How to Pick Healthy Cereal
Take a stroll down the cereal lane in any supermarket and you’ll be overwhelmed by the overdose of fruity and colorful boxes. The variety, the catchy names, and the fabulous box designs are a tribute to the creativity of American advertising firms. But when choosing and preparing healthy cereal for your family, you’ll need to look past the glitz.
Guidelines for Choosing Healthy Cereal
Don’t let the kids decide.
Children are influenced by box designs and TV ads, and care nothing about the nutritional content of cereal. Let them make decisions, but give them healthy cereal choices: pick three cereals that you would select and let them choose one. At least this way they have a choice. Children are more likely to eat cereal they select themselves, but parents must prescreen.
Read the “Nutrition Facts” box on the back or side of the package.
This information is clearer and more accurate than claims on the front of the box. Because these parts of the label follow a standard format, you can use them to make meaningful comparisons between products. Ignore the hype on the front of the box (e.g., the cereal that boasts that it is “low-fat” – nearly all cereals are low-fat). Grains are naturally low in fat, unless you do something unnatural to them, such as add hydrogenated oils in processing. Be wary of some granola cereals, which may contain 4 to 9 grams of fat per serving, especially if it’s hydrogenated.
To help you decide whether a particular product is a healthy cereal that merits a place in your pantry, or is better left on the shelf, consider these six criteria for a healthy cereal:
- The grains should be whole (e.g. “whole wheat” or “wheat bran,” not just “wheat”).
- Protein content should be at least 3 grams per serving.
- The total carbohydrate-to-sugar ratio should be no less than 4:1. This means if the “Total Carbohydrate” line says 24 grams, the “sugars” should have a value of 6 grams or less. That tells you that most of the carbs come from the grain and fibers, not from the added sugars. On the other hand, a cereal with 28 grams of total carbohydrate and 15 grams of sugars would fall into the “junk cereal” category. Super nutritious cereals have a carb-to-sugar ratio of six or seven to one (e.g., 23 grams to 3 grams). Also look for the “five and five” rule: Less than 5 grams of sugar and at least 5 grams of fiber. Another way to evaluate the amount of sugar in a cereal is to look at the number of grams of sugar per one ounce serving. As a general guide, more than seven grams of sugar (1.5 teaspoons) per 1 oz. serving is too much. Some cereals, especially those in our junk category, have 3-4 teaspoons of sugar added per 1 oz. serving. Even your kids might say “too sweet!”
- Zinc content should be 25 to 40 percent of the recommended daily allowance.
- Iron content should be 25 to 40 percent of the RDA.
- Other vitamin and mineral content should be 25 to 40 percent of the RDA.
There are also ingredients nutritious, healthy cereal should not contain. Check the ingredients list for these:
- hydrogenated oils
- dyes or artificial colors
- chemical preservatives
(For additional information, see Reading Food Labels.)
Think about why you are buying cereal in the first place.
Yes, cereal is a favorite family breakfast food, but think about what nutrients cereals are the best source of. The list includes: fiber, protein, folic acid, zinc, iron, and B-vitamins. Most other nutrients can be found just as readily, if not more easily, in other foods. You don’t need to get your daily vitamin C or calcium from your cereal bowl. Choose cereals that are highest in the nutrients cereals do best.
A Tale of Two Cereals
NUTRI-O’S Nutrition facts:
- Calories: 81
- Total carbohydrates: 23 grams
- Sugar: 5 grams
- Dietary fiber: 10 grams
- Protein: 4 grams
- Vitamins B2, B6, B12; magnesium, vitamin. C, iron, thiamin, niacin, folate, phosphorus, zinc (40 percent), Vitamin A, calcium, vitamin D, copper (20 percent)
- oat bran
- No dyes, hydrogenated oils, or preservatives
JUNK-O’S Nutrition facts:
- Calories: 120
- Total carbohydrates: 28 grams
- Sugar: 15 grams
- Fiber: 0.6 grams
- Protein: 1 gram
- Vitamins A and D (10 percent), calcium (1 percent), riboflavin, vitamin B6, vitamin B12, vitamin C, iron, thiamin, niacin, folate, zinc (20 percent)
- Corn, wheat, and oat flours, sugar, partially hydrogenated vegetable oil (one or more of coconut, cottonseed, and soybean)…yellow #6, red #40…blue #2…blue#1…BHT (preservative).
The labels make it obvious how far ahead you’ll be nutritionally if you choose the “Nutri-O’s,” but you wouldn’t know this from the front of the package. The front of the “Junk-O’s” box says “All natural fruit flavors” and “sweetened multi-grain cereal.” “Junk-O’s” even displays the seal of the American Heart Association and proudly notes: “This product meets American Heart Association dietary guidelines for healthy people over age two when used as part of a balanced diet.” No such American Heart Association seal appears on the “Nutri-O’s.” Don’t be taken in by the hype!
Label Reading Tips for Healthy Cereal
- Don’t be deceived by a fruity name and little red berries floating all over the front of the box. In most cereals there’s very little fruit. Dried fruit may be heavier than grain so it may be listed near the top of the ingredient list, leading consumers to believe that they are getting a lot of fruit in the cereal. It’s more nutritious to buy pure grains and add your own fruit.
- When comparing the nutrient-density of cereals it’s best to make comparisons based on the calories per serving rather than the volume or weight of a serving. For example, an ounce of a nutrient-dense cereal, such as All-Bran with extra fiber, would contain fewer calories and take up less volume than a more light and airy puffed rice. It would seem that you’re getting more calories if you eat the bigger bowl of puffed rice, but, you’ll get more nutrients per calorie in the bran cereal.
