Part 2 of Food Watch: Cereals examines the nutrition and health advantages or disadvantages of packaged cereals.
We need to know what we’re eating, and by looking closely at the ingredients list and the nutrition label on cereal boxes, we can see what’s in each spoonful.
This is a long post, but I promise you, it’s packed with valuable information.
Before reading Part 2, have a look at Food Watch: Cereals – Part 1 to gain a fuller understanding of the type of grains used in cereals (that post is much shorter).
You’ll see what I mean when I talk about whole grains and refined grains. You’ll also get a breakdown on oatmeal (what are groats, steel-cut oats, rolled oats and instant oats?).
Buying Packaged Cereal at the Store
Although cooking your own whole grains is the healthier way to eat cereal, maybe you don’t feel you’ve got the time to cook your own grains, or you just don’t want to.
Let’s take a walk down the aisle of my local grocery store. I can’t profile every cereal (there are so many); I took photos of only a few examples to show you what you need to look at when making your cereal-purchasing decision.
Honestly, I find the cereal aisle overwhelming. The fact that I have to spend ten minutes looking at all the different boxes trying to find something healthy is a pain. It’s hard to find cereals that are truly healthy. Really hard.
The painful search is also an indicator to me that cooking whole grains is actually easier. You’ll have to decide what works for you.
Cereal Box Packaging
When looking at the cereal box information, take some time to look in the right places.
Whatever colours, branding, words, images etc. that appear on the box…they MEAN NOTHING! Do not consider any of those things to help you decide.
Look ONLY at two things:
- the ingredients (the # 1 thing to consider): the first, second and third ingredients are the ones in greatest proportion in the product
- the nutrition label: look at the amounts of fat, sugar or salt in each serving (not the percentages, but the actual gram [g] amounts); also look at the serving size (is it realistic?)
Example: There are 4 g of sugar in imaginary product XYZ. There are 115 calories in a serving.
-Calculate the number of sugar calories. There are 4 calories in each gram of sugar (all carbohydrates are 4 calories per gram).
-Multiply 4 g x 4 calories, and that gives you 16 calories from sugar.
-Divide that number by the total calories (16/115 = 0.139).
-To get the percentage, multiply that number by 100 (0.139 x 100 =13.9%).
-This is the TRUE percentage. In the XYZ product, 13.9% of the calories come from sugar. Ignore the percentages on the package, as they only show a percentage of the “recommended daily value” of what we “should” be getting in a day.
With sugar, there isn’t a specific daily recommendation; the sugar percentage is lumped in with the carbohydrate percentage.
Arm yourself with this knowledge and practice it. You need to do your own calculations to really know what you’re eating.
-FYI: 1g carbohydrate (including sugar) = 4 calories; 1g protein = 4 calories, 1g fat = 9 calories, 1g alcohol = 7 calories
–Serving sizes: check the nutrition label to see if the serving size is realistic. If a serving size is half a cup, but most people eat 1 cup for a serving, then the nutrition information needs to be looked at more carefully. If ½ cup of cereal has 5g of sugar, then 1 cup has 10 g. The percentage of sugar in each bite of cereal remains unchanged, however, more sugar is being consumed with the 1 cup portion.
Ok…here are some examples of packaged cereals. I’ll start with the healthier ones first.
Shredded Wheat made by Post 9/10
For a packaged cereal, this is decent. There is only one ingredient, which is “100% whole grain wheat”. So, you know you have a whole grain cereal. Yay!
But, what is BHT…the next ingredient? It’s not really an ingredient in the food, as it’s listed as “added to package material to help maintain product freshness (D020D)”. The BHT is in the package, so it is touching the product. Therefore, we may be eating it along with the cereal.
What is BHT?
The David Suzuki Foundation says BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene) is “a synthetic antioxidant used as a preservative in lipsticks and moisturizers, among other cosmetics. It is also widely used as food preservative.”
