Cold breakfast cereal made with whole grains provides essential vitamins, minerals, dietary fiber and other natural plant compounds called phytochemicals. These health-promoting nutrients can reduce the risk of heart disease and some types of cancer. Whole grains may also play a role in reducing the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes and may help improve blood glucose control. Dietary fiber from whole grains in breakfast cereals can reduce blood cholesterol levels and promotes proper bowel function. It also helps reduce the risk of constipation and diverticulosis.
Breakfast cereals contain a variety of grains. but the major grains are corn, oats, rice and wheat. All whole cereal grains are made up of all parts of the grain — the bran (the fiber-rich outer layer), the endosperm (middle part) and the germ (the nutrient-rich inner part).
Cereal grains can be processed in various ways that can change their nutrient profile. Refining grain removes about 25 percent of its protein and many vitamins and minerals. During processing, some B vitamins (thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, folic acid) and iron are added back to enrich refined grains. Fiber may or may not be added back during processing.
Look for cereal labels that say “100 percent whole grain.” If this is not stated on the label, check the ingredient list. The first two grains listed should be “whole.” If the grain listed doesn’t include “whole,” assume it isn’t whole grain. Exceptions include oats, sprouted grains and “ancient” grains like quinoa, millet or sorghum, which are always “whole grain” even if the label doesn’t say.
Labels may make claims like “made with whole grain,” “whole grain guaranteed” or “multi-grain,” but may contain only a small amount of whole grain. Common refined grains in breakfast cereal include rice, rice flour, corn flour, wheat flakes and wheat flour. Bran is not counted as a whole grain in labeling regulations, even though it contains many of the nutrients that are lost when grains are refined.
Daily intake of breakfast cereal can be a key source of dietary fiber intake. Because whole grains have their bran still intact, they always have more fiber than refined grains. Therefore, look for naturally occurring or “intact” grain sources of fiber in breakfast cereals such as whole grains and bran. Processed fibers such as inulin or chicory root fiber, oat fiber, soluble corn or wheat fiber may not keep you regular, lower your cholesterol or improve blood glucose control as well as unprocessed fiber.
The serving size of breakfast cereal typically varies from 1/4 cup to 1 1/4 cup dry. Checking serving sizes is critical for breakfast cereal because they range from about a 1-ounce serving for light cereals to 2-ounce serving for heavy cereals. Make sure the serving on the Nutrition Facts panel matches your serving, or else you will need to adjust the numbers.
Starting in July 2018, Nutrition Facts panel lists added sugars separately from total sugars. Added sugars include sweeteners from refined sugar sources such as sucrose or high-fructose corn syrup as well as dried cane syrup, agave, honey, molasses, fructose and fruit juice concentrate. The total sugar listed on labels includes naturally occurring sugar in fruit and milk as well as added refined sugar. Low-sugar cereal has no more than 7 grams of total sugar for light cereals (1-ounce serving size) and 11 grams for heavy cereals (2-ounce serving size).
When choosing a healthy breakfast cereal, check Nutrition Facts panels and choose cereals that are all (100 percent) whole grain (the first two grain ingredients are whole grain or bran) and cereal with unprocessed, intact fiber from whole grains and bran. Select varieties that contain no more than 7 grams of total sugar for light cereals (1-ounce serving size) and 11 grams of sugar for heavy cereals (2-ounce serving).