What can you learn from a box of cereal? Lots!
1. Is it whole grain?
Just like the bread you buy should be, your cereal should also be made with whole grains...and a 100 percent whole grain cereal would be the best choice. How can you tell? Read the ingredient list.
If the first ingredient reads whole something (wheat, rice, corn, etc) then you are off to a good start. But keep reading...is there another grain further down the list? It should be whole too! One exception to this rule is for oats...even without the word whole, rolled oats and oat flakes are always whole grains.
Don't be tricked by claims on the front of the box. General Mills claims that Lucky Charms (and most of its other cereals) are "made with whole grains", and sure, the first ingredient is whole grain oats, but what follows is not so convincing...see for yourself (I've underlined the grains that aren't whole):
2. Is it a good source of fiber?
Ingredients: Whole Grain Oats, Marshmallows (Sugar, Modified Corn Starch, Corn Syrup, Dextrose, Gelatin, Calcium Carbonate, Yellows 5&6, Blue 1, Red 40, Artificial Flavor), Sugar, Oat Flour, Corn Syrup, Corn Starch, Salt, Trisodium Phosphate, Color Added, Artificial Flavor, Vitamin E (Mixed Tocopherols) Added to Preserve Freshness. Vitamin and Minerals: Calcium Carbonate, Zinc and Iron (Mineral Nutrients), Vitamin C (Sodium Ascorbate), A B Vitamin (Niacinamide), Vitamin B6 (Pyridoxine Hydrochloride), Vitamin B2 (Riboflavin), Vitamin B1 (Thiamin Mononitrate), Vitamin A (Palmitate), A B Vitamin (Folic Acid), Vitamin B12, Vitamin D.
2. Is it a good source of fiber?
A good breakfast cereal should have at least 3 grams of fiber per 100 calories. So if your favorite cereal is around 200 calories per serving, it needs to be closer to 6 grams of fiber.
And I'm not talking about added, processed fiber either; I'm talking about fiber that is naturally found in the whole grains your cereal should be made with...let's call it whole fiber. Food companies are smart, and they know that fiber is a "selling point" these days. So they add lots of isolated fiber to their cereals to confuse the unknowing shopper. What's the problem with isolated fiber? It is unknown whether or not is has the same health benefits as whole fiber.
Isolated fiber sources that may be listed include inulin, chicory root extract, oat fiber, soy fiber, maltodextrin, starches (such as corn, wheat, tapioca), polydextrose, psyllium, and gums (such as arabic, guar, acacia). It's not that these are ingredients to be avoided, it's just better for the fiber to be whole.
3. Is it loaded with sugar?
Breakfast does not equal dessert...unless you work for any of the cereal companies that market their sugary cereals to children. Even some adult cereals have WAY too much sugar. One teaspoon of sugar weighs 4 grams. So if your favorite breakfast cereal has 12 grams of sugar or more, you are consuming at least a tablespoon of sugar with your breakfast (3 tsp = 1 tbsp).
So I would stick with cereals that have less than 8 grams of sugar (or 2 teaspoons) per serving for adults and kids alike. In most cases, if sugar (or any of its other forms...corn syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, honey, molasses, cane juice, fruit juice concentrates, any word ending in "ose") is the second ingredient listed, put the box down and keep looking.
One exception to this rule are cereals with REAL fruit; the sugar amount listed on the nutrition facts panel does not distinguish naturally occurring sugar in fruit (such as raisins) from added sugar and high-fructose corn syrup. So although Kellogg's Raisin Bran has 19 grams of sugar, some of it is from the raisins.
And if your new cereal isn't sweet enough for your taste, add your own fruit...I love bananas or berries sliced in my cereal. Or buy an unsweetened cereal (i.e. 0 - 1 grams of sugar) and sweeten it yourself with no more than 2 teaspoons of sugar.
There are other things to consider when choosing a breakfast cereal (sodium content and the presence of partially hydrogenated oils, artificial colors/flavors/sweeteners), but these 3 things are a good starting point: 1) first ingredient as a whole grain, 2) at least 3 grams of fiber per 100 calories, and 3) less than 8 grams of sugar per serving.
So what are some of the best choices?
General Mills - Fiber One Raisin Bran Clusters, Cheerios, Wheaties, Total Whole Grain, MultiGrain Cheerios, Wheat Chex, Total Raisin Bran
Nature's Path Organic - Smart Bran, Flax Plus Multibran/Pumpkin Raisin Crunch/Raisin Bran, Synergy, Optimum Slim, Heritage Bites, Multigrain Oatbran, Heritage, Millet Rice Oatbran, Heritage O's, Whole O's...there may be others...this is a good brand!
Barbara's Bakery - Ultima Organic High Fiber or Pomegranate, Organic Crispy Wheats, Shredded Spoonfuls, Organic Breakfast O's
Kashi - Honey Sunshine, Heart to Heart Honey Toasted, GoLean, Organic Autumn Wheat, 7 Whole Grain Flakes, 7 Whole Grain Nuggets
Post - Bran Flakes, Original Shredded Wheat (including spoon size Original and Wheat n' Bran), Trail Mix Crunch Raisin and Almond, Raisin Bran
Other lesser known/found brands that have some healthy options: Weetabix, Uncle Sam, Healthy Valley, Cascadian Farm, Arrowhead Mills