-BHT can create allergic reactions to the skin.
-On the carcinogenic level, BHT is considered to be a “moderate human health priority” by Health Canada.
Chemical and Engineering News states cereals have only a “dash” of the stuff, but it also points out, “BHT may be added directly to cereal, though it is commonly added to the plastic or wax paper liner of the packaging. From there, it migrates into food.”
The US Food and Drug Administration has a code of regulations for BHT.
Seriously? Why is this additive in, or even touching, our food?
Obviously, BHT isn’t something we want in our bodies, even if governments allow it. Without even knowing the potential dangers, does something called butylated hydroxytoluene sound like it was meant for us to eat?
We cannot rely on governments to decide if our food is safe. We need to confirm, with our own research, if a “safe” ingredient is something we want to eat…especially if we eat it every day or several times a week.
The nutrition label on the Shredded Wheat box shows key information:
-There is 1 g of fat, which is not added, and exists naturally in the wheat. 1 g of fat = 9 calories. There are 170 calories in a serving (listed as two of the wheat biscuits). This means that one serving is made of 5.3% fat (9/170 = .053, x 100 = 5.3). This is a very low amount of fat, which is very healthy.
-There is 0 g of sugar. Awesome!
-There is 0 mg of sodium (salt). Salt is measured in mg, and not g.
-There are 6 g of fibre. Fibre is super important and exists only in plant-foods. This product has a good amount of fibre…not as good as a whole grain that’s unprocessed, though.
– 1 serving = 2 biscuits, which is a realistic serving size
The ingredients and nutrition label on the Shredded Wheat product provide a lot of valuable information. Overall, this is a healthy cereal. It is low in the unhealthy trio of fat, sugar and salt and has really, only one ingredient: 100% whole grain wheat. The downside is the BHT.
All Bran Flakes made by Kellogg’s 7/10
From the outside of the All Bran Flakes product, the cereal looks good. Let’s look at the ingredients.
-There are 5 ingredients (not too bad).
-The first ingredient is “whole grain wheat”. It doesn’t say “100%” like the Shredded Wheat, but the first ingredient is promising.
-The second ingredient is “wheat bran”. I’m wondering why the bran is listed as a separate ingredient if the “whole grain” is listed as the first ingredient. Isn’t the bran there already?
–The third ingredient is sugar. Not good. Sugar has no nutritional value. I think it’s better for consumers to add their own sugar, if they choose, so they can control the amount.
-The fourth ingredient is “corn and barley malt extract”. That sounds kind of healthy. What is it? Malt is an abbreviated term associated with maltose, which is a form of sugar. Basically, the malt extract from the corn and barley is a sugar pulled from the corn and barley. The company lists it separately, but it is still sugar.
-The last ingredient is salt. We need to look at the nutrition label to get the low down on salt. Stay tuned.
What does the nutrition label on All Bran Flakes tell us?
-There are 5 g of sugar. Each gram of sugar has 4 calories, so if we divide the calories in the grams of sugar (20 calories) by the total calories in a serving, we get a product made of 17% sugar (20/120 = 1.67, x 100 = 17%). This means that each bite of the cereal is 17% sugar. Not a huge number, but good to know.
-There are 210 mg of sodium. This amount isn’t crazy high, but it’s on the high side considering the product. A general rule of thumb is to have a sodium amount that is less, in mg, than the total calories. So, if this product is 120 calories, the sodium should b 120 mg or less. In this case, the sodium mg are almost double. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather have my intake of sodium in the form of sea salt sprinkled on my potatoes, not processed in a product.
-There are 5 g of fibre. To compare, the same size serving (1 cup) of steel-cut oats has 10 g of fibre. There’s nature beating the processed food again!
-There is 1 g of fat. Not a worry, as stated in the Shredded Wheat example.
-1 cup is the serving size, which is realistic.
