What’s the Healthiest Cereal to Buy in Canada?
A registered dietician shares what to look for, and what to avoid, in the cereal aisle at the grocery store.
Cereal has come a long way since the 1950s; yes, it is still processed, and doesn’t grow on a tree, but the contents have improved a lot. Many have fewer additives (like preservatives, added colour and binders), and there are lots of products made with less sugar and 100 percent whole grains.
There are two kinds of people in the world; sugar-cereal people and fibre-cereal people. One is looking for taste and possibly health benefits; the other is looking for anything their kids will eat! It is possible to find a cereal that makes both types of people happy. Here are a few tips to help you navigate this aisle of boxed energy.
Look for lots of fibre
Breakfast is a great time of day to up your fibre intake. The recommended amount of fibre is 25g per day for women and 38g per day for men, and most people are not hitting these targets. Fibre is important for digestion, lowering cholesterol and helping to control blood sugar. (Here are other reasons to increase your fibre intake.)
There are two kinds of fibre: soluble and insoluble. Soluble fibre helps to slow down digestion by forming a gel in your intestines, which slows blood sugar absorption and can lower LDL (‘bad’) cholesterol. Insoluble fibre acts as a bulking agent and keeps things moving through your digestive system, which helps keep your bowel movements regular. Both are important and often present in breakfast cereals that contain high-fibre ingredients such as bran, whole grains, and oats. Some also contain high-fibre nuts, or add in some extra psyllium or flax to give even more of a boost. If the product contains at least 4g of fibre per serving, that’s a decent choice. On the nutrition facts panel, look for least 15 percent daily value fibre per serving.
Look for a well-ordered ingredients list
The ingredient list on a box of cereal is a LOT more important than the nutrition facts panel. Why? Because while there is always a margin of error when a product is analyzed for the nutrition label, if an ingredient is listed, it’s in there! And the ingredients are listed in descending order, meaning the first ingredient listed is what makes up most of the cereal.
As an example, if the first ingredient is cornmeal, then most of the cereal is cornmeal. Or if the first or even third ingredient is sugar, then it means there’s a lot of sugar in there.
The top of the list should include ingredients that are 100 percent whole grains, or unprocessed whole oats. Whole grains contain more fibre and protein. This includes whole wheat, barley, oats, buckwheat or rye, which are all great high-fibre choices.
Keep sugar as low as you can go
We certainly don’t need to seek out sugar, it finds us easily enough. Breakfast cereals are notorious for high sugar content. Some are even marketed to kids for this exact reason. But sometimes it can be difficult to gauge sugar content by looking at the label. We don’t have a daily amount of sugar we need to get everyday, which is why you won’t see a percent value on the nutrition facts panel. Added sugar in adults and children’s’ diets is linked to several health issues such as type 2 diabetes and fatty liver disease.
Aim for less than 8 grams per serving. Serving sizes can be deceiving (who has ever eaten a ¼ cup of granola?!) so make sure you calculate the total in an average serving. For example, if a ½ cup of cereal is 8 grams of sugar, but you eat 1 cup, then you are really consuming 16 grams of added sugar. Virtually all cereals will have some source of sweet, whether added sugars, raisins or other dried fruits, so aim to get a lower number if you can. High fibre cereals with some added sugars are an even better choice, to slow the sugar released into the bloodstream.
Sugar goes by many names on the label; glucose, cane sugar, organic sugar, fructose, high-fructose corn syrup, brown rice syrup, inverted sugars, raisins and dried fruit are all forms of sugar that can be added to cereal.
(Learn what happens to your body when you stop eating sugar.)
Know what else to look for
Cereal can be a source of many other important vitamins and nutrients due to the fortification of some flours. Some cereals have higher protein content with nuts or whole grains, which helps to keep you full. These can also be good and excellent sources of calcium, iron and B12 which are bonuses for kids. Many whole grains contain other important B-vitamins and potassium.
Unfortunately, there are still many cereals that are marketed to children that use colours and characters to mask poorly made food. Food colours and additives have been linked to hyperactivity and disturbed behaviours in children who are sensitive to them. It is a common myth that sugar alone is the culprit of “hyperactivity in kids;” many industrial ingredients are at play, since they are eaten together and not in isolation. Watch out for cereals with higher daily values (15 percent or higher) of saturated fat or sodium.
Don’t be fooled: gluten-free, organic or expensive does not always equal better
There are many cereals targeted for people with allergies or other special diets. These might contain modified or gluten-free ingredients, but these aren’t necessarily “healthier” by definition. Ultimately, you should still follow the ingredient list and the numbers on the nutrition facts panel. These cereals may still be low in fibre, nutrients and contain high amounts of sugar. Foods that are specifically marketed as organic are not necessarily healthier either for the same reasons, and can also have the same or more sugar than other cereals.
So, is there ONE ultimate cereal?
The answer is yes, and it starts with an “o” but isn’t in the shape of one. If there was an Olympics of cereal, steel-cut oats would be the gold-medal winner. Oatmeal porridge is versatile and comes in many forms from instant to steel-cut. The less processed the better. Oats are nourishing, full of beta-glucan fibre for helping to lower cholesterol and blood sugars, and can be dressed up a million ways; try peanut butter and chopped apples, or maple-syrup and walnuts. A bowl is full of not one, but two very beneficial fibres, vitamins, minerals and served warm to soothe the gut. Nothing quite “sticks to your ribs” as a bowl of piping hot oatmeal porridge, especially on a cold winter day. (Try our banana overnight oats.)
The reality of modern life for many people, especially working parents, means cereal will have a place in your pantry. The good news is products are being made that include lots of fibre, without unwanted chemicals and lower amount of sugar, so you have a choice.
Nishta Saxena is a registered dietician and nutrition educator based in Toronto.