When I was young I used to love reading the cereal box while I ate. Then I grew up and became a dietitian, I still like to read the boxes but my viewpoint is tainted. I am all for cereal but my job is to educate about healthy food choices and eating habits. Food marketing actually makes that more difficult. Cereal boxes themselves seem to be a great vehicle for advertising and while I am not against advertising I do think food advertising can be misleading and overwhelming. To combat the wealth of information (both good and not as good) I give you some guidelines on selecting the healthiest cereals. Since the price of food is on the rise, particularly noticeable in the cereal aisle, I have thrown in a cost analysis comparing a store brand with a National brand.
Shopping guidelines for cereal
1. Look for whole grain! Think about it …we should start our day off with healthful nutrient rich food, cereal can be a fine choice but the most nutritious cereals are whole grain—that should be the first criteria in choosing a cereal. Look for the word “whole” before the grain in the ingredient list (not the front of the package).
2. Look for fiber (intact fiber that is) according to Nutrition Action newsletter a good suggestion is 3g fiber per 100 calories. Many whole grains are high in fiber (some are not however like brown rice for example). Choose whole grain cereals with the most intact fiber.
a. What is intact fiber? Fiber from whole grains is intact. Fiber extracted from other sources is fiber of course but it is considered isolated fiber and may or may not have the same health benefits of intact fiber. Common isolated fibers added to food products are: inulin, maltodextrin, polydextrose, psyllium, and gums. Isolated fibers can be added to cereal that is not whole grain giving the illusion of whole grain goodness. Using the ingredient list to identify whole grains and nutrition facts panel to identify fiber is the best way to find the real thing.
3. Check the saturated fat content. If a cereal has nuts and seeds it is likely to have more fat than one without nuts and seeds. I usually do not fret too much over small amounts of fat (always consider the source). The exception is saturated fat and of course its evil twin brother (or sister) Trans fat, these two fats promote heart disease and therefore should be limited. Look for cereal with saturated fat of 1g or less and 0g Trans fat.
4. Sugar I usually am a bit more lose with my sugar recommendations because some of the sugar can come from fruit, such as raisins. A reasonable sugar goal is: 8g sugar (12g with fruit) but if an otherwise healthy cereal has a gram or two more of sugar I would not automatically eliminate it from the healthy options list.
A special note about children’s cereal
First off why is there such a thing as kid vs. adult cereal???? Yes, you guessed it: MARKETING. Really children are best off eating the same healthful foods that we, their boring ole parents eat or should eat. However as a realist and mother of two I know that kids know what is out there and my kids, as much as I tried to prolong their introduction to sweetened cereal, have tried and ask for sugary cereals. I treat the sugary cereal as a treat or snack for occasional use not as a breakfast item (OK sometimes on Saturday) but in general that falls under the treat category.
Kim’s Local Quick Picks (for boring ole parents and kids) I have included some lightly sweetened options in the mix if that helps to get the whole grains down. Just minimize the sugar as much as possible, it is easy to get too much.
• Kellogg’s All-Bran Complete Wheat Flakes or corresponding store brand
• Post Shredded Wheat or other brands
• General Mills Wheaties or other brands
• Cascadian Farm Organic, Post, Total, Kellogg’s or store brand Raisin bran
• Post spoon size Shredded wheat – frosted or honey nut
• General mills Multigrain Cheerios (My favorite slightly sweet cereal)
• Quaker Oatmeal Squares (a little higher in sugar but all whole grain)
• Kashi Heart to Heart
Bottom line: Eat breakfast, make it whole grain and include more than one food group.
Eating breakfast at home can be both healthy and a big cost saver.
Cost breakdown of a breakfast using a store brand cereal.
1 bowl raisin bran cereal (0.19)
1 cup milk (0.15)
1 cup coffee (0.10)
1 egg (0.08)
Total for store brand breakfast ($0.52)
If using name brand cereal and milk ($0.84)
If using store brand quick oats in place of cereal ($0.32)
Clearly all of these are far less expensive than the value meal at your local drive through AND they are far superior in nutritional value.
When it’s cold out think HOT, HOT cereal that is!
The good news about hot cereal is that there is not as much marketing around this grouping of cereals, likely because they don’t appear to be as popular and the ready to eat variety.
Suggestions for choosing healthy hot cereal are similar to those for cold cereal.
1. Choose whole grain: Most of the hot cereals on the market are in fact whole grain, oatmeal, barley the exception is cream of wheat (which does come whole wheat I just have not seen it in our local store yet).
2. Less processed is best but instant is also acceptable. When selecting instant oatmeal choose those with the least amount of sugar and remember some come completely unsweetened (the best of course).
a. Sugar sweetened varieties contain anywhere from 7 to 13g sugar per serving, I am not a fan of the sugar sweetened variety as you can add your own sugar and usually get buy with less. However some products do contain less sugar now such as: Quaker Simple Harvest Maple brown sugar and pecan (9g vs.13g). Other lower sugar varieties make use of artificial sweeteners to reduce the sugar content.
b. One word of caution: Sodium! Old fashioned oats have no added sodium, where the instant variety can have up to 300mg per serving. I have found one instant oatmeal with NO sodium: Private Selection Organic oatmeal.
Ultimately your best bet for oatmeal is to choose a plain variety and embellish it yourself. My favorite way to eat oatmeal is with a little honey and almond on top, however I like banana in it too…OK, maybe I don’t have a favorite, I guess it depends on my mood, that is the beauty of plain…you can make it what you want. Enjoy!
What is the difference between old fashioned, instant and steel cut oats?
Basically rolled, quick and steel cut oats are similar in nutrient content they are just cut differently. Steel cut is the least processed and takes the longest to cook. They have a nutty flavor and chewy texture. Rolled oats are rolled flat and steamed slightly to allow them to cook faster. Instant oats are rolled oats that have been cut into even smaller pieces allowing them to cook even faster. They have similar nutrient content to rolled and steel cut oats, what makes them different is the additives. The added sugar and salt decreases the fiber and protein in the same amount of oats. If you are stuck on instant just get plain oats and be sure to treat yourself on the weekends to some delicious steel cut oats. The change in flavor and texture is wonderful and wholesome.
Quick Old-Fashioned Oatmeal
½ cup oatmeal
1 cup skim milk
1 Tbs. raisins
1/8 tsp. cinnamon
1 tsp. brown sugar or honey (optional)
Combine oats and milk in a large microwavable bowl. Microwave for 3 minutes; stirring after every one minute. Add raisins, cinnamon, and brown sugar if using.
*Note: Be careful the first time you try this as microwaves vary in strength. It is possible this could boil over. This is also why a large bowl in important.