Overall, this is an ok cereal. They’ve added bran and then decided to call it “All Bran”; not quite accurate. It’s not the worst cereal, however.
Special K made by Kellogg’s 6/10
Special K is often marketed as a healthy cereal; it’s also been touted on commercials as a great way for people to lose weight. Let’s look inside the box at the ingredients.
-There are 7 ingredients.
-The first ingredient is rice. Ok. Rice is good, right? Well, if it’s a brown, red, black or purple rice, it’s a whole grain. If not, it’s white rice, which is a refined grain. Kellogg’s would want you to know they were using whole grains, so we can safely assume that the rice listed is refined, white rice.
-Next up is wheat gluten. It’s the protein found in wheat. Not any real issues here except, again, isn’t it better to have the gluten in the whole wheat?
–The third ingredient is sugar…not great. No nutrients or value in sugar.
-Next is wheat germ. This is the germ extracted from wheat. Better in the whole grain, but it’s not a horrible ingredient.
-The fifth ingredient is salt. We’ll look at the nutrition label for sodium soon.
-The next one is modified milk ingredients, defined by The Canadian Food Inspection Agency as:
“…any of the following in liquid, concentrated, dry, frozen or reconstituted form, namely calcium reduced skim milk (obtained by the ion-exchange process), casein, caseinates, cultured milk products, milk serum proteins, ultrafiltered milk, whey, whey butter, whey cream and any other component of milk the chemical state of which has been altered from that in which it is found in milk.”
Modified milk ingredients might not bother you if you consume dairy, but the description implies that almost anything can be done to the “milk”, and it’s ok. I wonder about how “healthy” this could be. If you don’t eat dairy, then you definitely won’t be happy with this ingredient.
-The 7th and last ingredient is corn and barley malt extract (see explanation in All Bran Flakes discussion).
Special K’s nutrition label tells us:
-It’s low in fat (0.5 g per serving).
-It has 4 g of sugar (13.3 % of product is sugar).
-It has 200 mg of sodium (too high for the sodium rule of thumb-see All Bran Flakes discussion above).
-There are 0 g of fibre! You’ve got to eat fibre in every meal. It’s hugely important. 1 cup of steel-cut oats has 10 g of fibre.
-The serving size is 1 cup, which is realistic.
For me, there’s nothing special about this cereal.
Frosted Flakes made by Kellogg’s 5/10
I’m not trying to pick on Kellogg’s; it turns out they seem to dominate the cereal aisle. Let’s see what Tony the Tiger is making such a fuss about by checking out the ingredients.
-The first ingredient is milled corn. There are a couple of problems with this. First off, most corn today is genetically modified (GMO), so unless it says non-GMO corn, or organic corn, don’t eat it. Second, the corn is not in its whole form; it is “milled”, which means it’s refined.
-The next one is sugar. When sugar is listed in the first couple of ingredients, you know the product can’t be good for you. This cereal is 40% sugar! Holy moly! (10 g x 4 calories = 40 calories / 100 calories = 40%). This is not the type of food you want to use to fuel your day.
-The third ingredient is corn and barley malt extract, another form of sugar (see All Bran Flakes discussion above).
-The fourth ingredient is salt, with 130 mg included. It’s close to the rule of thumb for sodium, so it’s not the worst here.
-The next ingredient is “colour”. Who the heck knows what that is? Is “colour” an ingredient? No! It’s a softer, generic word used to describe a synthetic concoction. This means the color is a man-made ingredient added to our food to make it look more pleasing to the consumer.
Synthetic is defined as “…noting or pertaining to compounds formed through a chemical process by human agency, as opposed to those of natural origin.”
Governments decide what synthetic colors can and cannot be allowed in food. Check out the list put out by the Canadian government which also shows some of the colors used and how the names for each color vary by governments. For example, annatto is a red/orange food coloring used in Canada. It’s used in the U.S. but called FD&C Red No. 2; in Europe, they call it E 160b.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t like the idea of eating synthetic color in my food, no matter what it’s called. Also, food products should be required to list the precise color name they’re using and not be permitted to put just “color” as an ingredient.
