Breakfast Cereals – Are they really healthy?
Being the common start to the day, breakfast cereals are an important part of a healthy diet. In fact it seems that a child’s breakfast eating habits are a reflection of their overall dietary habits. You might be a little saddened to hear that kids’ cereals on the whole tend to be nutritionally inadequate (bar one or two) making healthy ‘adult’ cereals a good alternative for the whole family.
Quick breakfast cereal facts
A survey of over 200 breakfast cereals found that:
- All children’s cereals except one have too much sugar and/or too little fibre.
- 10 out of 20 children’s cereals were 40% sugar
- Only three of the top 10 selling cereals are recommended by the government watchdog – Weet-Bix, Sultana Bran and VitaBrits.
Source: May 2003 Choice Magazine, Australia
Why is breakfast important?
Breakfast is your child’s first meal after some 8-12 hours of sleep. While your child obviously hasn’t been burning up as much energy while asleep, they have still used a considerable amount regenerating the body and growing. Indeed, some children literally seem taller in the morning than when they went to bed! Also, the body’s metabolic rate is highest in the morning so your child’s need for refuelling is at its greatest.
When they wake up, their body’s sugar levels are low, and need replenishing with something quick and healthy. There are few things worse than a hungry and cranky child.
Breakfast is the meal that will kick-start the brain and body, providing it with the fuel it needs.
Skipping breakfast commonly results in an energy slump mid-morning. With fuel for the brain in scarce supply, it’s not hard to work out that even basic mental and physical tasks become taxing. This is most pronounced in children, and in fact, many studies point to the influence of a good breakfast on a child’s behaviour and overall eating habits. Children who skip breakfast tend to have more body fat and may struggle with learning.
How do you pick a healthy breakfast cereal?
Most people look for cereals that are said to be high in fibre and have a good source of carbohydrates, largely complex carbohydrates, which provide a sustained release of energy. Adults require about 30 grams of fibre a day (you don’t necessarily need it all in one go), while children need their age plus 5-10 grams. There are a number of high-fibre breakfast cereals that go a long way to meeting both of these requirements.
But you need more information in order to decide whether a cereal is good enough for your daughter or son. We need to look further. One feature to look out for is a cereal that has some protein (protein is the nutrient that tells the brain you are full) or find ways to add protein, for example by adding yoghurt and ground nuts and seeds.
This is how our checklist might look:
- Is the cereal low in added sugar? Added sugar which has little nutritional value can displace more nutritious ingredients and aid cavities, so children are best advised to avoid sugary cereals or at least eat them in moderation.
- Is sugar high up on the ingredients list? Check the ingredients panel of a cereal to firstly detect added sugar and secondly where it is on the list. If it is one of the first three or four ingredients, you may like to rethink your choice.
- Is the cereal low in total sugars? The total carbohydrates figure on a nutrition panel represents all carbohydrates, compared to the sugars figure which represents simple sugars (this can be from both added and natural sources such as fruit or milk). Check out the difference between the two and you will get some idea of the level of simple sugars that a cereal contains. The higher the sugars figure, the greater the amount of simple sugars, which are quickly used up.
- Does it have a low-moderate GI? Hmm. A little tricky if the manufacturer hasn’t given you an indication. While this is not essential, low to moderate GI cereals will provide a slower release of energy and are said to be a healthy option. However, cereals high in fibre, with added protein (ie. from nuts or by adding yoghurt) and those that contain fat (eg. milk, nuts, seeds) will have lower GIs as these nutrients slow the release of the sugars in the cereal.
- Is the cereal promoted as “whole” or “wholegrain”? This is ideal as such cereals are generally less processed and contain more of the natural constituents found in the grain, including vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals (these may provide protection against some cancers and heart disease).
Fast fact: Why is sugar such a health issue? Aside from the issue of tooth decay, sugar (table sugar in particular) and excessive amounts of simple sugars can play havoc with your body’s ability to balance blood sugar levels and insulin. Not only does this influence your brain, which mainly likes to use blood sugar for fuel, but insulin is the hormone that tells your body to store fat, hence the connection to obesity. Over time, wildly fluctuating blood sugar can lead to insulin resistance and even diabetes.
