double take when you see a box for, say, $6.99. Stock up during sales, or look for store brands or “minor” brands (the ones that come in a bag instead of a box) that offer virtually the same product for a fraction of the price.
Healthy grocery shopping tips for cereals
- A top choice is a cereal labeled 100 percent whole grain. At the very least, look for a cereal with a whole grain at the top of the ingredients list. Don’t rely on one that simply says “made with whole grains,” because that could be any amount—often, very little. Seals from the Whole Grains Council, which you’ll find on some cereals, can help you identify good sources of whole grains.
- For money savings, look for store brand or “minor” brand cereals. The nutrition and quality are often just as good as national brands.
- Look for a cereal that provides at least 5 grams of fiber per serving. Keep in mind that if you eat more than the serving listed, you will get more fiber (but also more calories, sodium and sugar).
- Be wary of cereals with added dried fruit, as the fruit is often sugar-coated. A better alternative is to buy a plain cereal and add your own raisins or fresh fruit (such as berries, peaches, bananas, grapes) at home.
- Limit sugar to 8 grams per serving; 4 or 5 grams is even better. A little more sugar is okay for fruited cereals, especially if they are also good sources of fiber.
- Although it shouldn’t be the priority for your picks, look for a cereal with at least 3 grams of protein per serving. Protein can help keep you full longer than eating carbohydrates alone (the milk you add provides some protein, too). Some cereals have 10 or more grams of protein per serving, rivaling the protein content of two medium-size eggs.
- Note how much sodium is in your favorite cereals and search for similar cereals with less—preferably under 180 milligrams per serving (sodium can be as high as 400 milligrams per serving).
- Check the fat content. Most cereals are low in fat, but some contain more than you may think, even unwanted saturated and trans fats from partially hydrogenated oils.
- If you’re not used to or don’t care for high-fiber, whole-grain cereal, go half-and-half by mixing one with your favorite lower-fiber cereal. Another alternative: Health-food stores often sell cereals that mimic sugary mainstream cereals but are made with whole grains and have less sugar. These can even make for a healthful dessert.
- Don’t forget to pick up milk. Choose low-fat or nonfat dairy milk. If you’ll be using a soy, almond or any other nondairy beverage, select one that is fortified with calcium and vitamin D and is unsweetened, or at least low in added sugar. This would be particularly important if your cereal is already bringing its own sugar to the bowl.