Up next…the nutrition label for Frosted Flakes…
-This cereal has 0 g of fat per serving.
-The sodium is at 130 mg, so that is very close to the rule of thumb for sodium (equal or less mg of sodium per calorie)
-There is 0 g of fibre in this product. No value there. We need lots of fibre.
-There are 10 g of sugar in this product’s serving. See the next point about serving size for this cereal.
-The serving size is ¾ cup. It’s interesting that a product with 40% sugar shows a smaller serving size than the previously listed cereals. Is that because more children than adults eat this cereal? I don’t know if that’s true or not, so that could be a reason.
OR…the company may decrease the serving size because they don’t want you to see the grams of sugar there would be in 1 cup. Not sure if most people are eating only ¾ cup of this cereal in a serving…likely not. Therefore, ¾ cup doesn’t seem realistic for most people.
Froot Loops made by Kellogg’s 3/10
Froot Loops are loved by many kids and adults alike. I think most people would agree this is not a healthy cereal. It’s not the worst one out there, but it’s an example of a poor-quality cereal when it comes to healthy food. Let’s look at the ingredients to see why this is a poor choice for the health-seeking consumer.
-There are 11 ingredients. That’s a lot.
-The very first ingredient is sugar!
-Ingredients 2, 3, 4, 5 and 7 are some form of grain. Number 2 (whole grain corn flour) and number 4 (whole grain oat flour) are listed as whole grains. Number 3 is called “wheat flour”, so we know that one’s not whole grain. Number 5 is corn bran, so the bran has been extracted from the whole corn. Number 7 is “oat hull fibre”, which is basically the bran or outer husk/hull of the oat. There’s a mixture of whole and refined grains here. Not great.
-The sixth ingredient is maltodextrin. This is basically just sugar. It’s a highly processed powder that has come from corn, rice, potato starch or wheat. It usually comes from corn and is commonly used in the production of candy and soft drinks. It seems to me that the cereal company should be telling consumers where the maltodextrin comes from. The consumer doesn’t know if it’s from corn, rice, wheat or potato.
-The next ingredient surprised me: hydrogenated coconut and vegetable oil. Yikes! This is bad stuff for sure and not one I’d expect in a cold cereal. Basically, hydrogenated means that an oil that is liquid at room temperature has hydrogen added in to allow it to become solid at room temperature.
A few issues here about the oil:
Firstly, oil is a man-made product that is 100% fat and with very little nutrition. The oil may have come from a plant (coconut, vegetable), but oil doesn’t exist in nature, so it is man-made.
Secondly, OIL has no fibre and causes havoc inside your arteries.
If you’re unfamiliar with what oil can do to your body, read the book, Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease by Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn Jr. You can also watch this short video if you don’t want to read the book.
Froot Loops includes “vegetable oil” in the ingredient list. What exactly is “vegetable oil”? Which vegetable? Cereal companies should be more specific, so consumers know what they’re eating.
Lastly, when fats are solid at room temperature, they are saturated fats, which are especially bad for us. When an oil is partially hydrogenated, trans fats are produced, and they are the worst kind. To me, it seems simply crazy to put oil in cereal! This ingredient cries unhealthy.
-The eighth ingredient is salt. With 100 mg of sodium, this is not a problem ingredient in this product.
-The next ingredient is “color (fruit and vegetable juice concentrate, anthocyanin, annatto, turmeric)”. See the more complete discussion of food coloring in the Frosted Flakes discussion above. I would add here that a concentrated version of fruit juice will increase the sugar content.
-The last listed ingredient is “natural flavor”. Doesn’t that sound nice? A flavor that’s natural. Well, beware. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency states that natural flavors are… “substances that impart flavours that have been derived from a plant or animal source may be claimed to be ‘natural’.”
