Few foods come packaged with so many misleading health and nutrition claims.

Share story

ON NUTRITION

It’s the breakfast of champions — or is it? A box of cold cereal may appear to be a healthful option, but that’s often not the case. It’s easy to be led astray, given that few foods come packaged with so many misleading health and nutrition claims, like “heart-healthy,” “great source of whole grains,” “now contains fiber” and “helps support a healthy metabolism.”

Among the most notorious were Kellogg’s 2009 claims that its Frosted Mini Wheats cereal boosts cognitive function and that Rice Krispies and Cocoa Krispies boost children’s immune systems. As one critic commented, “By their logic, you can spray vitamins on a pile of leaves and it will boost immunity.” Not only did Kellogg’s get smacked down by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), but it had to pay out millions of dollars to settle class-action lawsuits.

More recently, Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) sued General Mills last year over claims that Cheerios Protein is a high-protein alternative to Cheerios. In reality, if you compare equal portion sizes, Cheerios Protein has just a shade more protein — and significantly more sugar — than regular Cheerios.

The relative lack of protein may be one reason why, when I ask my cold-cereal-eating patients how soon after breakfast they feel hungry again, the answer is typically, “About an hour.” Another explanation for the rapid return of hunger may be that most cold cereals are highly processed, which means they digest more quickly than do grains in their whole or minimally processed states.

To create cereal’s puffs, flakes, O’s, clusters, shreds and twigs, grains are ground and mixed into a slurry, then forced into their final shapes under high heat and pressure. Not only is the fiber usually stripped away, but the harsh processing degrades the grain’s natural color, flavor and nutrients, necessitating the addition of artificial colors and flavors and synthetic vitamins and minerals.

That said, how cold cereal ranks among breakfast options depends on what type of cereal you choose, and what you might otherwise eat. For example, a high-fiber, low-sugar cereal with milk is better than a doughnut, but might not be as satisfying as plain Greek yogurt with fruit and nuts or scrambled eggs with vegetables.

If you love cold cereal for its convenience, here are a few tips for making the best choice possible:

• Ignore marketing language like “made with real fruit,” “natural,” “simple” and “energy,” as well as any health claims. Use the Nutrition Facts box and the ingredient list as your guides.

• Look for “100% whole grain” on the package. Ignore “made with whole grains.”

• Choose cereals with 3 grams of fiber per 1-ounce serving (about 30 grams), or 6 grams of fiber per 2-ounce serving (about 50 grams). The ingredient list should show real fiber like bran, not processed fiber like chicory root fiber, inulin, oat hull fiber or soluble corn fiber.

• Check the serving size and the calories per serving. Aim for less than 250 calories per cup.

• Stay under 3 grams of saturated fat and 5 grams of sugar per serving.

If your current breakfast runs to pastries, switching to a high-fiber, whole-grain cereal topped with fruit would be a healthful improvement. If you already eat a high-fiber cold cereal, but want to make an even more healthful choice, going for less-processed options would be your best bet. For example, homemade granola, overnight oats, muesli or oatmeal (steel-cut or thick rolled oats).