Start Your Day Right: Choose Nutritious Cereal Options

The cereal aisle is one of the most frequently visited as well as one of the most confusing aisles within the grocery store.  If you are looking for nutritious and ready-to-eat breakfast options, you may find yourself overwhelmed amidst the neatly lined rows of brightly colored cardboard boxes.

 

Even the most health-conscious shoppers often struggle to decipher the myriad of health claims displayed across every box – “Reduced Sugar,” “Made with Whole Grain,” “Lightly Sweetened,” “Gluten-Free,” “May Help to Lower Cholesterol,” “New and Improved Taste,” just to name a few.

Most nutrition experts agree that the healthiest breakfast cereals have three key features:

  1. They are made from a short list of easily recognizable ingredients
  2. They are high in dietary fiber (at least 3 grams fiber/serving)
  3. They are low in sugar – especially added sugars (less than 8 grams sugar/serving.

Importance of a High Fiber Diet

Dietary fiber refers to the non-digestible carbohydrate found in foods. Fiber has long been recognized for its influence in the regulation of the gastrointestinal tract. Eating a sufficient amount of dietary fiber helps with digestion and can reduce cholesterol levels, stabilize blood glucose and alleviate constipation. Scientific research has also discovered that dietary fiber wields anti-inflammatory properties.

Fiber is also a vital nutrient in the prevention of chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, diverticulosis/diverticulitis and certain cancers. In addition, dietary fiber helps to induce feelings of fullness and consumption is linked to a lower body weight and a decreased incidence of obesity.

Despite these well-documented health benefits, it is estimated that 95 percent of Americans currently do not eat the recommended daily amount of fiber.

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Watch for Foods with Synthetic Fibers

In response to this growing public health concern over American’s fiber intake, some food manufacturers have begun adding commercially produced, isolated fibers to various food products (cereals, yogurt, ice cream, granola bars, artificial sweeteners) to boost the total fiber content. These isolated fibers are chemically synthesized or extracted from plant foods.

Scientific research, however, indicates that such added fibers do not exert the same benefits as the naturally occurring, intact fiber that is provided by whole food sources. Consequently, many food scientists and dietitians question the value of isolated fiber.

Examples of synthetic fibers include inulin, chicory root extract, chicory root fiber, resistant starch, psyllium fiber, wheat bran, soy fiber, cellulose, corn bran, pea hull fiber, pectin, methylcellulose, maltodextrin, olifructose, carrageenan, guar gum, xanthan gum, oat fiber, resistant starch, polydextrose, fructans and indigestible dextrins.

Look for Whole Grain Fiber Cereals

Naturally occurring fiber is found exclusively in plant-based foods and can be differentiated into two major types – soluble and insoluble. Oats, bananas, applesauce, melons, avocados, potatoes, sweet potatoes, carrots and green beans are all od sources of soluble fiber. Foods rich in insoluble fiber include beans, lentils, nuts, seeds, fruits and vegetables (especially those with edible skins, seeds and strings), and most whole grains (whole wheat, brown and wild rice, quinoa, bulgur, kasha/buckwheat, amaranth, millet, polenta, popcorn). Both soluble and insoluble fiber are important to achieving and maintaining optimal health status.

When seeking high-fiber cereal choices, focus on varieties that are made of 100 percent whole grains. To determine if a cereal is 100 percent whole grain, you must read the product’s ingredient list. Ingredients are listed in descending order by weight there is more of the first ingredient than anything else in the product. If the first ingredient contains the word “whole,” this can be interpreted to mean that the primary ingredient is a whole grain.

In contrast, cereals labeled as “multi-grain” or “made with whole grains” are not necessarily high in fiber or beneficial for your health. While a multi-grain cereal may contain multiple grains, these grains are commonly refined and stripped of the fiber content. And just because a label says a product is “made with whole grains” does not mean that cereal is 100 percent whole grain. The cereal may be predominately made of refined grains with a very small amount of whole grains added.

Avoid Added Sugars

Reviewing a cereal’s ingredient list will also help you determine the amount of sugar in it. Added sugars can take the form of many ingredients and are not always readily identifiable. Other names for added sugars include: organic cane sugar, corn syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, caramel, brown rice syrup, maple syrup, honey, molasses, turbinado sugar, cane juice, cane syrup, raw sugar, malt syrup, brown sugar, fruit juice, fruit juice concentrate, fruit purees and any ingredient with a suffix of –ose.

While some of these ingredients may be promoted as “more natural sweeteners,” they have no nutritional advantages and are very similar to white sugar in terms of caloric density, nutritive value and effects upon blood glucose.

Eating foods high in added sugars sets the stage for potential health problems. High-sugar foods can displace more nutritious foods, resulting in inadequate intake of important vitamins, minerals and other nutrients. Regular ingestion of foods with a lot of added sugars is also closely associated with weight gain, as added sugars contribute extra calories to the diet yet provide little nutritional value. Eating an excessive amount of added sugar can also increase triglyceride and blood sugar levels, which consequently increases the risks of heart disease and diabetes. All forms of sugar promote tooth decay, as sugars act as a food source for bacteria in the mouth to multiply and grow.

