Choosing a Healthy Breakfast Cereal
How healthy is your breakfast cereal? Here are 8 great-tasting picks.
By Elaine Magee, MPH, RD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Expert Column
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD
Choosing a healthy breakfast cereal is not a simple task. The cereal aisle is a long one, full of contradictions. You'll find cereals made with refined grains with nearly no fiber, and cereals made with whole grains and bran boasting 7 grams or more of fiber. There are cereals with so much sugar they seem more like boxes of little cookies. And there are cereals with sugar listed far down on the ingredient list.
But it's well worth the effort, experts say. If you eat cereal almost every day, either for breakfast or as a snack, the cereal you choose can say a lot about your health. It can add a lot of good stuff to your diet -- or it can add a whole lot of nothing.
Experts say that choosing a healthy breakfast cereal is mainly about getting some whole grains. There's no excuse not to get at least one serving of whole grains if you eat cereal for breakfast. And it's well worth the effort; recent research suggests those who eat more whole grains are at lower risk of diabetes and heart disease.
"Consumers should aim to select cereals that are high in fiber, ones that are made with whole grains," says Sandra Affenito, PhD, RD, CDN, an associate professor in the department of nutrition at Saint Joseph College. "Americans of all ages do not consume the recommended fiber intake."
Cereals made with refined grains have generally not been linked to health benefits, like a lower risk of death from heart disease, as whole-grain breakfast cereals have. Refined-grain cereals do not lower the risk of gaining weight or having a higher BMI (body mass index), but whole grain-rich cereals do.
Choosing a Healthy Breakfast Cereal: Taste or Nutrition?
The trick is finding a breakfast cereal that is full of healthful attributes, low in sugar, and has no saturated fat and trans fat -- but still tastes great! It doesn't matter how good for you a cereal is; if it doesn't taste good, you're probably not going to eat it day after day.
Of course, one person's perfect whole-grain cereal with less sugar is another person's bowl of sawdust. If you like breakfast cereals that come in lots of colors and artificial flavors, then yes, you probably do have to choose between taste and nutrition. But if you like a cereal with natural flavors from toasted whole grains, and maybe some nuts and dried fruit, you'll have many healthful cereals to choose from.
And yes, dried fruits do add nutrition to your cereal. A quarter of a cup of raisins, for example, has about 1 1/2 grams of fiber plus 4% of the Recommended Daily Value for vitamin E and about 6% each of the Daily Value for vitamins B-1, B-6, and iron, magnesium, and selenium. But when you look on the nutrition facts label for Raisin Bran, for example, you might be shocked to see there are 19 grams of sugar in a 1-cup serving. What's going on is that any sugars -- even those from natural sources like dried fruit -- are counted in the sugar grams listed on the label.
"It may be helpful for the consumer to review the ingredient listing of a Nutrition Fact label to identify added sugars rather than reading the amount of total sugars in the product," Affenito says in an email interview.
Choosing a Healthy Breakfast Cereal: Does Bran Matter?
There are plenty of breakfast cereals with the word "bran" in the title, or at least on the box. Bran's biggest benefit is boosting the grams of fiber per serving. This makes the cereal seem more filling, both in the short run and a couple hours.
This staying power may have something to do with the lower glycemic index of bran cereals. One study noted that the glycemic index of corn flakes was more than twice that of bran cereal.
Other recent research found that adding bran to the diet reduced the risk of weight gain in men aged 40-75. Another study, in women aged 38-63, reported that as intake of fiber and whole-grain foods went up, the rate of weight gain tended to decrease. Eating refined grains had the opposite effect. As the intake of refined-grain foods increased, so did weight gain.
Choosing a Healthy Breakfast Cereal: How Much Sugar?
Does the ingredients list for your cereal look a lot like that on, say, a box of cookies? One ounce of Mini Oreo cookies has 11 grams of sugar and 130 calories (34% of its calories come from sugar). And sugar is the second ingredient listed (enriched flour is first). Lots of cereals have ingredient lists that look similar -- like Cookie Crisp Cereal, with 44% calories from sugar.
The U.S. Government's Dietary Reference Intakes recommend that added sugars not exceed 25% of total calories (to ensure sufficient intake of micronutrients). And while there isn't a specific guideline for cereal, it makes sense to aim for a cereal that gets 25% or less of its calories from sugar. (If the cereal contains dried fruit, this could be a pinch higher.)
To calculate the percentage of calories from sugar in your cereal:
- Multiply the grams of sugar per serving by 4 (there are 4 calories per gram of sugar).
