Aisle by Aisle: Choosing Healthy Cereals

by in Grocery Shopping, July 10, 2009

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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Comments (90)

  1. Sandy Donohue says:

    I ran out of my Kashi Mountain Medly Granola, which I was ordering from Kashi since it's not available in my area (Van Buren, AR), and decided to try my husband's cereal, Post Selects Great Grains, and I love it!

  2. Dick says:

    Having just healed from a quadruple bypass, I started earting Kashi "Heart to Heart" and "U." with light oy milk. I like the "U" best, but the Heart to Heart is healthier in almost every category. Mix with a sensible amount of dried currants, fresh strawberries, bananas, or just about any fruit and it's a tasty way to start the day.

  3. Sarah says:

    I love Envirokids. The pictures make me want to buy their cereal every time I walk by (which is great marketing.) Also, added benefits here, I believe something like 10% of proceeds go to wildlife conservation. I'm guessing here, but anything is better than 0% right!

  4. Rutledge says:

    My breakfast is groats, to which I add fresh fruit, cinnamon, flaxseeds cocoa and nuts, with skim milk.

  5. Rutledge says:

    Wise up people, the producers of cereal need a lesson. Stop adding all the junk to natural grains as the labels indicate. Cereal does not need all the mislabeled sweeteners, such as High Fructose Corn Syrup and other ingredients that your system cannot absorb, but act as fillers.

    I buy my cereal from Whole Foods in bulk, together with other ingredients that are completely healthy, all natural and whole grain without all the sweetners and trans fats, gums etc.

  6. kay says:

    i loooooove any kashi cereal. for a while i always bought strawberry fields. now i get the new kashi honey kind. its low in calories. i also am a big multigrain cherrios person. my only problem with cereal is i eat tooo much of it.

  7. Heathie says:

    Kashi cereals are great, unfortunately the Puffed Cereal has a "Medium" GI value. Watch the BHT preservative in commercial cereals :-(

  8. Maria says:

    Steel cut oats with almonds and unsalted sunflower seeds with some fresh fruit and vanilla soy milk-It is also good with old fashion rolled oats and cream of wheat

  9. soccerhome8 says:

    I have recently started a web site, the information you provide on this web site has helped me greatly. Thanks for all of your time & work.

  10. tamidor says:

    Hi Tilly,
    I find Special K a "middle of the road" cereal. Sugar is listed as the third ingredient and there's some high fructose corn syrup in there too (as the 6th ingredient). Also, there's not a significant amount of fiber (less than 1 gram per serving). Dana made some better suggestions in the article with cereals that are a bit better choices, many with more fiber. Let me know if you try any of them:)

  11. ynpgal says:

    Tilly, I am always so mad at the Special K folks! I love that stuff and would eat it every day, but it has High Fructose Corn Syrup in it and I'll be darned if I'm going to eat something so cruddy in a cereal that they advertise as being so healthy.

    I emailed them about it and got a complete run around, where not one person was able to refer to my topic or question….at all! Nothing but side-steppin. They refused to even explain why they use it instead of plain sugar. I finally email back and told them I thought they were being irresponsible.

  12. Tilly says:

    Thanks for the insight. I'll definitely give these others a shot and see what I think. I've tried 3 of the above- Fiber One, Kashi, and (of course) Cheerios- and I liked all of them. I never noticed the high fructose corn syrup or high sugar content of Special K — thanks for the heads up!

  13. tamidor says:

    Hi Tilly,
    I was actually kind of surprised to see high-fructose corn syrup on the label I found online at I'm going to check the box I have in my office on Monday morning too and see what I find. Regardless, it's still lacking fiber—if you really like it, add fiber by topping it with fresh fruit like blueberries or 2 tablespoons of crushed almonds.

  14. tamidor says:

    Hi Will,
    Great suggestion! I just saw that Barbara's brand carries the cereal too (it's one of my favorite brands found at Trader Joe's and Whole Foods).

  15. sande says:

    Me too! some of the best whole grain, low sugar, no fat cereal ever. !

  16. Karen says:

    That's what I eat also Will and I am very surprised Shredded Wheat (unfrosted) and oatmeal (unflavored) is not on the list. How about Grape Nuts?

  17. tamidor says:

    Hi Tilly,
    I just found an Special K High Protein box with sugar listed as the 8th ingredient, but the 10th ingredient in high fructose corn syrup. It has a bit less sugar that the regular version, but I'd still give the ones Dana suggested a try.