- As a general guide to the nutrient-density of a cereal, look at the weight of a serving (grams) in relation to the volume (i.e., 1/2 cup). If it takes a greater volume of one cereal than another to come up with the same weight in grams of fiber, protein, or other nutrients, choose the cereal with the lower volume per serving. The heavier cereal is usually the more nutritious. The extra space taken up by the lighter cereal is just a lot of expensive air.
- The quality of the grain is more important than the percentage of the vitamins listed on the box. Synthetic vitamins may be cheaper to add than nutritious grains. For example, a cereal listing “corn” or “wheat” but containing a lot of vitamins may not be as nutritious as a cereal listing “whole wheat” or “whole bran” yet containing a lower percentage of vitamins.
- Outrageous names on cereal boxes usually mean that a lot of good nutrition has been left out. This is particularly true of cereals targeted at children who are most influenced by the catchy name and hype on the front of the box and in the TV commercials. Children are too young to read the nutritional facts and ingredients list on the side of the box and rely on their parents to look out for their nutritional best interest.
Choosing Healthy Cereal for Infants
In selecting cereal for your baby, use criteria similar to those you use in choosing cereal for yourself. What are the main nutrients you want your baby to get from this cereal? Try these shopping tips:
- Protein: at least one gram per serving
- Iron: at least three milligrams per serving. Remember, after infants and toddlers are weaned from breast milk or formula, cereals may supply around half of an infant’s daily requirement for iron, which averages around six to ten milligrams a day. Infant cereals generally contain more iron per serving than adult cereals since they are enriched with iron.
- There are a lot of infant cereal options now available beyond the standard Rice Cereal. Oat, Barley and Brown Rice infant cereals are among other options.
Choose Fiber-Rich Cereal
Slow going? One of the most important components of cereals is fiber, which acts like an intestinal broom and sponge, soaking up water and sweeping out waste in the form of softer stools. A high fiber cereal will help prevent constipation.
Look for cereals that contain high-fiber grains, such as barley, buckwheat, millet, oats, rye, and whole wheat. Avoid white rice cereals, since rice is low in fiber. Cereals advertising “high fiber” will often have extra bran (and/or wheat) and may include a grain called psyllium that is very high in fiber. A word of caution: psyllium is powerful. It will cure constipation, but don’t eat too much, too fast, as this will cause gas and bloating. If you’re using psyllium as a supplement (it’s available in health stores), begin with the equivalent of 1/2 tablespoon a day, and gradually work up to one tablespoon, which provides a whopping intestines-cleansing dose of 8 grams of fiber, about a third of the RDA for daily fiber.
For fiber to work, you must take extra fluids, especially water, to help soften the stools. Otherwise the extra fiber turns to sludge in the bowels and actually contributes to constipation.
See flecks in the flakes.
While some less nutritious cereals often have thin flakes (we call them “see-through flakes”), more nutritious cereals have a rich, brown, thick appearance, with white or brown flecks of grains embedded within each flake.
Try juicy cereal.
Usually we think of milk and cereal as being married to one another. In one sense, this is an ideal marriage, since the proteins in the milk make up for the few amino acid deficiencies in the grain. Milk and cereal together mean that a person gets a complete protein meal. However, milk can somewhat decrease the absorption of iron from the cereal. Juices high in vitamin C (such as orange, grapefruit, or tangerine) can increase the absorption of iron. If you’re consuming cereal primarily for calories and protein, milk is a better choice than juice. If you’re serving cereal primarily for iron absorption (for example, to a baby who drinks enough milk or formula as a beverage), then juice in the cereal may be a better nutritional choice.
Add your own oats.
If you’re eating oat bran for your heart, rather than looking for the small amounts that may be added to cereals such as granola (which may also contain hydrogenated oils that can raise your cholesterol), buy a package of oat bran and sprinkle it on your choice of cereal. Or, add oat bran to home-baked goodies.
Make your own “multi-whole-grain” cereal.
Packing many grains together into one food will give you the benefit of many different nutrients. Is whole wheat bread deficient in lysine? No problem – add some amaranth. Need more niacin in the bread? Boost it with barley. What’s great about grains is that one plant’s nutritional deficiency is another one’s strength. Multi-grain breads and cereals teach your tongue to enjoy more than just plain old wheat or rice and help you appreciate more nutritional variety. Take some whole wheat, sprinkle in some amaranth (for more protein and fiber), add a touch of quinoa (for iron) and a bit of barley (for fiber), add a few flecks of millet (for folic acid), add a dash of rye (for vitamin E), and you have the makings of a six-grain cereal that has the best that each grain has to offer. But don’t forget to read the label carefully. “Multi grain” is not the same as “whole grain.”
Munching on healthy cereal is a good way to snack, especially for toddlers who don’t like to sit still and eat big meals, but prefer nibbling throughout the day.
Dr. Sears, or Dr. Bill as his “little patients” call him, has been advising busy parents on how to raise healthier families for over 40 years. He received his medical training at Harvard Medical School’s Children’s Hospital in Boston and The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, the world’s largest children’s hospital, where he was associate ward chief of the newborn intensive care unit before serving as the chief of pediatrics at Toronto Western Hospital, a teaching hospital of the University of Toronto. He has served as a professor of pediatrics at the University of Toronto, University of South Carolina, University of Southern California School of Medicine, and University of California: Irvine. As a father of 8 children, he coached Little League sports for 20 years, and together with his wife Martha has written more than 40 best-selling books and countless articles on nutrition, parenting, and healthy aging. He serves as a health consultant for magazines, TV, radio and other media, and his AskDrSears.com website is one of the most popular health and parenting sites. Dr. Sears has appeared on over 100 television programs, including 20/20, Good Morning America, Oprah, Today, The View, and Dr. Phil, and was featured on the cover of TIME Magazine in May 2012. He is noted for his science-made-simple-and-fun approach to family health.