According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration:
“The term natural flavor or natural flavoring means the essential oil, oleoresin, essence or extractive, protein hydrolysate, distillate, or any product of roasting, heating or enzymolysis, which contains the flavoring constituents derived from a spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or similar plant material, meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products, thereof, whose significant function in food is flavoring rather than nutritional.”
Who knows what can be allowed to be called a natural flavor? I’ve seen reports that MSG can be called a natural flavor. I think the point here is to just be aware that a vague ingredient name doesn’t give you all the information you need to determine if it’s healthy.
When we examine Froot Loops’ nutrition label…
-There is 1 g of fat. Great.
-The sodium level meets the rule of thumb for sodium (100 mg vs the 110 calories)
-There are 2 g of fibre. Not 0 g, so it could be worse. Nothing to brag about, though.
-The serving size, like the Frosted Flakes, is ¾ cup. Not realistic for most.
Ok. Time for the last cereal on the list.
Sunrise Crunchy Maple made by Nature’s Path (6/10)
I chose to share this packaged cereal at the end. Not because it’s the worst, but because it’s specifically marketed as a healthy cereal. The company’s name is “Nature’s Path”, so that tells us this cereal is supposed to be healthy. Sunrise Crunchy Maple is also marketed as organic, vegan and gluten-free.
Let’s look at the ingredients:
-There are 15 ingredients. Wow! That’s a lot of ingredients for a healthy food.
-The first two ingredients are whole grain flours. Pretty good.
-The 3rd, 7th and 14th ingredients are sugar. Whether it’s cane sugar, maple syrup or molasses, the basic ingredient is sugar. Many ingredient’s names these days are being used instead of “sugar”, so they look like they are better/healthier. Some other forms of sugar are corn sweetener, maltose, honey, high-fructose corn syrup, fruit juice concentrate etc. Beware.
I would agree that pure maple syrup from a tree is better than refined white sugar, but it’s still a concentrated sweetener being added to food. It’s better to add your own sweetener at home, where you can control the amount and quality. Also, I think it’s highly unlikely that the company used pure maple syrup…it would cost more.
-The 4th and 5th ingredients are refined flours. Not ideal. We want whole grains for health.
-The 6th ingredient is “inulin”. Hmmm…. most of us probably have no clue what that is (including me)!
According to Meriam Webster, inulin is “…a mildly sweet, indigestible polysaccharide that occurs chiefly in the roots or tubers of various plants (such as chicory or Jerusalem artichoke) …and…is used as an additive in low-fat and low-sugar foods to improve the flavor and texture…”
-added fibre found in plants; the most commonly used source is the chicory root
-used as a pre-biotic, fat replacer, sugar replacer, and texture modifier
(from Science Direct)
Inulin provides fibre, and it does come from a plant, but let’s keep all these extra processed ingredients out of our food. Let’s eat our fibre in its original form, in a whole food like a vegetable, fruit, grain, legume or nut/seed.
-The 8th ingredient is quinoa. Quinoa is a whole grain, which is ideal.
-Next is “natural maple flavor”. This is another ingredient we should pause and think about. Anything called a “flavor” or “natural” usually means it’s some man-made concoction made by companies. If it’s not, then just tell us specifically what it is in nature. Skip the tricky words.
-The 10th ingredient is flax seeds. Flax seeds are good for you if they’re ground up. Otherwise they just pass right through you, undigested, leaving your body with no benefit. It doesn’t say “ground” flax seed, but I don’t see a problem with this ingredient.
-Next up is sea salt. Not a bad ingredient, depending on the amount. It comes late in the ingredient list, so that’s a good sign in terms of being a healthy level.
-The 12th ingredient is buckwheat flour. It’s a grain that’s been refined because it does not state “whole grain”. Not ideal, but it’s gluten-free.