- Is the cereal low in sodium? We’re all advised to limit our sodium intake. Studies show that the majority of dietary sodium comes from processed foods and breakfast cereals are no exception. Check the 100g panel for sodium. If it is under 100mg, it is okay.
- Is the cereal low in fat (namely saturated and trans fats)? Fortunately, the fat content of most cereals is minimal.
Note: Use the per 100g (%) column in order to compare products as the serve size column varies from product to product.
Where does porridge fit in?
Porridge is a great breakfast, especially in winter. It is low in sodium, high in fibre, has a low GI and, according to health professionals, Avena sativa (oats) are restorative and calming to the nervous system. A cup of cooked rolled oats provides about 3-4g of fibre and the only sugar and salt is what you add. On this point, you use only fruit and yoghurt which adds more nutrients as well as healthy bacteria. What a fabulous start to the day!
What to look for on the Cereal pack/box
Below is a breakfast cereal nutrition information panel. Points to note include:
- Sugar is listed as the third ingredient and it is 34% simple sugars
- The bold highlights point out the simple sugars
- The product also has added salt which contributes to its sodium level
- Note also, In the ingredients listing the underlining shows the added compounds and chemicals
|Figure 1 Nutrition panel
Servings per package: 17.5
Average serving size: 30g
|Per serve||Per 100g|
|Saturated||Less than 1g||0.8g|
Ingredients: Cereals (65%) (wheat, oats, corn, rice), fruit (12%) (sultanas, apple, pinaepple, mango, banan, apricot), sugar, invert sugar, minerals (calcium, iron), maize maltodextrin, glucose syrup (contains preservaive 220), humectant (glycerol), wheat fibre, salt, dextrose, barely malt estract, honey, anti-caking agent (472), food acids (malic, citric potassium cuitrate), vegetable gum (pectin), antioxidant (ascobic acid, flavours, colour (annatol), vegetable oil, vitamins (niacin, thiamin, folate, riboflavin).
Results of the Choice review of breakfast cereals
- Roughly one third of the breakfast cereals we reviewed (not including the mueslis) are “high” or “very high” in fibre. Of these, just over 40 don’t have too much fat, sugar or salt, so are good, healthy choices.
- The cereals that tend to be high in fibre are wheat biscuits, wholegrain cereals and bran cereals. Just check carefully when choosing bran ones – two of the saltiest cereals we found are bran-based.
Brekky Biggies: Our Verdict
|TOP TEN BEST-SELLING CEREALS IN AUSTRALIA (2004)|
|Brand|| Our Rating
|KELLOGG’S Corn Flakes|
|KELLOGG’;S Just Right||OK|
|UNCLE TOBYS Vita Brits|
|KELLOGG’S Coco Pops|
|UNCLE TOBYS Flakes Plus||OK|
|KELLOGG’S Sultana Bran|
|KELLOGG’;S Special K||OK|
|KELLOGG’S Rice Bubbles|
Results of the Choice review of kids’ cereals
Kids get a raw deal with breakfast cereals. Most kids’ cereals are so highly processed they no longer resemble the grain they started out as. The majority are fibre-flimsy, and either too sugary or too salty. Out of all the breakfast cereals we looked at, the most sugary ones are all aimed at kids, with the equivalent of two to three teaspoons (10-15 g) of sugar in a 30 g serve (about ¾ – 1 cup).
- Kids don’t need as much fibre as adults, but they should still eat a cereal with at least a “moderate” amount, and not too much fat, sugar or salt.
- NESTLE Cheerios, NATURE’S PATH ENVIROKIDZ Organic Gorilla Munch and SANITARIUM Honey Weets are your best options from our kids’ cereals category. But in fact a lot of the recommended adult options are good if not better choices. Kids can even add a teaspoon of sugar to them and still get a more nutritious start to the day.
- L Cooper, The best start to life; Healthy eating and diet for children, Cadence Health, 2005.
This information has been provided by Leanne Cooper from Cadence Health. Leanne is a qualified nutritionist and mother of two very active boys.