  18. véronique says:

    *amunt*….*they are* sorry for the mistakes, I'm French.

  19. Troy says:

    Meredith: go to Alton Brown's recipes for homemade granola; omit what you don't like about them and add what you do – keeping the same ratios that the recipe calls for. I thought it would be a pain but it was really easy and tasted great. I added molasses & honey for sweetners and some cinnamon which gives it a dessert-like taste. This way you know exactly what's in your granola. Keep it in an airtight lid in the fridge. I wanted bars or big chunks but as it dried out I was left with more of a small cluster-like shape but still good. I ate it by the handful or added it to my favorite cereal. Hope you try it – it's fun and gives you a feeling of accomplishment. If not, try Costco's granola in their bakery section – it's the best I've ever had but I'm sure it's not really good for you.

  20. Meghan says:

    Target has really good granola, and the nutritional info is pretty good from what I remember. It's the best in terms of calories, etc for what I've found for granola. I don't think it has corn syrup or anything like that but double check. I've had the blueberry flax flavor…blueberry something…I think it was flax…definitely try it though :)

  21. ynpgal says:

    Bummer, Meredith, but from all the labels I've read on granola boxes, it seems that "healthy" and "granola" seem to be at odds. So much fat and sugar, even when it occurs naturally. I haven't yet found one that I can live with…and I pick up every box I see in the quest!

  22. ynpgal says:

    Bummer, Meredith, but from all the labels I've read on granola boxes, it seems that "healthy" and "granola" seem to be at odds. So much fat and sugar, even when it occurs naturally. I haven't yet found one that I can live with…and I pick up every box I see in the quest!

  23. Kate says:

    I ALWAYS EAT GRAPE NUTS!!!!! I am very active – so – I need to eat a higher calorie cereal :)

  24. Angie Burke says:

    I love grape nuts but have not checked the side in a whil so I can't quote it, But yes there are still grape nut lovers out there still

  25. Erin says:

    Grape Nuts rule.

  26. Joseph says:

    I absolutly love Grape Nuts with a cup of home made yogurt and a cup of blueberrys or sliced strawberrys. That is my breakfast at least 3 times a week. Yes there are other Grape Nuts freaks out there.

  27. Nichole says:

    I LOVE Grape Nuts, but they are awfully pricey so I buy the store brand, Nutty Nuggets and they taste exactly the same! I top a bowl off with a handful of blueberries and 1% milk every day and I am always full afterward.

  28. Laura says:

    Who cares if there is high fructose corn syrup in it? Really! I am going to guess that you have not educated yourself on the detriments of this particular ingredient

  29. ofox says:

    Hey! I have a great rendition on those "boring" cereals. I like to mix Fiber One Original and Wheat Puffs with chocolate almond breeze unsweetened milk. That way, you get all the nutritional values of the cereal with the subtle sweetness of chocolate milk. The milk has only 45 calories for a cup & it makes me feel like a kid again! Plus the milk is really low on the GI scale so it keeps your insulin levels on track.

  30. Erin says:

    Whole Foods also hs some AWESOME granola, but I am sure its not good for you either.

  31. Anna says:

    Wow that sounds great!

  32. Deb says:

    Yes, I love it too, but…the 2nd or 3rd ingrediant is high fructose corn syrup!

  33. Lori says:

    The only way to go! Dress them up with flaxseeds, fruit, FF milk and non fat Greek yogurt, and you can't beat that nutritionally speaking!

  34. Brenda says:

    Had it for breakfast today. I alternate with Kashi and Cheerios or combine them. It may not
    have as much fiber etc. but it is still a smart choice. Just try others as well.

  35. Beth says:

    it's absolutely tasty! I love the Kashi cereals and usually eat that or GoLean for breakfast

  36. Holli says:

    Nature's Path is my favorite as well. One serving is totally filling!

  37. ynpgal says:

    Seriously, Nichole. HFCS is some really yucky stuff to ingest. All those commercials that laugh about those who won't eat it because it's made from corn (a natural ingredient!). What they don't say is that chemists have changed the corn at a molecular/cellular level to increase the natural sugar content of the corn and make it sweeter. It's cheaper for "food" manufacturers to use. Problem is that it does not metabolize like pure sugar and tends to convert to fat more easily. No wise person I know would knowingly digest any food that has been altered like that.

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