Are Breakfast Cereals Healthy or Unhealthy?

woman eating cereal

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-I 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.

KEY POINT: A box of breakfast cereal typically contains processed grains, sweeteners, salt, preservatives, fortified vitamins, and minerals.

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:

  1. Grain to flour: Grains are cleaned and often heavily processed into fine flour after removing the bran.
  2. Enter, the additives: Flavorings, preservatives, other add-ons, and water are added to the grains.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

KEY POINT: Grains are highly refined, and other ingredients are added before they are shaped and packed.

Sugar and Refined Carbs in Cereals

Added sugar is perhaps the worst constituent of modern day diet.

Consumption of processed food high in added sugar is a leading cause of obesity, diabetes, heart diseases, cancer, and others (3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8).

cereal bowl of sugar

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).

KEY POINT: The high sugar content in refined breakfast cereals increases the risk of obesity and many diseases.

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).

Based on this and a few other studies, governments and experts in nutrition have the responsibility of raising awareness among the public regarding how to better understand food labels (11, 12).

false breakfast cereal claims

This amount of Vitamin D is the minimum amount in most fortified cereals. It does not balance out 15g sugar per serving which accounts for over 50% of cereal weight

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:

  • ​Low-fat
  • Whole grain
  • No added sugar
  • Heart healthy
  • Stay full longer
  • Provides essential vitamins

KEY POINT: Health claims on the front of a box of cereals are not always to be believed. Try to look at the list of ingredients and nutritional labels to find out the amount of its constituents like added sugar.

​Breakfast Cereals Marketing Aimed at Children

girl gets breakfast cereal

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.

Advergaming and stealth marketing are a few of the newer methods of food marketing that easily influence children (14, 15).

A few studies show that children find cereals with attractive characters on their boxes to be tastier compared to the same cereals without attractive packaging (16, 17).

Marketing of energy-dense foods also leads to a greater incidence of childhood obesity and other diseases (18, 19).

While the focus of cereal marketing is to entice children, health claims are just a feel good factor for parents.

KEY POINT: Most breakfast cereals are marketed towards children through attractive packaging and other marketing strategies.

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.

Whole Grain Cereal Yellow Stamp

Look for this Yellow Stamp

  • 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.
  • 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).

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