by Patricia Chuey, MSc., RD, FDC
In days gone by, there actually was no cereal aisle. Quality, whole grain, hot cereals like oatmeal and cream of wheat were available in bulk. In today’s supermarkets, fibre-rich cereals made from whole grains remain the gold standard of what is possible for nourishment in your morning bowl.
This cereal aisle however, is unfortunately very long and complicated. It’s possibly the most vivid example in the store of advances in food processing methods and food marketing. Not only do rice, wheat or oats come in different shapes and crisp or puffy textures, cereal boxes have become a battleground of competing pitches that vary depending on the target customer. Fun and prizes for the kids. Fibre and cholesterol-lowering claims for the adults.
To get in and out of this aisle with ease and the confidence you’ve chosen well, there really are just 2 things to check on the Nutrition Facts table on the side of the box in question: Fibre and Sugar. Fibre is a good thing and more is generally better. Most Canadian adults fall short of the daily goal of 25-30 grams of fibre. Sugar is a source of calories without offering any nutrients. The less sugar in the cereal, the better.
Rule: Choose cereals with more than 4 grams of fibre per serving and less than 8 grams of sugar.
Note that 4 grams is equal to one teaspoon. If the cereal Nutrition Facts table indicates it has 28 grams of sugar per serving, that’s equal to 7 teaspoons of sugar not counting fruit or anything else that may be added once it’s home and in the bowl.
10 other nifty things to know about cereal:
- We require over 50 different vitamins and minerals from healthy food choices. When a cereal proudly boasts that it’s “fortified with 8 essential nutrients” that actually isn’t necessarily as impressive as it sounds.
- Whole grain cereals are best for fibre, iron, vitamin E and B vitamins. You can identify the presence or absence of whole grains by checking the ingredient list. Look for ingredients near the top of the list like whole wheat flour, oats, barley, brown rice, millet, amaranth and/or other quality grains. The words rice, white rice, wheat and enriched wheat flour are not whole grains.
- Cereal advertisements often make statements like “Brand X is part of healthy breakfast”. The ad may also include eggs, fruit, orange juice, toast or other breakfast foods in the photo or video. A balanced breakfast is one that includes both protein and carbohydrate foods – ideally at least 3 of the 4 food groups. While cereal with milk is not necessarily a well-balanced meal on its own, cereal with milk, nuts and fruit is.
- If your cereal provides protein, that’s a nice, but not required bonus. You can also make up for missing protein or fibre with what you choose to top the cereal with at home (Greek yogurt, nuts, seeds or berries for example) or what you choose to accompany it with – a boiled egg, fresh orange slices, etc.
- The Nutrition Facts information provided on the cereal indicates the portion size for which that data is based. For example, it may be based on a ¾ cup (28 gram) serving. If you’re into the numbers and choose to eat more than ¾ of cup, the math needs to be adjusted accordingly.
- A bowl of a quality cereal with milk is a fine bedtime snack for kids. The carbohydrate in both the cereal and milk promote the production of a relaxation, feel good hormone called serotonin. Accompanying the cereal meal with protein makes sense if it’s eaten as breakfast. Protein promotes alertness.
- A bowl of a quality cereal with milk is a decent post-exercise snack. It provides calcium, carbohydrates and protein along with fluid to replace losses from a strenuous exercise session and can be quickly prepared and eaten within that desirable 30-60 minute recovery window after exercise.
- Cereal can be a handy ingredient in cooking. For example, rice krispies or corn flakes can be finely ground to make a breaded coating for baked fish or homemade chicken fingers.
- Although it’s great served toasty warm on a winter day, oatmeal can also be enjoyed cold in the form of overnight oats by simply soaking it in milk overnight in the fridge and topping with yogurt, fruit and nuts before eating.
- If you dislike breakfast cereal of all types, you can still easily have a very well-balanced and healthy diet without it. Be sure to include other whole grain foods like quinoa, brown rice and quality grainy breads along with lots of vegetables, fruit and quality protein in your food choices.