Aisle by Aisle: Choosing Healthy Cereals

Even some so-called “healthy” cereals seem good for you but are fall of sugar and few nutritional benefits. Whether you have a bowl for breakfast or munch on some for a snack, here are tips for picking the best cereals.
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You could probably guess that most kids' cereals are bursting with added sugar, but even some “healthy” cereals can be full of sugar and few nutritional benefits. Whether you have a bowl for breakfast or munch on some for a snack, here are tips for picking the best cereals.

Nutrition Basics

Many cereals -- especially the "healthy" or "whole-grain" ones -- are combos of grains, nuts, seeds and maybe some dried fruit. Servings of cereal (without milk) can range anywhere from 90 to 200 calories and 0 to 10 grams of fat.

Most cereals are low in sodium and free of cholesterol, saturated and trans fats. Added nuts will up the calories and fat, but at least they’re a healthy fat source. Dried fruits bring some natural sweetness and some extra calories, too. Then there’s the added sweeteners -- anything from plain old sugar and highly processed corn syrup (I saw lots of high-fructose corn syrup in the boxes I checked) to less processed honey and maple syrup. Other common sweeteners you might find are evaporated cane juice, molasses, brown sugar, brown rice syrup and fruit juice concentrate. The bottom line for sweeteners: Most cereals have some, which is okay, but many are drowning in them! Since sweeteners add calories and few nutrients, stick to the cereals that contain the lowest amounts. Try looking for ones with less than 5 grams of sugars per serving (or slightly higher if some of that sugar is coming from dried fruit -- more on what to look for below).

As for the milk, opt for nonfat or low-fat -- whether you choose soy, cows’ or even rice milk -- to help keep the calories and fat from getting out of control.

Read the Label

We can't stress this enough -- read your labels! When you look at the nutrition facts, start with the serving size. It’s so easy to unknowingly pour 3 or 4 servings into your bowl. Serving sizes vary greatly from cereal to cereal so check each box. If the serving suggests "1/2 cup," that doesn’t mean that’s all you should have. Just remember that if you go for a whole cup, you’re getting twice what’s on the label. Aim for about 150 to 200 calories worth of cereal for a sensible portion.

Cereal is an easy way to start your day with some whole grains. Choose brands that have whole wheat, rice, oats, corn, barley, quinoa, kamut and millet in the mix. To make sure the grains are whole, check the ingredient list for the word “whole.”

The ingredient list will also tell you the type of added sweeteners. The USDA recommends no more than 8 teaspoons a day of added sugar. That comes out to roughly 32 grams -- a bowl of sugary cereal can easily exceed this. Sometimes it's tough to know how much good or bad sugar is there -- especially if the cereal contains both added sugars (i.e. the granulated white stuff) and natural sugars from dried fruit. The total sugar count won’t differentiate between the various kinds, so if you pick a cereal with raisins for example, know that some of the total sugars listed on the label are coming from the fruit.

What to Choose

First, go for whole grains! Look for cereals with at least 3 grams of fiber per serving and the lowest amount of added sugars possible -- the sweetener should be no higher than the third or fourth ingredient on the list. Finding high-fiber and low-sugar cereals that you’ll want to eat can be tricky. I browsed my market and here are a few favorites I found:

    Quick & Easy Cereal Tips
  • Eat out of small bowls to keep portions under control.
  • Add your own low-calorie sweetness by topping your cereal with fresh fruit.
  • Mix a favorite sweeter cereal with a low-sugar, high-fiber one to boost the nutrients.
  • Steer clear of cereals with chocolate pieces or lots of sugary “clusters.”
TELL US: What’s your cereal of choice?
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