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How to Pick a Healthy Cereal

Consumer Reports logo Consumer Reports 3/8/2017
© Provided by Consumer Reports

Cereal can be a good source of the carbohydrates and other nutrients that help jumpstart your body and brain in the morning.

But some cereals are loaded with sugar, fat, and little in the way of fiber, and those healthy-sounding claims on the front of the box can be misleading. Since today is National Cereal Day, we've got tips for how to make the healthiest choices.

Pick a Whole Grain

Whole grains have numerous health benefits, and consuming enough of them on a regular basis can help lower your risk of top killers such as heart disease and cancer.

Whole grains are also a great source of fiber, which helps you feel full, says Emily Dhurandhar, Ph.D., assistant professor of kinesiology at Texas Tech University. Get plenty of fiber at breakfast, she says, and “you’re not going to be having a hunger attack mid-morning.”

So, look for a cereal that says “100 percent whole grain” somewhere on the box, and contains 5 or more grams of fiber per serving. Check to make sure there are no enriched flours in the ingredients list.

Choose a Moderate Sugar Option

Consumer Reports’ nutrition experts say it's best to opt for a cereal that contains 8 grams of sugars per serving or fewer. Be sure to read through the nutrition panel rather than trust claims such as “lightly sweetened” on the front of the box; that doesn’t guarantee a product will be lower in sugars than other cereals.

Also, remember that sugars are sugars, whether they are honey, brown rice syrup, or fruit juice concentrate. Don't be fooled by a fancy name; all these substances have the same health drawbacks as table sugar.

You'll also want to make sure that your cereal contains no more than 3 grams of fat and 140 milligrams of sodium or less per serving. And the fewer ingredients (aside from added vitamins and minerals), the better. 

Compare Brands

If you prefer a certain type of cereal—whether it's raisin bran or puffed rice—check to make sure you’re buying the one with the most fiber and least sugar.

You can also check out Consumer Reports’ ratings. We’ve taste-tested 32 cereal brands that rated Very Good or Excellent for nutrition.

Embrace Fruit

Don’t feel full from your bowl of cereal? Add a piece of fruit, such as a banana, advises Beth Kitchin, Ph.D., assistant professor of nutrition sciences at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. The fiber from the fruit will help you feel satisfied—plus you’ll be getting a valuable serving of fruit for the day.

If dried fruit—like raisins—is what you have on hand, keep in mind that this is a more concentrated source of sugar than fresh fruit, so add it, but in moderation. A 1/4 cup of raisins is fine, for example, says Kitchin. 

Watch Your Portions

In a recent experiment with cereal serving sizes, Consumer Reports asked people to pour themselves a typical bowl of cereal. Almost everyone served themselves significantly more than the suggested serving size on the cereal box.

To help you get a better sense of what a portion should be, instead of pouring cereal straight into a bowl, use a measuring cup. At the U.S. Department of Agriculture's ChooseMyPlate site, you can determine how many daily servings of grain you need and the optimal portion size, based on your age, sex, height, weight, and level of physical activity.

Make a Smart Milk Pick

Eating your cereal with cow’s milk or soy milk can bump up the protein, vitamin D, and calcium in your morning meal. Other alternative milks, such as almond milk, may be fortified with vitamin D and calcium, but may not be as good a source of protein.

And Consumer Reports recommends that if you can, opt for organic milk: cows on organic farms are raised without hormones or antibiotics.

Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2017 Consumers Union of U.S.

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