When you walk down the cereal aisle, you're met with a wall of colourful, cheery packaging with catchy terms such as "whole grain" and "source of fibre." But how do you choose the option that's actually best for you? Nutritionist Haley Barton, M.Sc., of Vancouver-based Nutrition Savvy explains that though these claims might be true, many boxed cereals are made of grains that have been pulverized into flour and reformed into various shapes, often with added sugar, salt and sometimes fat and preservatives. So it's important that you know how to make sense of the ingredients and nutritional information on the side of the box so you can pick a nutritious option.
When you pick up a cereal box, the ingredients list is the first place to start. A quick read-through of the ingredients will tell you whether that cereal is even worth considering. A simple list of recognizable ingredients, such as grains, nuts and seeds, is ideal, explains Barton. If you see a long list of preservatives, unpronounceable ingredients and various descriptive words for sugar, that box is better left on the shelf. Barton also suggests looking for a cereal where the first ingredient listed is a "whole grain," such as "whole-grain oats" or "whole-grain wheat." The term "whole grain" means most of the nutritious bran and germ of the grain have been used to make the cereal. If a cereal passes these initial tests, the next thing to check for is ingredients that should be avoided. Barton cautions against selecting a cereal with the following ingredients:
Now that you're done making sense of the ingredients, you can move on to the nutrition panel. The best place to start is at the top, with the serving size. When considering a new cereal or debating among a few options, keep in mind that the serving sizes won't necessarily be the same. "Manufacturers never want to have to declare a large number of calories, sugar or fat, so they will often reduce the serving size so the numbers are more 'consumer-friendly,'" explains Barton. Serving sizes for cereal can fluctuate from a 1/4 cup to 1 cup, which greatly changes how the nutritional information applies to you. If you're comparing one cereal to another, be sure to keep this in mind. And if a cereal's serving size is so small you think you will need several to satisfy your hunger, that should be taken into consideration as well.
Next up on your investigation of the nutrition facts label are the daily value (DV) percentages. These make it easy for you to get a sense of how much of each nutrient you're getting without having to memorize all your body's requirements. "Each nutrient has its own daily value, which is roughly based upon the nutrient's recommended daily intake," explains Barton. "So if the daily recommended intake for vitamin C is 60 milligrams a day and the food product contains 20 milligrams per serving, that product would provide 33 per cent of the daily value for vitamin C." Keep in mind that these values are based upon a 2,000-calorie diet and will vary depending on how many calories you require in a day, explains Barton. She also cautions that the DV system is not perfect and is to be used as a general guide when comparing the nutrient contents of different food products and assessing the relative contribution of a food to a healthy eating pattern. A good rule of thumb, suggests Barton, is to think of "a DV of 5 per cent or less as 'a little' of that nutrient and a DV of 15 per cent or more as 'a lot' for that nutrient."
Now that you have a sense of how DV percentages work, you can tackle understanding the nutrition facts labels on cereal boxes. Barton recommends paying attention to the following good and bad qualities that can be found in a box of cereal:
You are likely to find several other beneficial vitamins and minerals listed on the side of the cereal box. Barton explains that the grains used in cereals can provide a host of vitamins and minerals, including iron, magnesium, zinc and B vitamins, such as thiamin, niacin, riboflavin, pantothenic acid and B6. But she cautions that the richest source of these vitamins and minerals occurs when they are whole, intact, unprocessed grains rather than after they have been milled or refined. Once they have been processed, they lose a large percentage of their nutrients, explains Barton. And although manufacturers might fortify their flours with these nutrients, it's often not in the same quantities as the original grain. So she suggests to look for whole, intact grains rather than flours formed into shapes.
There's a lot to keep track of on the side of a cereal box, and it might seem challenging to look out for all of it. But if there's one thing that should play a large role in your decision process, it's the sugar content. Barton advises that because we don't need added sugar in our diets, a cereal with 0 grams per serving is best and up to a maximum of 5 grams (1 teaspoon) per serving is acceptable. However, she also points out that cereals with dried fruits might have higher sugar contents because of the natural sugars found in fruit. But even with these types of cereals, she suggests you avoid going above 10 grams of sugar per serving. Ideally, look for a cereal with 0 grams and then, if necessary, add fresh berries, cinnamon, banana slices or a sprinkling of dried fruit for a touch of natural sweetness. Even adding your own half or full teaspoon of brown sugar to your sugar-free cereal is preferable to a sugar-laden cereal. Says Barton: "The American Heart Association has come out with guidelines for sugar consumption. Women should have no more than 6 teaspoons or 24 grams of added sugar a day. Men should have no more than 9 teaspoons or 36 grams of sugar a day. Children, depending upon [their daily number] of calories, should have no more than 3–4 teaspoons (12–16 grams) of sugar a day." So if that kids' cereal box you're looking at has 16 grams of sugar per serving, that's much too much and is better left on the shelf.
Barton advises starting your day with a whole, intact, unprocessed grain, such as steel-cut oats, wheat/spelt berries or millet. These grains can be cooked up as a warm, hearty, healthy breakfast and then dressed up with cinnamon, nuts, seeds and fresh or dried fruit for flavour. But if it's a bowl of cereal and milk you crave in the morning, healthy options are available. Barton's bottom line for picking out a healthy breakfast cereal? Focus primarily on fibre, sugar and sodium contents based on the information above, as well as a simple, natural, unprocessed list of ingredients.
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