Are Breakfast Cereals Healthy or Unhealthy?
Breakfast cereals claim to be packed with nutrition and essential vitamins.
They are a convenient option; hence both kids and adults rely on cold cereal for breakfast on a daily basis.
But, are these as healthy as they are perceived to be?
Read on to know how breakfast cereals impact your health.
What Is in a Bowl of Breakfast Cereal?
Breakfast cereals are mostly made of grains like corn, wheat, barley, oats, and rice.
Recently, other healthy options are being explored (1). However, these grains are highly processed to be made into cereals.
They also contain added vitamins and minerals like vitamin B-9 and iron (2).
Salt, preservatives, sugar, sweeteners, yeast, and flavorings are some of the other things that can be found in a box of breakfast cereal.
Some of these contain added nuts and dried fruits. Some others are coated with chocolate. Yet others are flavored with spices like cinnamon and fruits.
Ready-to-eat or cold breakfast cereals are usually had with milk or yogurt and a choice of nuts and dried fruit.
Some accompaniments are sultanas, dried bananas, and dried cranberries.
How Are Breakfast Cereals Made?
Grains go through a thorough process of manufacturing before they end up in a box in shapes that you like.
The following is a brief outline of the steps:
- Grain to flour: Grains are cleaned and often heavily processed into fine flour after removing the bran.
- Enter, the additives: Flavorings, preservatives, other add-ons, and water are added to the grains.
- Cooking or extrusion: The refined flour may be cooked in a huge pressure cooker and dried in an oven till we are left with a pliable mass that can be shaped. Alternatively, the prepared flour is added into an extruder which cooks the flour with water. The process of extrusion gives us a ribbon of dough that is cut into pellets.
- Giving the final shape: They are then shaped into flakes, puffs, loops, and other shapes with the application of pressure from metal rollers or other processes. They are finally dried to remove all remaining moisture and toasted for the desired color.
- Finishing: The prepared cereal may then be coated with chocolate or frostings.
As outlined above, the initially healthy grains are subjected to high temperatures and high pressure repeatedly.
As a result, they are left devoid of all nutrients, so much so that they can be labeled as junk.
Sugar and Refined Carbs in Cereals
Added sugar is perhaps the worst constituent of modern day diet.
Sugar is one of the main ingredients listed on a box of breakfast cereal.
Starting each day with high-carb refined cereal loaded with added sugar will result in a spike in sugar levels and insulin.
This would result in increased hunger and cravings later in the day which would, in turn, lead to overeating (9).
Truth Behind Breakfast Cereals' Nutritional Claims
Contrary to the health claims made for the marketing of breakfast cereals, many of these cereals have just a fraction of healthy ingredients.
The claims printed on the front of the box cannot always be believed.
A study at the University of Utah found that understanding claims on cereal boxes depended on consumers’ education and knowledge of nutrition (10).
A quick look at nutrition labels reveals that most cereals have a high amount of sugar and minimal amounts of other healthy ingredients like vitamins.
The whole grains that are present in them are more often than not, highly refined, and thus they fail to compensate for the negative effects of other harmful ingredients like added sugars.
An example of a misleading health claim is Kellogg’s ‘full of goodness’ and ‘nutritious’ for its Special K, which was upheld by the Advertising Standards Authority(ASA) in the UK on the grounds that the ad should be backed by a relevant authorized health claim (13).
The following are a few claims that you should not believe blindly:
- Whole grain
- No added sugar
- Heart healthy
- Stay full longer
- Provides essential vitamins
Breakfast Cereals Marketing Aimed at Children
Breakfast Cereal manufacturers make extensive use of marketing strategies that attract children.
One example is the use of bright colors and kids’ favorite cartoon characters due to which children perceive breakfast cereals to be enjoyable and full of fun.
While the focus of cereal marketing is to entice children, health claims are just a feel good factor for parents.
Make Your Breakfast Cereal Less Unhealthy
If for any reason, you cannot avoid your morning bowl of cereal, be sure to follow the following tips to ensure you are choosing a relatively healthier option.
- Choose cereal with less sugar: Read the nutrition label on the packaging and decide on a breakfast cereal that contains less than 5 grams of sugar per serving.
Avoid cereals which have sugar mentioned among the first few ingredients.
- Choose one with more fiber content: Choose a breakfast cereal that contains at least three to five grams of fiber per serving.
Dietary fiber is seen to have a lot of health benefits, especially for the gastrointestinal tract, in both adults and children (20, 21).
- Choose cereals made of whole grains: Go for cereals which have ‘whole grains’ listed in their ingredients. Look for packages with a yellow stamp from the Whole Grains Council.
- Be aware of the recommended serving size: Be careful of the amount of cereal you have in one serving. As breakfast cereal tastes good, we tend to have much more than the recommended serving size.
Take note of the serving size mentioned on the packaging and measure your cereal accordingly.
- Always go through the list of ingredients: Pay attention to the ingredients list. Ingredients are usually listed in decreasing order of their percentage in the product. So, the first few are the most important.
Read the entire list to detect tricky ingredients like added sugars in other forms like corn syrup, barley malt, and fructose.
- Add protein to make your breakfast healthier: Protein makes you feel full for longer and thus helps to control appetite (22, 23).
This is perhaps because of its effect on the levels of certain hormones including the hunger hormone ghrelin and a fullness hormone called peptide YY (24, 25).
Some good high-protein add-ons for breakfast cereal are nuts and seeds like walnuts, almonds, cashews, pumpkin seeds, and flax seeds (26).
KEY POINT: Choose whole grain breakfast cereals with less sugar, less fat, high fiber, and high protein.
Pay attention to serving size and the ingredients. Add protein to make it healthier.
Go for healthier but equally convenient alternatives to breakfast cereals
Breakfast need not always be a quickly grabbed fast food style cold cereal.
Whole eggs are high in protein and nutrients.
The following are a few healthy breakfast options:
- Hard-boiled eggs
- Bacon and cheese omelet
- Yogurt with nuts and/or fruit
- Oatmeal topped with nuts and/or fruits
KEY POINT: Whole foods are a much healthier alternative to breakfast cereals.
Eggs and other high-protein foods keep you full for longer and also aid in weight loss.
Breakfast cereals are highly refined and contain added sugars because of which they are not as nutritious as we think they are.
Misleading advertisements and health claims on cereal packaging make it even harder to understand their ills.
If you have to buy cereals, don’t go by the health claims.
Read the ingredient list as well as the nutrition label, so that you can choose a relatively healthy one with whole grains, more fiber, and minimal amounts of sugar.
Make a healthy start each day by replacing your morning portion of cold breakfast cereal with other nutritious but easy-to-prepare dishes like oatmeal and eggs.
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