You can sweeten a low-sugar cereal by adding fresh, frozen and canned fruits. (This also adds some extra fiber.) Give sliced bananas, fresh strawberries, frozen blueberries or canned peaches (in their own juice) a try.

You should also be mindful that reduced-sugar cereals are not necessarily low-sugar choices. The majority of reduced-sugar cereals have an equal number of calories when compared to the original (higher-sugar) version. Studies have shown that to create reduced-sugar cereals, food manufacturers simply replace some of the sugar with other forms of refined carbohydrates.

Know the Serving Size

Even in the case of very nutrient-dense cereal options, cereal eaters need to be aware of serving sizes. Consumer Reports recently conducted an experiment in which research subjects were asked to pour themselves their desired portion of cold cereal. The researchers observed that nearly 100 percent of participants served themselves significantly more than the serving size listed on the cereal box.

Remember that serving size varies – a serving of cold cereal is typically ¾-1 cup, though a serving of puffed cereal may be as much as 1¼ cups and one serving of a granola or nugget-type cereal tends to be closer to ¼-2/3 cup. Measuring cups can be used as a very insightful learning tool.

Drizzling skim or 1 percent cow’s milk or soymilk over top of cold cereal increases the amount of protein, vitamin D and calcium provided at a meal or snack. Nonfat or low-fat lactose-free milk can also be used. Higher-fat cow’s milk choices, such as 2 percent and whole milk, contain more calories, total fat and saturated fat, and should therefore be avoided by most individuals. In addition, while many non-dairy milks (almond, rice, cashew) are typically fortified with vitamin D and calcium, these offer minimal protein.

Stick to Nutritious Cereal Options

In summary, the most healthful cereal choices are 100 percent whole grain, free of synthetic fibers, and composed of a succinct number of whole food ingredients. Ideal cereal choices have at least 3 grams of fiber and less than 8 grams of sugar per serving. Each of these criteria are equally important. Some fiber-rich cereals (such as granola) are high in fat and sugar, whereas some unsweetened cereals (Rice Krispies, Special K) are not 100 percent whole grain and/or very low in fiber.

The following table contains the names and nutrient breakdown of commercially available cereals that meet these standards.

Cereal

Serving Size

Calories/Serving

Dietary Fiber (grams)

Sugars (grams)

Arrowhead Mills Organic Amaranth Flakes

1 cup

140

3

4

Arrowhead Mills Organic Spelt Flakes

1 cup

120

3

3

Arrowhead Mills Organic Sprouted Corn Flakes

1 cup

110

3

1

Arrowhead Mills Organic Sprouted Multigrain Flakes

1 cup

120

3

2

Arrowhead Mills Shredded Wheat

1 cup

190

6

2

Barbara’s Bakery Shredded Wheat

2 biscuits

140

5

0

Cheerios (original)

1 cup

100

3

1

Cheerios (multi-grain)

1 cup

110

3

6

Food for Life Ezekiel 4:9 Sprouted Whole Grain (original)

½ cup

190

6

0

Grape-Nuts (original)

½ cup

210

7

5

Grape-Nuts Flakes

¾ cup

110

3

4

Kashi 7 Whole Grain Nuggets

½ cup

200

7

2

Kashi 7 Whole Grain Puffs

1½ cups

150

4

0

Kashi Autumn Wheat Whole Grain Biscuits

32 biscuits

200

7

7

Kashi Pilaf Original

¼ cup

170

5

0

Kashi Sweet Potato Sunshine

1 cup

180

4

7

Kix (original)

1¼ cups

110

3

3

Mini Wheats (unfrosted)

30 biscuits

190

8

0

Nature’s Path Mesa Sunrise Flakes

¾ cup

120

3

4

Nature’s Path Sunrise Whole-O’s

2/3 cup

120

3

4

Shredded Wheat (original big biscuit)

2 biscuits

160

6

0

Shredded Wheat (original spoon-size)

1 cup

170

6

0

Special K Protein (original)

¾ cup

120

3

7

Total

¾ cup

110

3

5

Uncle Sam Original Wheat Berry Flakes

¾ cup

190-210

10

<1

Wheat Chex

¾ cup

160

6

5

Wheaties

¾ cup

100

3

4

For more cereal nutrition information, please visit our health resources page.

About UPMC Harrisburg

UPMC Harrisburg is a nationally recognized leader in providing high-quality, patient-centered health care services in south central PA. and surrounding rural communities. UPMC Harrisburg includes seven acute care hospitals and over 160 outpatient clinics and ancillary facilities serving Dauphin, Cumberland, Perry, York, Lancaster, Lebanon, Juniata, Franklin, Adams, and parts of Snyder counties. These locations care for more than 1.2 million area residents yearly, providing life-saving emergency care, essential primary care, and leading-edge diagnostic services. Its cardiovascular program is nationally recognized for its innovation and quality. It also leads the region with its cancer, neurology, transplant, obstetrics-gynecology, maternity care, and orthopaedic programs.

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