Choosing the Right Breakfast Cereal

cereal with milkThe cereal aisle in a supermarket can be as intimidating as walking into a room of complete strangers. There are literally hundreds of varieties of cereal on the market in the United States, and the number continues to increase. Not to mention that food companies spend hundreds of millions of dollars marketing cereal towards consumers, specifically children. These marketing tactics often make it difficult for the average consumer to determine which brands are beneficial and which ones they should pass on. Think of this as your cereal code book. Following the criteria below will help you make better choices when it comes to your cereal bowl.

Be the adult. If you let your children choose, you will absolutely end up with a sugary cereal, since kids are influenced by box design and TV ads. Remember that the appearance of the box has nothing to do with what’s inside. Look past that attractive picture on the front and look straight to the side panel (the nutrition facts).

Read the “Nutrition Facts” and “Ingredients List”. The information listed here is standardized so it is easier to compare between boxes of cereal, than by just paying attention to the hype advertised on the front of the box. Check to see what constitutes a serving size before comparing the calories, sugar, fat, etc.

The grains should be whole. Under ingredients, it should say “whole wheat” or “wheat bran” and not simply “wheat”. Plenty of food companies will claim that their cereal provides a serving of whole grain but unless it's one of the first ingredients, it's not the case. Single grain cereals like shredded wheat, puffed wheat or rolled oats are safe bets if you're not sure. If the cereal contains milled corn, cornmeal, or rice than you're getting a mixture of whole and refined grains. 

Protein content should be at least 5 grams per serving. Protein is what leaves you feeling satisfied, so you don’t want to skimp on this macronutrient. This is the missing component in most of the leading cereal brands. Some of the most popular cereals claim to contain whole grains and be great for your health, but only contain a measly 1 to 2 grams of protein. Besides fiber, protein ensures that your breakfast choice will go a long way in satiating you through the morning.

The total carbohydrate to sugar ratio should be no less than four to one. This means that if there are 24 grams of carbohydrates in the cereal, then the sugars should be listed as 6 grams or less. This ratio shows that the majority of carbohydrates come from grains and fiber and not just from added sugars. One serving of cereal should contain less than 10 grams of sugar.  

Check for fiber. One of the most important components of cereal is fiber. Aside from preventing constipation, fiber also helps to fill you up. Look for cereals that contain at least 4 grams of fiber per serving. Keep in mind, however, that if you are opting for the “high fiber” cereals, you will want to also increase your fluid intake. Increasing fiber intake too quickly can lead to gas and bloating. Remember, the fiber in cereal is what's going to keep you full until your next meal.

Take those vitamins! For the most part, cereal is a major source of certain nutrients. These include folic acid, zinc, iron, and other B-vitamins. Check to see that your cereal is providing at least 25% of the RDA for these nutrients.

Beware of fruit. Don’t be fooled by the fruity name or the dehydrated red berries that are floating in that bowl. Dried fruit is actually heavier than grains, so it will be listed towards the top of the ingredient list, leading you to believe that there is a lot of fruit in there. In most cereals, however, there is actually very little fruit. A better bet would be to skip the fruity cereals, and add your own fresh fruit to the bowl.

What to avoid. There are certain ingredients that a nutritious cereal should not contain. These include hydrogenated oils, dyes or artificial colors, and chemical preservatives. If you see these on the ingredient list, keep walking!

Don’t forget the milk. Whatever cereal you are consuming, chances are it is still missing some key amino acids (the building blocks of protein). By having that cereal with milk, you will be adding extra protein and making up for those few amino acid deficiencies in the grain. Remember though, keep that milk low in fat and opt for skim or 1% milk or go for a non-dairy option such as unsweetened almond milk.


    Avoid Cereal Sins

    Just because you’ve picked the right cereal, doesn’t mean you’re in the clear. You’ll have to watch out for these 3 most common cereal sins.

    1. Portion Control. The first cereal sin is portion control. The #1 mistake people make is using too large of a bowl. Solution? Measure out the proper portion once and use a smaller bowl moving forward. Or my favorite trick - pair with something finite like yogurt or a snack pack of  cottage cheese. You can also pre-portion the cereal in mini snack size bags that hold exactly one cup so you don’t have to worry about the portion moving forward.
    2. Snacking. Using cereal as a snack almost always becomes a mindless munching situation. The solution? Keep it to breakfast only.
    3. Breakfast for Dinner. You know, you get home, it’s late, you’re too tired to cook a meal, so you decide to have just one bowl of cereal. But it’s never just one bowl. Solution? Pop a frozen meal in the microwave that’s under 300 calories and keep that cereal to breakfast only.

    When looking at nutrition labels keep in mind that all cereal companies use different serving sizes. An ideal amount of cereal is about 1/2 cup to 3/4 cup. It's tempting to fill the bowl to the brim but it's simply too much! Implement these criteria into your cereal purchasing decision and you'll feel satisfied with your cereal.


    Heather Bauer, RD CDN
    Heather Bauer, RD CDN

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