At first glance, cereal might seem like a healthy breakfast choice. Many popular brands of breakfast cereal are touted as high in fiber and beneficial for lowering cholesterol, however, unfortunately, many of these claims are misleading and it is important to understand not all breakfast cereals are created equals. So, let’s discuss breakfast cereal, and answer the question – is cereal healthy?
What is Breakfast Cereal?
Breakfast cereal, or simply cereal, is a grain-based food made from various grains (including wheat, corn, and rice) that have been processed and are pre-cooked or ready to eat. In addition to grains, breakfast cereals may also contain nuts, seeds, and/or dried fruits, are often sweetened with sugar, syrup, or fruit, and most are fortified with vitamins and minerals.
How is Breakfast Cereal Made?
Ready-to-eat breakfast cereals are typically made through the processes of flaking, puffing, or extrusion. (1) Generally speaking, the grains are processed into flour and cooked with, water, flavors, and syrups. Once cooked, the grains are then processed via extrusion, a high-temperature process that uses a machine to shape the cereal, and then dried. (1) The exact process may vary from one cereal to another since cereals can be flaked, puffed, shredded, or granular, however, once complete all cereal is then treated with vitamins and minerals that were lost during the cooking process, and often coated with a sweet flavoring.
The Problem with Breakfast Cereals
Cereal is Made from Processed Grains
Although made from wheat, rice, and corn, the grains used to make cereal are highly processed. The extrusion process used to make breakfast cereal strips the grains of their vitamins and essential nutrients. This process creates a cereal made with refined grains and is, therefore, considered a form of refined carbohydrate and processed food. Although grains can certainly be included in a healthy diet, they are not ideal in the form of cereal.
Cereal Contains a Lot of Added Sugar
In addition to the grains being a source of refined carbohydrates, breakfast cereals are typically loaded with added sugar. Not only has excess refined sugar been associated with a myriad of health issues, but it helps to make breakfast cereals highly addictive causing you to overeat them and exceed the recommended maximum daily sugar intake. Diabetes Canada suggests consuming no more than 10% of total daily calorie intake, approximately 50 grams based on a 2,000 calorie per day diet, and ideally less than 5%, approximately 25 grams of sugar per day. Unfortunately, some of the more popular “healthy” brands of breakfast cereal contain as little as 11 grams per 1 cup serving. (2)(3)
Cereal Contains Additives and Preservatives
Not only do breakfast cereals contain large amounts of excess sugar, syrups, and sweeteners, but many also contain potentially dangerous additives and preservatives. Many cereal brands, especially those marketed at children, contain artificial colors, used to make them look more vibrant and appealing, which have been linked to behavioral issues, increased risk of cancer, and allergic reactions. (4) Moreover, some of the most popular cereal brands still contain butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) and butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT). While findings on BHT have been mixed, international organizations have found BHA to cause cancer in lab animals. BHA was evaluated under the Government of Canada’s Chemicals Management Plan and was found to not present a risk at current levels of exposure, however, the use of BHA and BHT in foods is restricted in Europe. Although in recent years some of the larger companies have removed BHT from their products, they can still be found in some common cereal brands. (5)
Misleading Health Claims
Part of the confusion around breakfast cereal can be found in the misleading health claims used on packaging and in advertising. Processed food products, including cereal, are labeled with buzzwords such as “all-natural”, “high-fiber” and “low fat”, which are used to encourage consumers to believe that these products are healthier than they actually are. In fact, studies have shown that these health claims are an effective tool in misleading people to believe that products, including cereals, are healthier than they actually are. (6) Moreover, labels are often designed to target children, with bright colors and cartoon characters to help make them seem more appealing, not to mention a sugary taste. Paired with misleading health claims, all of this marketing can make things even more difficult for consumers to dissect.
So, Is Cereal Healthy?
So, is cereal healthy or unhealthy? Well, it depends on the ingredients. Although cereal can be a healthy choice, the healthy options are very few and far between since most cereals are made of highly refined and processed grains, added sugars, refined oils, preservatives, and additives. However, if you must eat cereal, there are some simple things that you can look for when shopping for healthy cereal.
How to Pick a Healthy Cereal
If you choose to eat breakfast cereal, here are some tips to help ensure you are choosing a healthier option.
1. Ignore the Label
The front of most breakfast cereal boxes is filled with misleading health claims, such as “high protein”, “low fat”, and “whole grain”, which can lead you to believe they are healthier than they really are. These are simply marketing tactics used to sell products, which are often highly processed and high in sugar, regardless of what the label says.
2. Read the Ingredients
The only way to determine if a cereal is healthy or not is to read the ingredients list. Legally, ingredients must be listed in order of weight, beginning with the ingredient that is the most prominent, therefore, the first few ingredients in the list are the most important and notable, as they make up the majority of the cereal. It is important to look for lists that focus on whole foods and limit sugar and unnecessary additives.
3. Pay Attention to Portion Size
Because breakfast cereal is designed to be hyper-palatable, they are really easy to over-consume. Ensure that you read the portion size on the back of the cereal box to compare the suggested portion size to the amount you are actually eating.
4. Limit Sugar
As with all processed foods, it is important to choose a cereal without, or with limited, added sugar. Unfortunately, food manufacturers use a variety of code words for sugar to hide sugars from consumers. It is best to opt for cereals with no added sugar, which you can sweeten or flavor yourself, or cereals with less than 5 grams of sugar per serving.
5. Focus on Fibre
Cereals made of whole foods, specifically whole grains, are a much better source of fiber than refined versions. Not only does fiber have numerous health benefits, but it will also help to balance your blood sugar and keep you satiated for longer periods of time. Be sure to read the label and opt for breakfast cereals with at least 4 grams of fiber per serving.
Alternatives to Breakfast Cereal
When it comes to eating a healthy breakfast, whole foods are always the best option. Although breakfast cereal is convenient, there are many other ways to create a healthy breakfast that is focused on whole food and requires minimal effort. Some healthy breakfast options include:
- Oatmeal with diced apple, cinnamon, and maple syrup,
- Scrambled eggs with sprouted grain toast,
- Yogurt with homemade granola and berries,
- Overnight oatmeal with Greek yogurt and fruit,
- Mini egg frittatas with vegetables,
- And many more!
Creating a healthy breakfast can be both quick and easy when you focus on whole foods. By incorporating a source of protein, source of fiber, and some healthy fats, you can easily create a well-balanced meal with minimal effort.
The Bottom Line
Most breakfast cereals are highly processed, often high in sugar, packed full of preservatives, and contain misleading health claims. Although there are some healthy breakfast cereals on the market, they are few and far between. If you must eat cereal, ensure that you read the ingredients and opt for versions made of whole, unprocessed foods that are low in sugar and high in fiber. Alternatively, opt for whole food alternatives; such as oatmeal, toast, or eggs, for a healthy and well-balanced breakfast to start the day.