Eating a bowl of cereal can be one of the most efficient ways to fuel up in the morning. Unfortunately, many of us fall victim to false advertising at the supermarket. We opt for cereals we think are ‘healthy’ when they’re actually high in sugar, low in whole grains, or made with ‘fake’ fibers. Use this checklist to shop smart and find a healthy breakfast cereal that’s right for you:
Think whole grains. The first or second ingredient on the nutrition label should always read ‘whole grain.’ If the first or second ingredient says ‘refined’ then you know it’s most likely trouble and not a very healthy brand. Or, if the cereal box advertises ‘made with whole grain,’ it can be misleading because it might be a very small proportion overall. Keep in mind that product ingredients are listed in order of quantity so you want whole grains or whole grain oats to be listed at the very top. Finally, the amount of whole grains in grams should be similar to the serving size—the best cereals are almost 100% whole grain. One exception to that is when the cereal is plentiful in bran, nuts, fruit or soy, all nutritious ingredients, but low in whole grains. Remember: always check the first two ingredients!
Pass on cereals with ‘fake’ fibers. Fiber does have its benefits, but sometimes breakfast-cereal makers include isolated fibers—soy fiber, oat fiber, corn fiber, etc.—powder versions of grains with no actual health merits. Instead, you’re better off looking for cereals high in whole grain and low in sugar because companies will promote their product as ‘high in fiber’ when it’s really a counterfeit version.
Added sugar vs. natural sugar. While cereals like raisin bran cereal contain natural sugars from fruit that are good for you, added sugars found in Cocoa Puffs, Frosted Flakes, or Lucky Charms are no good for your waste line. Be sure to compare the grams of sugar included to the overall serving size. For example, a cereal might advertise 10 grams of sugar with a serving size of 30 grams, which should raise a red flag because that indicates that the cereal is 1/3 sugar!
Identify empty health claims. Cereal-makers will put anything on the front of the box to reel you in. Know when to move on with these health claim lie detectors:
- Fake fruits. Sorry to burst your bubble but oftentimes the ‘fruit’ in your cereal is just a concoction of food dye and gelatin—Kellogg’s Strawberry Delight Bite Size Mini-Wheats is one example. Sound appetizing? Probably not. Always be sure that the ingredient list says the cereal contains real fruit.
- Yogurt clusters. We all love them, right? Well, they’re actually a delicious but deadly mixture of oil and sugar. Sorry, no health benefits there.
- “Slimming” cereals. Remember the phrase: correlation does not equal causation? Here is one example. Cereal companies will say that their cereal is “high in fiber” and that if you eat three bowls per day, you will lose weight. Yes, it’s true that people whose diet is high in fiber and whole grains tend to weigh less, but this is often an unsubstantiated claim they are making. It is even more misleading when the cereals contain processed ‘fibers.’ Buyer Beware.
- Low in saturated fat. Cereal makers will claim that their cereal is heart-healthy because it is low in saturated fat. Don’t be fooled: any food producer whose product is low in saturated fat can say the same thing.
- Counting calories. Many cereal lovers think they can indulge in cereal because it’s “low-cal and healthy.” That’s not always the case. Take granola for example, if you have ¼ cup you’ve already consumed a hefty chunk of calories and you’re probably still hungry. Your favorite brands may have more calories than you realize so start your day off right and make sure that you don’t splurge on calories at 8 a.m.
What did you find most surprising? Are the cereals in your pantry up to par? If not, the next time you’re going to the supermarket, remember to pay close attention to the food label. This is the most effective way to ensure that the cereal brands you choose are, in fact, healthy.