- Divide this number (calories from sugar) by the total number of calories per serving.
- Multiply this number by 100 to get the percentage of calories from sugar.
While you can find plenty of cereals with 5 grams of fiber per serving or more, some of them go a little bit over the "25% calories from sugar" guideline. But if the percentage of sugar calories is still below 30%, the first ingredient is a whole grain, and the cereal tastes good, it may still be a good choice overall. Here are two examples:
- Kellogg's Frosted Mini-Wheats Strawberry Delight, with 5 grams of fiber and 12 grams of sugar per serving (about 27% calories from sugar). The first three ingredients are whole-grain wheat, sugar, and strawberry-flavored crunchlets (sugar, corn cereal, corn syrup are the first three ingredients for these). A pleasant surprise: The strawberry coating creates a strawberry-flavored milk when you pour milk in your cereal.
- Kashi GoLean Crunch, with 8 grams of fiber and 13 grams of sugar per serving (27% calories from sugar). The first three ingredients are Kashi Seven Whole Grains & Sesame Cereal (whole oats, long grain brown rice, rye, hard red winter wheat, triticale, buckwheat, barley, sesame seeds); textured soy protein concentrate; and evaporated cane juice. This is basically a kashi-fied version of granola, and 3 grams of the 8 grams of fiber is from soluble fiber (thanks to the oats and barley).
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Choosing a Healthy Breakfast Cereal: 8 Good-Tasting Picks
After some taste testing and input from acquaintances, I came up with eight picks for the best-tasting healthful breakfast cereals. The cereals on my list had to have a whole grain as the first ingredient and 5 grams of fiber per serving. Sugar had to be around 25% calories from sugar or less, unless dried fruit was among the top three ingredients. I also tried to choose cereals that are easily found in the supermarket.
- Post Grape-Nuts Trail Mix Crunch: 5 grams fiber, and 22% calories from sugar. The first three ingredients are whole grain wheat, malted barley, and sugar, followed by raisins and wheat bran.
- Fiber One Bran Cereal: 14 grams fiber, 0% calories from sugar. First three ingredients are whole-grain wheat bran, corn bran, and cornstarch. This cereal only appeals to some people. I would suggest enhancing the flavor with cinnamon, fresh or dried fruit, and/or roasted nuts.
- Fiber One Honey Clusters: 13 grams fiber, 15% calories from sugar. The first three ingredients are whole-grain wheat, corn bran, and wheat bran.
- Quaker Oatmeal Squares: 5 grams fiber, 19% calories from sugar. The first three ingredients are whole oat flour, whole-wheat flour, and brown sugar.
- Shredded Wheat: 6 grams fiber, 0% calories from sugar (for a generic brand). The only ingredient is 100% whole grain cereal. I enjoy this with added fresh or dried fruit and nuts. If you opt for the frosted variety, it has 6 grams fiber and gets 23% of its calories from sugar.
- Frosted Mini Wheats: 6 grams fiber, 24% calories from sugar. The first three ingredients are whole-grain wheat, sugar, and high-fructose corn syrup.
- Raisin Bran: 7 grams fiber, 40% calories from sugar (in Kellogg's brand). The first three ingredients are whole wheat, raisins, and wheat bran). Sugar is listed fourth in the ingredient list, but many of the calories from sugar come from the raisins.
- Kashi Heart to Heart Honey Toasted Oat Cereal: 5 grams fiber, 18% calories from sugar. The first three ingredients are whole oat flour, oat bran, and evaporated cane juice. This is a higher-fiber alternative to Cheerios. I think they taste better, too. But that may be because there is more sweetener added (the evaporated cane juice).
Medically Reviewed July 3, 2007.
SOURCES: Sandra G. Affenito, PhD, RD, CDN, associate professor, department of nutrition, Saint Joseph College, West Hartford, Conn. Jensen, M.K., et al, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, February 2006; vol 83, No. 2: pp 275-283. Affenito, S.G., Journal of the Dietetic Association, April 2007; vol 107(4): pp 565-569. Liu, S., et al., American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2003; vol 77: pp 594-599. Barton, B.A., et al., Journal of the American Dietetic Association, September 2005; vol 105(9): pp 1383-1389. Coyle, E.F., et al., American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, October 2003; vol 78(4): pp 742-748. Jensen, M.K., et al, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, December 2004; vol 80(6): pp 1492-1499. Rimm, E., et al., American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, November 2004; vol 80(5): pp 1237-1245. Liu, S., et al., American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, November 2003; vol 78(5): pp 920-927.
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