-Next is amaranth. It’s called a grain, although technically it’s not. It’s gluten-free as well. It doesn’t say “whole”, so I’m assuming it has also been refined.
-The 15th ingredient is tocopherols. Whoa! Let’s check on that one, especially when we’re told it’s used to “enhance freshness”.
Meriam Webster defines tocopherols as “…any of several fat-soluble oily phenolic compounds with varying degrees of antioxidant vitamin E activity; especially: alpha-tocopherol”.
Ok, so vitamin E sounds ok. It’s added to the food, but ideally, we should get vitamin E from a whole food. However, to truly understand a tocopherol, I need to see what a phenolic compound is.
What’s a phenolic compound?
ScienceDirect states: “Phenolic compounds, ubiquitous in plants are an essential part of the human diet, and are of considerable interest due to their antioxidant properties. Fruits, vegetables and beverages are the major sources of phenolic compounds in the human diet.
So, tocopherols are phenolic compounds, which come from plants, which is good to hear.
However, it’s still better to get the benefits of plants through the whole food, and not by having a specific portion of a plant extracted and then added to food. Without going into deep research on phenolic compounds, they don’t seem to be a worry here.
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency lists tocopherols as “…acceptable vitamin compounds and mineral salts which may be used for fortification…” in food.
Several sources I found listed tocopherol as vitamin E. What’s interesting is that the ingredients list for Sunrise Crunchy Maple cereal states that tocopherols are something added “to enhance freshness”.
Also, if there is more than one type of tocopherol, as shown in the list above, then shouldn’t the company declare the specific tocopherol used in the product?
The consumer has been told this ingredient helps keep the cereal fresh, but the Canadian government lists it as Vitamin E that fortifies the food.
So, which is it? I could probably dig deeper on this topic, but there’s only so much time in a day. I’ve learned enough, though, to be a little cautious with tocopherol. I’d rather cook my whole grain oatmeal, when it comes to eating a healthy cereal. I don’t need any unclear compounds to add vitamins or to keep it fresh.
When we look at the nutrition label for Sunrise Maple Crunch, we can see that it’s:
-low in fat (1 g); only 8% of each serving is fat (1 g x 9 calories, then divided by 110 total calories; x 100)
–25% of every bite is sugar. That’s high for a “healthy” cereal. There are 7g of sugar, which is (7 g x 4 calories = 28 calories from sugar divided by 110 total calories; x 100)
-at an ok amount for sodium (130 mg). It’s higher than the sodium rule of thumb (should be fewer mg than the total calories), but not too worrisome.
We’ve come to the end of the cereal list. I’d love to profile more cereal products; there are so many! Unfortunately, this post is already long enough.
Note: I don’t feel I had any bias in the brands I chose, but it is possible. My selection wasn’t completely random, of course; I looked for a variety of ingredients to show the range of healthy to definitely-not-healthy cereals.
Your Cereal. Your Choice.
I hope the analysis of the above packaged cereals provided you with enough information to help you choose a cereal. When you find ingredient names you’re not familiar with, take a moment and Google them to see what they are.
Don’t be discouraged.
If you or your family eat cereal, I have some great news! YOU have the power to choose what kind of cereal to eat.
I encourage people to cook their own whole grains because it’s very easy to do once you know how, and it’s the healthiest choice. I also recognize that many people don’t want to take the time or just don’t want to learn how to do it.
When considering a packaged cereal, take a stroll down your cereal aisle and see what you can find. If you try the calculations discussed in this post, and you do them a few more times, you’ll eventually be able to do the calculations in your head (I just estimate the numbers when I’m figuring it out at the grocery store).
We should be AWARE of what we’re eating. Just because a product is on a shelf in a grocery store doesn’t mean it’s healthy for us.
We don’t have to eat perfectly healthy every day, but we owe it to ourselves to know what’s in our food.
It’s up to you, the consumer, to decide where you’ll put your money.
Wishing you health and success on your journey,