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Your cereal box, decoded

Do you love reaching for a bowl of cereal in the morning? The right cereal can be a comforting and filling start to the day, but a lot of varieties that seemingly pass for “healthy” are in fact simply not. Find out how to decode your cereal box so you can select a healthy and yummy option that will satisfy your taste buds as well as your body’s nutritional needs.

Woman examining nutrition information from cereal box in supermarket aisle

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.

The ingredients list

Whole grains

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:

  • BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene) and BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole): These preservatives are currently approved for use in food in certain quantities, explains Barton. But she cautions that studies on rats have shown that, at high levels, they might be carcinogenic and cause endocrine disruption and possible allergic reactions. The International Agency for Research on Cancer also classifies BHA as a possible human carcinogen, so Barton recommends avoiding these preservatives if possible.
  • HFCS (high-fructose corn syrup): HFCS can contain either 42 per cent fructose or 55 per cent fructose, explains Barton. Because the body does not metabolize fructose in the same way as it does glucose, it might cause disruptive effects on the metabolism and disturb liver function. Some studies have even shown that high levels can elevate triglyceride levels in men and increase the risk of heart disease. So it’s better to not let them find their way into your cereal bowl.
  • Sulphites: These preservatives are used “to maintain food colour, prolong shelf life and to prevent the growth of micro-organisms,” explains Barton. But they have been shown to aggravate asthma and can cause allergic-like reactions in sulphite-sensitive people.
  • Sugar: It’s important to be extra careful with this one, because sugar can hide behind many names. Barton explains: “When listing ingredients on the label, the manufacturers must do so in order of quantity by weight, starting with the largest. They are aware that most consumers know this and will therefore split up the content of sugar into various forms so that it falls lower down the list of ingredients.” So rather than listing one sugar that appears as the first or second ingredient, smaller quantities of a variety of sugars are listed, as they can fall lower down the list, giving the impression that the sugar content is lower than it actually is. To avoid this trap, Barton advises keeping an eye out for the various names of sugar, such as brown rice syrup, barley malt, sugar cane juice, molasses, honey and fruit juice concentrate. Ingredients ending in “ose,” such as maltose, sucrose, fructose and dextrose, should also be avoided as well.

The serving size

Bowl of cereal

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.

Daily value percentages

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.”

Learn more tips on how to read food labels >>

Reading the nutrition facts label

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:

Cereal box nutrition label

  • Trans fats (hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils): “Trans fats have been shown to increase LDL cholesterol (bad cholesterol), reduce HDL cholesterol (good cholesterol) and may be linked to certain cancers,” explains Barton. So steer clear of them when selecting a cereal.
  • Carbohydrates: “Cereal grains provide a rich source of carbohydrates to our diet. We tend to get enough carbohydrates, and we don’t necessarily need to count the grams of carbs on a label. Instead I would focus on the quality of the carbohydrates. Ideally shoppers should look for whole-grain ingredients and avoid refined flour products, where much of the nutrients have been stripped,” says Barton.
  • Fibre: This food component is an important part of a healthy diet, explains Barton. Fibre slows the absorption of the cereal, ensuring you stay fuller for longer and avoid spiking your blood sugar. She suggests looking for a minimum of 5 grams of fibre per serving.
  • Sodium: Barton explains that boxed cereals tend to be loaded with sodium, and it is very easy to exceed our recommended dietary intake, particularly if you eat a lot of processed foods. So when selecting a cereal, she suggests looking for the lowest sodium per serving possible (preferably 0), up to a maximum of 110 milligrams per serving.
  • Protein: “We tend to get sufficient protein in our standard Canadian diets. However, looking for a cereal with at least 5 grams of protein will help slow down the body’s absorption of the carbohydrates, lowering the body’s glycemic response to the cereal. This is important, as a low-fibre, low-protein cereal can spike our blood sugar, which triggers excess insulin to be released. Insulin then drives our blood sugar into cells very quickly, often leaving us feeling fatigued, irritable and hungry for another high-carb snack,” says Barton.

Other vitamins and minerals to be gained

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.

Watch out for the sugar

Sugar cubes balanced on a spoon

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.

Picking the healthiest option

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.

More healthy breakfast ideas

Healthy granola recipe
Healthy peanut butter and banana muffins
Quinoa for breakfast: Two ways

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