If breakfast is the most important meal of the day, some major cereal producers sure aren't making it easy to start your day off right. Far too many not-so-healthy cereals are lurking on supermarket shelves. Nutritionally speaking, most of the least healthful cereals in America have a few features in common, including artificial colors, flavors or preservatives and highly processed and genetically modified ingredients. But which ones are the worst of the worst?
We enlisted the help of Fooducate, an independent food label-based database that gives healthfulness grades to foods. All the ones we recommend avoiding have Fooducate grades that fail (D+ and below). Fortunately, we also found many cereals that get a thumbs-up (B or better). So when it comes time for some cereal, please pour a bowl of these best picks.
Worst Cereal No. 4: General Mill’s Cheerios Protein Oats & Honey
The first ingredient in this Cheerios cereal is whole-grain oats. That's a good thing! But it's all downhill from there. First, you'll find highly processed corn products in these crunchy circles and soy protein in its clusters. The more a food is processed, the greater chance there is for loss of nutrients like fiber. And, unfortunately, most of the corn and soybean crops in the U.S. are genetically modified (GM), which is concerning as some studies suggest that GM ingredients contribute to the potential transfer of antibiotic resistance.
What's more, you'll get several different added sugars (not just honey), caramel color and BHT, a preservative that may act as an endocrine disruptor. Finally, having the word "protein" in this cereal's name — in giant letters dead center on the front of the box — is misleading. While it's definitely higher in protein than most ready-to-eat cereals (seven grams without milk), because of the highly processed GM ingredients, it's still not an ideal choice for breakfast. Tip: If you're looking for a big protein punch, aim for 20 grams of protein per meal.
Per 1 1/4 cups: 210 calories, 2.5 grams of total fat (0.5 grams of saturated fat), 280 milligrams of sodium, 41 grams of total carbohydrate (four grams of fiber, 17 grams of sugars), seven grams of protein
Fooducate Grade: D+
Read more: 13 Powerful Grains and Seeds
Better-for-You Swap: Cascadian Farm Organic Purely O’s Cereal
If you're a fan of Cheerios, stick with the original version. Or, better yet, choose Cascadian's organic O's cereal. It's made with organic whole-grain oats and organic whole-grain barley, so you needn't worry about overprocessing here. The only preservative here is vitamin E, a nutrient that most people actually need more of in their diets. That means you'll find absolutely no BHT. Another one of the sweet spots for this breakfast choice? You'll find just a single gram of total sugar in a serving. That's important because added sugars provide no nutrients and can contribute to weight gain. The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends limiting added sugars to no more than 36 grams per day for men and 25 grams for women. And notice that there's nothing misleading about the lingo on this packaging. For ample protein, be generous while pouring on the milk, preferably the grass-fed organic variety. And consider serving up farm-fresh eggs on the side. You'll get six grams of high-quality protein in each large egg.
Per 1 1/4 cups: 120 calories, 1.5 grams of total fat (0 grams of saturated fat), 200 milligrams of sodium, 25 grams of total carbohydrate (three grams of fiber, one gram of sugars), three grams of protein
Fooducate Grade: A-
Worst Cereal No. 3: Post Cocoa Pebbles Cereal
Let's hope you've already skipped over the Fruity Pebbles and Marshmallow Fruity Pebbles — their neon-like glow clearly indicates the presence of artificial color. So does that make Cocoa Pebbles a better bet? Only a teensy bit. While the "pebbles" do contain cocoa (a heart-friendly ingredient), this pick still provides overprocessed "zero fiber" carbs. White rice and sugar are the first two ingredients. Then there's hydrogenated oil (a heart-unfriendly ingredient, to be sure), caramel color and some artificial flavor. Remember this: If your body doesn't need it, why would you eat it? Finally, you must adjust the nutrition info accordingly, because most "normal" folks aren't going to just pour a three-quarter's-cup portion of this cereal. Keep in mind that if you like to fill your cereal bowl to the brim, a cup-and-a-half (two servings) bowlful means double the sugar: That's a whopping 20 grams!
Per 3/4 cup: 120 calories, one gram of total fat (one gram of saturated fat), 170 milligrams of sodium, 25 grams of carbohydrate (0 grams of fiber, 10 grams of sugars), one gram of protein
Fooducate Grade: D+
Better-for-You Swap: Erewhon Crispy Brown Rice Cereal
Be nice to your body. Don't just go for any rice cereal; pick a brown rice version, such as Erewhon's Crispy Brown Rice Cereal, for its whole-grain goodness. As a pleasant surprise, there are only three simple ingredients in this box: organic brown rice, organic brown rice syrup and sea salt — and in that exact order. That's right, no hydrogenated oil or strange flavors and colors! Don't forget to take a moment to appreciate its natural color, courtesy of Mother Nature. And even with the brown rice syrup, there's less than one gram of total sugar per serving. That means more nutrient richness in every bite.
There's still more good news! If you enjoy official seals on your food, you'll feel good knowing that this cereal is USDA-certified organic, certified gluten-free and Non-GMO Project-verified. Still craving a cocoa-flavored breakfast cereal? Sprinkle it with any unsweetened cocoa you have in the cupboard!
Per 1 cup: 110 calories, 0.5 grams of total fat (0 grams of saturated fat), 160 milligrams of sodium, 25 grams of total carbohydrate (0 grams of dietary fiber, less than one gram of sugars), two grams of protein
Fooducate Grade: A-
Worst Cereal No. 2: Kellogg’s Smart Start, Original Antioxidants
Sure, you'll get a bite of whole grains here, but you'll also get highly processed grain products, including white rice (the main ingredient) and rice flour, which have been stripped of some natural plant-based nutrients. That's correct — fewer naturally occurring antioxidants instead of more! Much of the antioxidants in this cereal aren't from real food; they're added, kind of like sprinkling in a synthetic multivitamin supplement. And you're in luck if you're a fan of sugar, because this healthy-sounding cereal contains four different types, including regular sugar, brown sugar syrup, corn syrup and honey. The more "empty calories" sugar in your cereal, the less room there is for real, nutrient-packed ingredients.
