How to Choose Healthier Store-Bought Cereal

by Michelle Ulrich, MS, RD, CNSC
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How to Choose Healthier Store-Bought Cereal

Cereal can be a quick, nutritious meal or even a snack, especially if you don’t have time to cook breakfast. Cereals energize us with complex carbohydrates and make a dent in our daily fiber goal. Sadly, it’s also a sneaky place for added sugar, salt and other additives. If you’re going to invest in a box, remember that a little label sleuthing can go a long way!

As you walk down the grocery aisle, don’t let those cereal boxes intimidate you. Instead of being lured by colors and claims (think: “made from whole grains,” “heart healthy”), flip the box right over to look at the nutrition panel and ingredients list.

Here are six tips to choosing the right cereal:

1. Scan the serving size.
Always check the serving size when comparing cereals. Most cereals list the serving size as 1 cup, but some manufacturers may play with this number to make the nutrition information more appealing.

2. Choose a cereal with about 100–200 calories per serving.
It’s a good idea to use your measuring cups for better portion control, too, since it’s very easy to pour much more than that depending on the size of your bowl.

3. Use cereal to get an edge on your fiber intake.
As a general rule of thumb, your cereal choice should contain at least 3 grams of dietary fiber, preferably 5 grams or more per serving. The Institute of Medicine recommends that we aim for 25–40 grams of fiber daily, which we can get from eating more whole grains, fruits and vegetables. Dietary fiber helps lower our risk for high blood cholesterol, heart disease, constipation and diverticulosis. It also gives a feeling of fullness with fewer calories.

4. Score bonus points with protein.
Clearly, protein is not the main reason to eat cereal, but getting a few extra grams here and there may be helpful especially if you have higher protein goals or are trying to lose weight. Look for a cereal with 2 or more grams of protein, and by adding a 1/2 cup of low-fat or nonfat milk, you will get an additional 4 grams of protein.

5. Sidestep the added sugar.
Most breakfast cereals on the market range from 8–15 grams, but the sugarier options can contain up to 20 grams of sugar per serving (that’s 5 teaspoons)! A cereal with 8 grams of sugar (2 teaspoons) or less per serving will be your best choice.

When considering sugar content in cereal, be sure to read labels, especially the ingredient list. There are many different names for added sugars, so beware. You may find that some cereals higher in sugar contain dried fruit, but if the cereal fits all the other criteria it may not be such a poor pick. When in doubt, just choose cereals without dried fruit. You can always add it in later!

Be aware of where cereals are placed on the grocery shelves, and remember to look up and down when perusing the aisle. The cereals at eye level are usually reserved for the less healthy and more expensive brands. This makes them easy to see, grab and toss in your cart. Generally, store brands that may be cheaper and just as good are placed on higher or lower grocery shelves.

6. Be on the lookout for these confusing claims.

Cereals containing “yogurt”
The “yogurt” is often a combination of sugar, palm kernel oil and dried nonfat yogurt.

“Real fruit” claims
Read labels carefully, and if the cereal actually has real fruit it will be listed in the ingredients list.

Grain claims
Make sure it says “whole” in the ingredients list. For example, whole wheat should be listed as the first ingredient if it is truly a whole grain. Some other whole grains would include oats, bran, barley, buckwheat, rice, rye, spelt and so forth.

Also, beware of the term “multigrain,” as this does not necessarily mean that the cereal is made from 100% whole grains or that it contains fiber. Again, glancing at the ingredient list will help you determine if this product is truly a whole grain.

If your favorite cereal doesn’t quite fit these criteria, have no fear. Try mixing it with one that does. Together they will give you the flavor you like and the nutrients you need. Add your own fresh fruit, and make sure to choose a nonfat or low-fat milk or yogurt to accompany your cereal and to round out your meal or snack.

About the Author

Michelle Ulrich, MS, RD, CNSC

Michelle Ulrich, MS, RD, CNSC is an inpatient clinical dietitian with a Master’s of Nutritional Sciences degree from San Diego State University.  A New Jersey native, Michelle completed her undergraduate degree in Communication- Radio/TV/Film, however her passion for nutrition and dietetics brought her to San Diego to pursue a new career as a registered dietitian.  Michelle enjoys running, biking, hiking, swimming, and running after her niece.  She also enjoys reading and cooking, especially trying new, healthy recipes!


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