Sure, many kinds of cereal are marketed as nutritious. But as you’re downing spoonful after gloriously sweet spoonful at breakfast, you may find yourself wondering: Is this truly a healthy breakfast option?
Cereal is one of America’s most-loved breakfast foods, and we all know why. It’s easy to grab, tastes like your childhood, and it’s delicious. But thanks to its high sugar content, cereal often gets a bad rap—especially when consumed first thing in the morning. Pick the wrong box at breakfast, and you’ll need a nap before noontime and be well over the recommended daily sugar intake.
The good news? Not all cereals are created equal, and there are plenty of healthy and tasty cereal options on supermarket shelves. We spoke with two registered dietitians, Kelli McGrane, RD, for the app Lose It! and Gena Hamshaw, RD, founder of The Full Helping for their tips on how to tell if your favorite breakfast cereal is actually healthy. Here’s what you need to do.
Limit the Sugar
When picking a breakfast cereal, find brands with a limited amount of added sugar. “It’s wise to pick cereals that have fewer than 10-12 grams of total sugar per serving,” Hamshaw says. “Keep in mind that sweeteners go by many names—including syrups, like brown rice or corn syrup—and words ending in “-ose,” like fructose, sucrose, or maltose.”
Choose a Whole Grain Base
According to McGrane, we should always opt for cereals that have a healthy whole grain base or those that are labeled as “100% whole grain.” This includes cereals made with ancient grains, like quinoa, millet, and sorghum, along with cereals made from brown rice and whole-grain corn.
“The higher you see whole grain ingredients listed in an ingredient label, the more confident you can be that the product is predominantly whole grain,” Hamshaw says. “I like the sprouted corn flakes and sprouted brown rice crisps from One Degree Organics because they’re a more wholesome alternative to other corn-based cereals on the market,” she says. Look for their low-sugar sprouted Os that are made with an oat base, too.
Avoid Artificial Ingredients
Just as you should look to avoid too much added sugar, you want to also take a look at factors that will help keep you full: Make sure the cereal has enough protein and fiber. “Look for options with at least 3 grams of fiber and 3 to 4 grams of protein,” McGrane says. “I’d also steer clear of any cereals that contain partially hydrogenated oils, high fructose corn syrup, or artificial flavoring and coloring.”
Watch Sodium Content
It’s also important to take a look at the cereal’s sodium content. McGrane recommends around 200 (or fewer) milligrams of sodium per serving, especially if you are trying to limit salt in your diet.
Check Serving Size
Finally—and we clearly cannot emphasize this enough—be sure to check a cereal’s serving size. McGrane advises double-checking what a serving size actually is. “For example, if the box says a ¾ cup serving provides 5 grams of sugar, but you usually pour yourself 1 1/2 cups of cereal, then you’ll actually be getting 10 grams of added sugar in the morning,” she says.
“Serving sizes can be surprisingly small, which is particularly problematic if a cereal isn’t rich in nutrients like fiber that aid in satiety,” Hamshaw says. If you choose a healthy cereal in the first place, you will feel full after eating a ¾ cup serving. “The more whole grains your cereal includes, the greater the chances that it will have fiber and protein that help to keep you satisfied.”