This "smart" cereal also contains not-so-smart artificial color (hello, yellow 5) and artificial flavor. Human bodies don't need fake ingredients! So don't be fooled by the "health halo" around this cereal: It's not an ideal vehicle for getting naturally occurring antioxidants. Rather, eating a wholesome plant-based diet is a much smarter start!
Per 1 cup: 190 calories, one gram of total fat (0 grams of saturated fat), 200 milligrams of sodium, 43 grams of total carbohydrate (three grams of fiber, 14 grams of sugars), four grams of protein
Fooducate Grade: D+
Read more: 10 Convenient Low-Carb Snacks
Better-for-You Swap: Freedom Foods Barley+ Toasted Muesli
Want an antioxidant boost in your breakfast bowl? Be on the lookout for this muesli in the Pink Lady Apple and Macadamia flavor. You won't find overly processed ingredients that have been stripped of nutrients here. In addition to the naturally occurring antioxidants from its whole grains, dried fruits, nuts and seeds, you'll get a boost of gut-friendly nutrition, not a concoction of artificial colors and flavors. The muesli is made with BARLEYmax™, which is a non-GMO whole grain, and a natural mix of three types of fiber, including prebiotic dietary fiber. Prebiotic fiber feeds the gut microbiota, which is important for digestive health and so much more. Three fibers instead of four sugars is definitely the healthy way to go! What's more, this muesli provides a satiating duo of protein and fiber too. In fact, one serving provides 60 percent of the daily value for fiber.
Per 2/3 cup: 240 calories, eight grams of total fat (1.1 grams of saturated fat), 150 milligrams of sodium, 29 grams of total carbohydrate (17 grams of dietary fiber, eight grams of total sugars includes three grams of added sugars), eight grams of protein
Fooducate Grade: B
Worst Cereal No. 1: Cap’n Crunch’s Crunch Berries
Traditional Cap'n Crunch cereal is like a really bad-for-you dessert. Is this fruity-looking version a little better for you? Nope! While you'll get a drop of strawberry juice concentrate, the main difference is that you'll get some artificial flavor and more artificial colors here. (By the way, there's also a Cap'n Crunch's Oops! All Berries version that just has artificially saturated red, blue, green and purple pieces. Yikes!) Of course, no one's body needs artificial colors. Beyond that, some of these colors may be linked to hyperactivity in kids and allergic reactions. And no one ever said, "Oh, I love fake fruit flavors." Finally, getting too much sugar along with too little fiber is a potential blood sugar-spiking mess waiting to happen. To help slow down the release of sugar into the blood, ideally aim for a cereal that has more fiber than added sugars.
Per 3/4 cup: 100 calories, 1.5 grams of total fat (0.5 grams of saturated fat), 190 milligrams of sodium, 22 grams of total carbohydrate (less than one gram of fiber, 11 grams of sugars), one gram of protein
Read more: 10 Low-Carb Breakfasts That Will Fill You Up
Better-for-You Swap: Lydia’s Organics Berry Good Sprouted Cereal
The best way to eat berries is to simply eat fresh, whole, seasonal, vine-ripened berries. Sprinkle them generously on top of a healthy cereal choice. Don't have fresh berries? Try this: Lydia's Organics Berry Good Sprouted Cereal is an awesome way to get naturally dried organic berries like strawberries, raspberries and blueberries. No artificial colors or flavors to be found! It provides more fiber than added sugar. Plus, it's raw, vegan, non-GMO, gluten-free, soy-free and tastes good too.
And there's so much more to love here! In lieu of grains, this artisanal cereal's main ingredient is sprouted sunflower seeds. Sprouting seeds may help make their nutrients more available to your body. Eating a nutrient-rich cereal means you shouldn't need much more to satisfy you in the mornings. While the calories do seem high, those calories are chock-full of plant-based nutrients. Sprinkle a serving on top of a 100-calorie portion of plain, plant-based or regular yogurt for a highly nourishing breakfast.
Per 1/2 cup: 400 calories, 35 grams of total fat (12 grams of saturated fat), 10 milligrams of sodium, 18 grams of total carbohydrate (eight grams of dietary fiber, five grams of sugars), 11 grams of protein
Fooducate Grade: Not Yet Available
Better-for-You Cereal: Ezekiel 4:9 Cinnamon Raisin Whole Grain Cereal
As a bonus, check out this cereal pick with its fruity pops of natural sweetness and array of health benefits! It's Food for Life Ezekiel 4:9 Cinnamon Raisin Whole Grain Cereal. Not a highly-processed grain in sight, and most of the sugar comes naturally in the form of organic raisins. Your heart will be happy to know that! One serving is high in fiber and a good source of iron. It's also vegan. Here's the oh-so-wholesome ingredient list: "Organic Sprouted Wheat, Organic Raisins, Organic Malted Barley, Organic Sprouted Barley, Organic Sprouted Millet, Organic Sprouted Lentils, Organic Sprouted Soybeans, Organic Sprouted Spelt, Filtered Water, Sea Salt, Organic Cinnamon." Nice!
Per 1/2 cup: 190 calories, one gram of total fat (0 grams of saturated fat), 160 milligrams of sodium, 41 grams of total carbohydrate (five grams of fiber, eight grams of sugars), seven grams of protein
Fooducate Grade: A-
What Do YOU Think?
Do you eat a healthy cereal for breakfast? If so, did your favorite make our list? Let us know in the comments below!