A healthy breakfast is high in fiber, provides a good source of protein and complex carbohydrates and is low in sugar and salt. Hot cereal fits the bill and is a go-to breakfast favorite during winter months. Hot cereal can also include other health promoting ingredients such as probiotics, added protein and antioxidants.
Get the grains
Many hot cereals contain whole grains and provide essential vitamins, minerals, dietary fiber and other natural plant compounds called phytochemicals. These health-promoting nutrients have been found to 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.
Hot cereals contain a variety of grains including barley, corn, kamut, millet, oats, rice, rye, spelt, teff, triticale and wheat. All whole cereal grains (WCGs) are made up of all three parts of the grain—the bran (or fiber-rich outer layer), the endosperm (middle part) and the germ (the nutrient-rich inner part).
Hot cereal grains, however, can be processed in a variety of ways and this can change their nutrient profile. Rolled grains are made from whole grains that have been steamed, then flattened with steel rollers. Cereal grains available in this form include quinoa, barley, kamut and spelt. Steel cut oats are made from oat kernels that have been chopped into thick pieces.
Most cracked grains have been presteamed so they cook more quickly. Bulgur (wheat), rye and barley are examples of cracked grains. Grits, a traditional breakfast staple of the American south, are coursley ground corn kernels. Farina is a milled cereal grain commonly sold as Cream of Wheat. Wheatena is a toasted wheat cereal, which is high in fiber.
Check the label
To increase your chances of finding more whole-grain cereals 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. Two exceptions are rolled oats and oat flakes, which are always “whole grain.”
Refined grains have been milled, a process that removes the bran and the germ and about 25 percent of the grain’s 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. Cream of wheat, cream of rice and grits are refined cereal grains, therefore, are not whole grain.
Because whole grains still have their bran intact, daily intake of whole-grain hot cereal can be a key source of dietary fiber intake. Most people need to double their fiber intake so it makes sense to look for hot cereals with the most fiber per serving.
The carb connection
The carbohydrate content of hot cereal varies considerably depending on the serving size, type of grain and amount of added carbohydrate sources such as fruit and sugar. Nutrition Facts panels on some hot cereals now distinguish naturally occurring sugar in fruit (such as raisins) from refined sugar sources such as sucrose or high-fructose corn syrup. Some cereal companies reduce the amount of added sugar or replace added sugar with alternative sweeteners. This saves carbohydrate and calories while maintaining the sweet taste. The best approach is to select whole grain hot cereals with the most amount of intact fiber and those containing the least amount of added carbohydrate.
Watch the sodium
The American Diabetes Association recommends that people with diabetes reduce their sodium intake to 2300 milligrams (or less) per day to lower risk for cardiovascular disease. The sodium content of hot breakfast cereal ranges from zero to over 400 milligrams per serving. Most non-instant hot cereals have no added sodium while most instant hot cereals have varying amounts of added sodium. Choose hot breakfast cereals that contain 100 percent whole grain, contain no added sugar and contain no more that 100 milligrams of sodium per serving.