Breakfast is frequently touted as the “most important meal of the day”, and rightfully so. Numerous studies have shown that people who eat a healthy breakfast actually consume a more nutritious diet and have a decreased risk of heart disease as compared to those who don’t eat a healthy breakfast, or eat one at all. And while that healthy, well-balanced breakfast is definitely not limited to a bowl of cereal and milk, given the enormous variety of breakfast cereals on the market, this bite is meant to help you separate the healthy cereals from the unhealthy ones.
Nutritional Facts and Figures
There are only a few key factors that are essential to consider when selecting a healthy cereal:
1. Fiber Content (usually an indication that it is made with whole grains)
2. Sugar Content
3. Label Claims
Americans are told to consume at least 50% of their grains as whole grains in order to reach the recommended 25-35 grams of fiber per day; however, very few meet this level. One of the easiest ways to boost your fiber intake is through whole grain cereals. All cereals are made from grains that started off as whole grains, which contain fiber in their outer-bran layer. However the fiber content of breakfast cereals ranges greatly (from zero grams to ~15 grams per serving). Why the large discrepancy? The variation in fiber content is due to the refining process where the fiber-rich outer bran layer of the whole grain is milled off. Low-fiber cereals contain mostly refined grains such as wheat, corn, or rice, which explains why their fiber content is so low. So, how much fiber is enough? Check the nutrition label; the goal is to have at least four grams of fiber per serving.
Another factor to consider when choosing a breakfast cereal is its sugar content. Added sugars provide extra calories but no vitamins or minerals. Since they offer very little nutritional value, you want to avoid cereals that have a great deal of added sugar. The amount of sugar in cereals can range from zero to ~20 grams. To avoid cereals with a lot of added sugars, check the ingredient list – if many sugars are listed toward the beginning of the list, there are a lot of added sugars in the food. Examples of added sugars include: sugar, brown sugar, corn syrup, cane sugar, dextrin/dextrose, lactose, maltose, honey, fruit juice concentrates, molasses, maple syrup, corn sweeteners, evaporated cane juice, malt, fructose, and high fructose corn syrup. A good rule of thumb is to choose cereals with fewer than eight grams of sugar per serving. *Note – be weary of some cereals that have zero sugar grams – often times they contain artificial sweeteners.
Label Claims – Don’t be fooled
The last factor to consider with cereals is the writing on the actual box. Marketing and advertising schemes can make it especially hard to weed out the healthy cereals from the unhealthy ones. Claims such as “no cholesterol”, “low fat”, “contains 12 vitamins and minerals”, “loaded in antioxidants” and “good source of calcium” are just some of the labeling tactics used by cereal manufacturers. Unfortunately for the consumer, these claims are just as likely to appear on low-fiber, high-sugar cereals as they are on high-fiber, low-sugar cereals. Let’s take a look at each claim:
“No Cholesterol“: NO cereals contain cholesterol because cholesterol is only found in food products of animal origin. There is no cholesterol in plant-based foods.
“Low Fat“: Unless the cereal contains some kind of nut or granola, it is very likely to be low in fat. Remember though, a cereal that has no fat can still be loaded with sugar!
“Loaded in Vitamins and Minerals“: Almost all cereals are fortified with a vast number of vitamins and minerals, regardless of their fiber content. These vitamins and minerals are all easily obtained through a balanced diet that is rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Therefore, it is better to differentiate cereals based on their fiber, whole grain and added sugar content rather than their vitamin/mineral content. Otherwise, you will probably end up with the likes of a fortified cookie or candy bar!
Making the Cut. The following is a list of cereals that meet the cereal requirements.
*Nature’s Path Heirloom Whole Grains
* Nature’s Path Flax Plus
* Barbara’s Original Puffins
* Kashi Go Lean
* Post Shredded Wheat
* Quaker Old Fashioned Oats
* Kashi Heart to Heart – Honey Toasted Oat
* Shredded Wheat
* Kellogg’s All Bran original
The next time you go roaming down the cereal aisle at the supermarket, do not be swayed to buy one type of cereal over another based on advertised health claims. Rather, check the fiber, sugar and nutrition label to determine which cereals truly provide the healthiest options. Stick with the following rules of thumb: at least four grams of fiber and fewer than eight grams of sugar per serving.
*Note: Rather than having your morning cereal in a bowl with skim milk, try it mixed in a cup of non-fat yogurt and some fresh fruit, a meal that you can take with you on the go!