What to look for in a cereal

As we approach the end of month 2 of the breakfast project, I have realized just how much cereal is consumed in our house. It’s not surprising, given my husband’s proclivity for the food: he frequently reminds me that he used to creep downstairs after he had been put to bed, and his mom and dad had retired to the family room to watch TV, to sneak handfuls of sugary cereal while perched on the counter, watching the door for signs of movement from his parents. I remember having cereal at home as a kid, but I didn’t love it enough to slink into the kitchen after going to bed to consume it. I did, however, take a liking to Lucky Charms when I first got to college. The fact that I could consume this cereal at will blew my mind a little. 

Yet I understand, and appreciate, the appeal of this breakfast food – especially on those mornings when we are in a particular hurry. It’s easy and fast. And my kids love it. The thing is, there is so much crappy – I mean downright terrible – cereal out there. And much of it marketed directly at kids. The cartoon characters bright colors and kid-friendly fonts (not to mention sugar levels) appeal directly to kids, while nutrition and health claims make the cereals intended for parents make these items seem more healthy than they really are. A study by the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity found that compared to adult cereals, those marketed to children contained 85% more sugar, 65% less fiber, and 60% more sodium. This same study reported that cereal brands marketed to the whole family (not directly marketed to children but containing claims that they were suitable for kids and families) tended to be more nutritious while those marketed to children held 14 of the lowest 20 ranked cereals. Cereals marketed only to adults has the best nutrition profiles and overall nutrition scores. 

Even if they don’t make ridiculous claims (like Cocoa Krispie’s claim to “support immunity”) or have obviously less-than-ideal names (like Cupcake Pebbles) many of them contain additives (like artificial food dyes) and preservatives that have been linked to adverse health and behavior outcomes in kids. Personally, I am overwhelmed in the cereal isle and, as a rule, don’t take my kids down it when we’re shopping.

Still, we eat a lot of cereal. Currently, there are 5 half consumed boxes and one bag of granola in the pantry,  and although I’m selective about what I bring home, I am certainly not reading the entire nutrition facts panel and ingredient list every. single. time. we get cereal.  As proof I offer the box of Mom’s Best Cereals Honey Nut Toasty O’s which I bought the other day. It has 10 grams of sugar ( not that much less than Fruity Pebbles and Lucky Charms on a per serving basis) and just 2 grams of fiber per 1 cup serving. Cascadian Farm Honey Nut O’s, which we also have a half-eaten box of, has just 7 grams of sugar per 1 cup serving and 3 grams of fiber. So, arguably, a better choice. So why did the Mom’s version even make it into the house? Because I’m not perfect and I took the kids shopping while they were hungry. In the future I’ll know that I can redirect to a different brand and still let them have the cereal they want.

Two other cereals that are nearly always on our shelf fair a bit better, nutritionally speaking. Barbara’s Multigrain Spoonfuls has, per 3/4 cup serving, 4 grams of fiber and  5 grams of sugar and is our alternative to Quaker Oat’s Life Cereal, which has added food dyes (Yellow 5 and 6). Kashi’s Cinnamon Harvest is about equal on sugar (9 grams per 55 gram serving [compared to Barbara’s 32 gram serving]) but has 5 grams of soluble fiber and 6 grams of protein. Cinnamon Harvest also has the lowest number of ingredients at just 4 (although, dried cane syrup is #2).

Why do I bring all this up? Because even for me, someone who should, arguably, “know better”, shopping for cereal – a healthy cereal that will give me and my kids the sustained energy we need to start our day – is hard.  But it’s not impossible, and there are some very good brands out there; even brands that are marketing directly to your children. 

So, if you’re interested in making some improvements to the cereal in your house, here are a few things you can do: 

  • Read the 2012 Cereal FACTS Sheet, which describes the nutritional scores and marketing practices of companies selling cereal to kids. 
  • Favor cereals that companies market to adults, not children. As a general rule, these are healthier. (Know which “children’s” cereals are on the healthier side, too.)
  • Look for options with at least 3 grams of fiber per serving; favor those with fewer grams of sugar than fiber and higher levels of protein than either sugar or fiber (or sugar and fiber combined). 
  • Avoid cereals with artificial colors, excessively long lists of ingredients or anything containing partially hydrogenated oils (PHO). Even if the label says “zero trans fats” but it has PHO in the ingredient list, don’t buy it.
  • Make your own granola. There are many recipes, this is one of my favorites (from Smitten Kitchen, posted over at Serious Eats). 
  • Alternate what you buy: don’t buy the same cereal every time you shop, unless it’s one that you (or your kids) adore and you are comfortable with them eating day in and day out. (This advice should be applied to nearly all aspects of eating, by the way!)

Still not sure if what you’re eating is a good choice? Tell me what it is, and I’ll send you feedback!

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