Even to the most discerning shoppers, a trip down the cereal aisle can get overwhelming.
There are dozens upon dozens of brands, many vying to capture kids’ attention with brightly colored designs and friendly cartoon characters.
Some make bold statements about nutrition. Others claim to help you meet personal health goals.
Here’s just a sampling of the claims you’ll find emblazoned on today’s cereal boxes:
- Two-thirds of your day’s whole grain.
- May reduce your risk of heart disease.
- Can help lower cholesterol.
- Fills you up and satisfies you longer.
- Whole grain is always the first ingredient.
Is any of it true? Can these iconic brands deliver on their lofty promises?
Maybe there’s a better question: How can you make healthy choices in the cereal aisle?
It all comes down to deciphering the nutrition label, Spectrum Health registered dietitian Kristi Veltkamp, RD, said.
“You have to be an investigator with your food,” Veltkamp said. “Read the labels and understand what’s in there.”
Be an expert
Go beyond the marketing claims on the front of the box, Veltkamp said.
A cereal popular with kids will proclaim front and center that whole grain is always the first ingredient, but then it says nothing about the fact it also contains loads of sugar.
Solution: Flip the box on its side and read the nutrition label.
“One really, really simple rule of thumb is to look for one that has more fiber than sugar,” Veltkamp said. “Pick up a box and check that out.”
Also, try to keep the sugar content under 5 grams per serving. Aim for fiber content of at least 3 grams per serving.
Know your serving size
The serving sizes listed on the nutrition label can get confusing.
“Serving size is 3/4 cup for most cereals, but most people are eating way more than that,” Veltkamp said. “So if a cereal has 8 to 10 grams of sugar per serving and you eat a bowl full, you just had 30 grams of sugar.”
The recommended daily sugar intake for kids up to age 8 is no more than 4 teaspoons, or 16 grams, per day.
“You easily will be past that with a bowl of cereal in the morning,” she said.
For pre-teens and teens it’s no more than 8 teaspoons per day. For adult men it’s 9 teaspoons and for women it’s 6 teaspoons.
The truth is, cereal may not be the best meal choice—especially for the first meal of the day, Veltkamp said.
“Most cereals are not super dense in nutrition and do not have the protein and the fiber you need to fill you up,” she said.
Consider supplementing it with another protein source, she said. Sprinkle the cereal over yogurt and add in nuts or seeds to boost the protein. Then add in a side of fruit to add fiber and taste, without adding extra sugars.
“Natural sugar is fine, but added sugar you need to keep your eye on,” she said.
Some cereals are marketed as protein-fortified—but those, too, can contain added sugars, Veltkamp said.
Her go-to cereal for breakfast is a traditional Swiss German muesli, which you can purchase or make at home. It usually includes rolled oats, other grains, nuts, seeds and fresh or dried fruits.
Another favorite: Use grain such as quinoa or amaranth and add peanut butter or unsweetened cocoa powder. You can also combine your favorite grains for a homemade multi-grain hot cereal.
And don’t overlook those time-tested breakfast alternatives: toast and peanut butter, or eggs and toast.
“Ideally, you’re eating as many foods as possible that don’t have a label on them,” Veltkamp said.