Breakfast cereal may be an American staple, but it’s not always the healthiest choice at the table. Some cereals, like cooked rolled oats, are nutritious and filling enough to last you until lunchtime. Others, however, are little more than thinly disguised boxes of sugar. While weighing your options, read nutrition labels in detail and use that information to work toward building healthier breakfasts.
Label claims on cereals don’t always tell the whole truth. For example, the descriptor “natural” implies that a product is free of additives or processed ingredients. In the United States, however, “natural” has no standard definition on a cereal label, so products using that term can still contain added sugar and other processed components. Cereals may also show a stamp of “heart healthy” approval from the American Heart Association or another organization, but because lobbying and heavy industry pressure can play a role in which foods get those labels, it doesn’t mean the cereal is one of the healthiest in the aisle.
Using Whole Grains
Misleading label claims can extend to ingredient descriptions as well. For cereals, one such claim is likely to be “made with whole grains,” which suggests that most of the grains in the product are not refined. According to the Whole Grains Council, however, a product can use that claim even if it contains mostly refined grains. Claims using words such as “bran” and “wheat germ” don’t mean a cereal is whole-grain, either. Refined grains can spike and crash blood sugar and energy levels and encourage overeating, but whole grains keep you fuller for longer and help you maintain steady blood sugar levels.
Hold the Sugar
Added sugars are abundant in many breakfast cereals, and they may contribute to chronic and serious health problems that include diabetes, high blood pressure, cancer and heart disease. Almost all cereals contain some natural sugar, however, and one problem is that as of 2014, nutrition labels don’t distinguish between natural and added sugars. According to a study published in 2014 by the Environmental Working Group, regularly eating breakfast cereal is one of the main reasons that American children get two to three times the maximum recommended amount of added sugar every day.
Add the Fiber
Choosing a high-fiber breakfast cereal like oatmeal is smart for several reasons. In addition to helping you feel full, eating fiber-rich foods encourages healthy weight loss and weight maintenance and reduces your risk for cardiovascular and gastrointestinal health issues. Cereal labels that proclaim “a good source of fiber” or “contains added fiber,” however, sometimes mean the product contains fibers that don’t come from whole foods, which may not offer the same health benefits.
- The New York Times: Is Sugar Toxic?
- Environmental Working Group: Children's Cereals - Sugar by the Pound
- Precision Nutrition: Food Labels Part 2
- Whole Grains Council: Identifying Whole Grain Products
- Joy Bauer: Refined Grains - How Food Affects Health
- Nutrition: Dietary Fiber and Body Weight
- Nutrition Reviews: Health Benefits of Dietary Fiber
- The New York Times: Six Meaningless Claims on Food Labels