Getting Serious About Cereal
Our picks for the healthiest breakfasts-in-a-box
By Elaine Magee, MPH, RD
"I'm going in!" I exclaimed to myself as I lunged into the breakfast cereal aisle, pen and clipboard in hand. I surfaced a couple hours later with blurry eyes, a sore neck, and pages full of notes.
Let's face it, this is one of the most intimidating aisles in the supermarket (second only to the frozen entree aisle). It's a daunting task even to find the brand of cereal you are looking for, let alone read all the labels to figure out what's healthy and what's not.
Of late, this food category has enjoyed quite a bit of publicity with Tony the Tiger shedding some of his sugar and Trix going whole-grain. Couple that with our (justified) fear of trans fats and the renewed popularity of fiber (for bringing down "net carbs"), and we've got a veritable cereal mutiny on our hands.
All this is good news for folks looking for healthier options. Here's the thing, though: Many of the cereals that are now "whole grain" or have "1/3 less sugar" still don't make my list, because they have less than 3 grams of fiber per serving.
And if you're considering one of the less-sugar versions of a notoriously high-sugar cereal, don't forget to check the calories per serving on the label. Many of the less-sugar choices have the same (or nearly the same) number of total calories and carbohydrate grams per serving.
Also, read those labels carefully. For example, the label on a box of Frosted Flakes with 1/3 less sugar lists the number of calories per cup, but regular Frosted Flakes boxes list the number of calories per 3/4 cup. Cup for cup, the less-sugar option has 120 calories, and 27% calories from sugar, while the regular cereal has 162 calories and 40% calories from sugar.
Also, from what I could tell, the only cereals that list the amount of trans fats on their labels are those with zero trans fats.
In a few cases, the original cereal isn't bad health-wise, but some of its variations have far more sugar. For example, Apple-Cinnamon Cheerios get 43% of their calories from sugar, compared with 4% for regular Cheerios.
The Ideal Cereal
So what are the nutritional attributes of an ideal breakfast cereal? In a nutshell, it's all about the fiber. Breakfast cereals give us an easy opportunity to punch up the fiber. And boy, do we need to punch it up.
We're not meeting our recommended fiber goals: for healthy adults, that's 20-35 grams a day; for children, it's their age plus 5 grams. That's because we don't eat enough higher-fiber plant foods (fruits, vegetables, whole- and high-fiber grain products, and legumes), according to the American Dietetic Association.
I recommend that your morning meal include at least 5 grams of fiber, 5 grams of protein, and a little fat to help balance the carbs and make the breakfast more satisfying. This will also help stave off midmorning hunger.
And what exactly does your breakfast cereal need to provide to meet those goals?
Well, let's factor in the notion that most of us enjoy our cereal with milk. That adds about:
Adding a half cup of fresh fruit to your cereal will give you about 1.5 more grams of fiber, depending on the fruit.
Obviously, a cereal with 5 grams of fiber or more is ideal. But many of the family favorites are in the 3-grams category (if you choose one of these, serve it topped with fruit to boost the fiber and nutrients).
With all this in mind, I try to find breakfast cereals that have:
Sizing Up Your Cereal
Here are the cereals I found in my supermarket that met these guidelines. They're listed in order from highest fiber content to lowest. Within each fiber category, they're listed from lowest in sugar to highest.
SOURCE: Journal of the American Dietetic Association 2002 102:993-1000.
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