Five things to check before you buy breakfast cereal

Our tips for finding the healthiest cereals


Cereal makers are competing for your breakfast bowl. They’ll promise their cereals are made with “whole grain” or “fruit & yogurt.” Or that they’re “heart healthy” and will “nourish” you.

A lot of this is just hype. How to tell what’s real? Start by turning the box around to the nutrition facts and ingredient list. Here are five key facts to look for:


1. Go for whole grains.

Look for a cereal that’s all (or nearly all) whole grain. That means the first two grain ingredients are typically whole grain or bran. If the label says “100% whole grain,” you’re good.

If the label doesn’t say “100% whole grain,” check the ingredient list. If the corn or wheat isn’t “whole” and the rice isn’t “brown,” assume that they’re refined. (Cereals with a refined grain far down in the ingredient list typically have very little.)

However, assume that oats, sprouted grains, and “ancient” grains like quinoa, millet, or sorghum are whole, even if they don’t say so.

Although bran isn’t a whole grain, it counts as whole because it’s the fiber-rich outer layer of the grain that’s missing from refined grains.


2. Check the serving size.

The size of the serving determines how many calories you’ll be eating. And serving sizes vary a lot. They can range from roughly 30 grams (1 oz.) for light cereals to 55 grams (2 oz.) for heavy cereals. Or, anywhere from ¼ cup to 1¼ cups.

And if the serving size is unrealistic, you might underestimate how many calories you’re getting. Some brands of granola and muesli—like Bear Naked, Kashi, and Bob’s Red Mill—cheat by using the serving size for snacks (1 oz.) when they should use heavy cereals’ (2 oz.) serving.

Take Bear Naked Honey Almond Granola. It has just 150 calories, says the label. But that’s if you eat only ¼ cup (1 oz.). As if.

Bottom line: Make sure the serving on the label matches how much you pour into your bowl…or adjust the calories and sugar numbers on the Nutrition Facts label accordingly.


3. Limit added sugars.

Food labels right now don’t have to list “added” sugars separately from total sugars. Added sugars include healthy-sounding sweeteners like dried cane syrup, agave, honey, molasses, fructose, and fruit juice concentrate, as well as plain old sucrose or table sugar. Total sugars include the naturally occurring sugar in fruit and milk. That will change by July 2018 when new labeling rules go into effect and manufacturers have to list the added and total sugars separately.

Choose cereals that have no more than 1½ teaspoons (7 grams) of total sugar for light cereals or 2½ teaspoons (11 grams) for heavy cereals.  To avoid penalizing fruit-rich cereals like raisin bran, check if fruit comes before an added sugar in the ingredient list.


4. Get enough unprocessed fiber.

“Every bowl contains 6 grams of natural fiber from whole grain wheat. Never artificial fiber,” says Post Original Shredded Wheat. Kudos to Post for boasting about the unprocessed, intact fiber that comes from whole grains and bran.

It’s not easy to select a cereal based on its grams of fiber anymore because Nutrition Facts labels don’t break down how much of a cereal’s fiber is unprocessed and how much is processed. Processed fiber, which is being added to more and more foods now, comes from inulin or chicory root fiber, oat fiber, soluble corn or wheat fiber, or other sources.

These processed fibers may not keep you regular, lower your cholesterol, or keep a lid on your blood sugar as well as the real thing, unprocessed fiber.

So aim for fiber that’s unprocessed. Check the ingredient list. Wheat bran, whole-grain wheat, and oats are your best bets. Brown rice and whole-grain corn have less.


5. Don’t forget saturated fat.

Look for cereals with less than 2½ grams of saturated fat. A few products (mostly granolas) have enough chocolate or coconut to hit 3 to 6 grams. But most cereals have little or no sat fat.


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