Cereals: What to Look For

Is it just me or is the cereal aisle getting larger? A dizzying array of cereals is on display at the grocery store, most brands claiming that they are nutritionally superior to the others. Read these tips before your next trip to the store. Remember to look up and down in the cereal aisle. The shelf space at eye level usually is reserved for the less healthful, but more heavily marketed brands.

What to look for
Here is what to look for in a cereal, according to the Nutrition Action Healthletter, published by the Center for Science in the Public Interest:

  • 8 grams (g) of sugar or less/serving, if the cereal contains 3 g or less of fiber/serving
  • 16 g or less of sugar/serving, if the cereal contains 5 g or more of fiber/serving Note: raisin bran contains 20 g of sugar/serving and is the exception to the rule—still a great choice)
  • Instant hot cereals should contain no more than 100-150 milligrams (mg) of sodium/serving

When shopping for cereal, read the labels rather than relying on the product’s marketing claims.

Cereals containing yogurt: Beware of cereals that claim that they contain “yogurt” and are a “good or excellent source of calcium.” This yogurt is often a combination of sugar, palm kernel oil (a saturated fat), and dried nonfat yogurt. The calcium does not come from this mixture and is added to the product.

Serving sizes: Make sure to check the serving sizes when comparing cereals. Many manufacturers play with the numbers to make it appear that their cereal is superior to other similar brands, when in fact the other cereal’s portion size is just bigger.

Source of fiber: Check the label for the source of fiber. Isolated fibers, including inulin, maltodextrin, oat fiber, soy fiber, modified wheat starch, sugarcane fiber, and polydextrose may not improve regularity, decrease cholesterol, or improve blood glucose levels the way that intact, natural fiber does.

Real fruit: Do not trust cereals that state that they contain “real fruit.” Read the labels carefully. For instance, the berries in Special K® are actually dyed and flavored apple pieces, and the blueberries in Quaker® Take Heart® cereal contains corn syrup, blueberry flavoring, oil, dried figs, and food dyes.

Sugar: Know that sugar is sugar, whether it is maple syrup, honey, cane juice, etc. Watch for claims such as “naturally sweetened,” All sugar is natural—it is a plant.

Cholesterol free: Ignore labels proclaiming that a cereal is “cholesterol free.” Of course it is, only animal products contain cholesterol.

Hydrogenated oil: Avoid any cereal that contains the words “hydrogenated oil” in the ingredient list.

Reduced sugar: Do not assume that all cereals that are labeled “reduced sugar” are lower in calories. This is not always the case.

Multigrain: Watch for this very misleading term. It does not necessarily mean that the cereal is made from whole grains or that it contains a decent amount of fiber. Read the ingredient list to see whether or not your cereal is really made from whole grains. Whole grain should be listed first. Remember that whole grains are not necessarily high in fiber.