Cereal is THE American breakfast. There are hundreds of different cereal products to choose from with most supermarkets dedicating an entire aisle to these boxed breakfasts. Many cereal brands utilize their packaging to convince us to choose their healthy product. Here's what you need to know in order to make the best choice.
Tip #1 - Fiber is your friend
A healthy breakfast cereal is all about whole grains, which help lower your risk of diabetes and heart disease.
What's in the whole grain that makes it so great? Fiber.
Fiber is the indigestible portion of plant foods, which seems counterintuitive - don't we want to digest the food we eat? Well, fiber helps us feel full and thus decreases appetite. It also helps the intestines function smoothly, aids in the regulation of blood sugar levels, and lowers bad cholesterol.
With all these benefits, you'd think people would be all over fibrous foods.
Unfortunately, most of us are fiber deficient, averaging an intake of only 15 grams per day, when the recommended amount is 25 grams. That's why you need a high-fiber breakfast. High-fiber grains include barley, buckwheat, millet, oats, rye, and whole wheat.
Tip #2 - Bran is your buddy
Bran is the hard, outer layer of grain. Along with the germ, it is an integral part of whole grains. It is a by-product of milling in the production of refined grains. When bran is removed from grains, they lose some of their nutritional value.
Bran may be milled from any cereal grain, including rice, corn, wheat, maize, oats, barley, and millet. Cereals made with bran tend to have a high fiber count, which is good.
Tip #3 - Avoid sugar shock
Sugar makes things taste good, especially to children. Sweet is not necessarily bad, but some cereals are over 40 percent sugar by weight! A small serving can easily have over 3 teaspoons of sugar.
A cereal with 6 grams or more of sugar per serving (one and a half teaspoons) is closer to snack than breakfast. Definitely not a healthy start to the day.
Avoid cereals listing sugar as the first ingredient
Tip #4 - Say NO to artificial sweeteners
Some cereals come with zero grams of sugars, but unfortunately use artificial sweeteners such as aspartame. Although approved as safe by the FDA, zero-calorie sweeteners infantilize the taste buds, getting us used to overly sweet food. Artificial sweeteners may also interfere with the body's metabolism, because they trigger insulin production when it is not truly required.
Tip #5 - Don't be surprised by Sodium
Salt is the single most popular ingredient in breakfast cereals. It appears in more than 65% of cereals, slightly more than sugar! Some cereals pack almost twice as much salt (350mg) as a serving of potato chips (180mg).
Salt is composed of sodium (40%) and chloride (60%). Our body needs sodium to function properly, but excess amounts can lead to an array of health problems, including high blood pressure.
The recommended daily sodium intake is 2300mg, but Americans are consuming 3700mg on average. We need to cut back, and there is no reason for a breakfast cereal to have so much salt in it.
Tip #6 - Avoid these ingredients
When consumed daily, even small amounts of unwanted ingredients start to add up:
Partially hydrogenated oils - Yes, some cereals still have trans-fats. Sometimes it is hidden: the nutrition facts panel may say 0 grams of trans-fat even when trans-fat is present. This is due to a loophole in FDA regulations that allows 0.5 grams or less per serving to be labeled as zero. Always read the ingredient list to make sure there are no partially hydrogenated oils present.
Artificial colors - Kids love bright lovely colors. While blue, green, and red are fun to draw with, blue #2, red #40, and yellow #5 are not something you want your children to ingest on a regular basis. The FDA says they're safe, but other countries are banning these and other artificial colors, suspected of carcinogenicity and causing hyperactivity in some children.
BHT, BHA - these are synthetic preservatives that increase shelf life by stopping food from going rancid. Some studies have implicated them as carcinogens. Less problematic preservatives such as vitamin E are available.
Tip #7 - Don't be fooled by fortified cereals
Cereal grains aren't usually very high in micronutrients. Once processed into your favorite breakfast cereal, they've lost most of the little they had to begin with. Sometime in the last century, manufacturers began fortifying cereals with additional vitamins and minerals in order to improve their nutritional value and marketability.
For most of us that eat three varied meals a day including meat, dairy, bread, fruits, and vegetables, fortification is not really that important.
It is much better to get the vitamins and minerals in their original packaging than sprayed (yes, sprayed) onto your O's or flakes. Which brings up another important point. The longer a cereal is drenched in milk, the more nutrition seeps into the liquid. So drink it all up!
Cereal is a fast and easy solution for breakfast. Make sure it is a healthy one by following our cheat sheet below.
Choose cereals with 3 or more grams of fiber
Choose cereals with 100% whole grain (whole wheat for example)
Choose cereals with less than 6 grams of sugar per serving
Avoid a cereal if sugar in any form appears as one of its first ingredients
Choose cereals without artificial sweeteners
Choose cereals with less than 150mg of sodium per serving
Don't buy cereals containing partially hydrogenated oils or artificial colors
Try to avoid BHT and BHA
Don't pay too much attention to the long list of vitamins on cereal boxes. They are a secondary consideration when compared to fiber and sugar content.