How to Choose a Breakfast Cereal

Look for high fiber, whole grains, and less sugar

Cereal and Milk

Verywell / Alexandra Shytsman 

Cereal can be the centerpiece of a healthy breakfast that includes complex carbohydrates, fruit, protein, and dairy. But you have to be choosy to find the healthiest breakfast cereals and avoid processed grains, sugars, and fat.

The breakfast cereal aisle at the grocery store is loaded with colorful boxes featuring cute characters to attract kids. They also are tagged with claims such as "whole grains" or "reduced sugar" aimed to reassure adults. In fact, many of them are still just puffed candy in a box, with a few vitamins added to make them seem healthful. How do you know which ones are good and which ones are not?

Nutrition Facts Point the Way to the Better Cereals

Look for the Nutrition Facts label on the side or back of the package. This is where you'll find all the information you need to know. Check the sugar, fiber, vitamins, minerals, and the ingredients list.

Here is what to look for:

  • Sugar: 6 grams or less per dry ounce
  • Fiber: 5 grams or more per serving
  • Vitamins and minerals: Look for calcium, vitamin D, folic acid, iron, or B vitamins
  • Ingredients: The list should begin with a whole grain, such as whole grain oats, rye, or wheat

Spot the Sugars

You may not be able to recognize sugar in the ingredient list, as it is often disguised with different terms (such as brown rice syrup or evaporated cane juice). Instead, look at the numbers. The USDA recommends choosing cereals with fewer than 6 grams of sugar per dry ounce. That means a max of 6 grams of sugar for a 30-gram serving. A 30g serving may be equivalent to about 3/4 cup, but this depends on the density of the cereal. Corn or wheat flakes have fewer grams per cup than granola, for example.

Avoid cereals with lots of sugar—some cereals have 10 grams of sugar (that's nearly three teaspoons) in one serving. While some cereals may have natural sugars included in raisins and other dried fruit, these are also often coated with additional sugar.

Sweeten your cereal at home by adding your own raisins or fruit to unsweetened cereals. Even adding a bit of sugar or honey will still result in less sugar than in many kinds of pre-sweetened cereal.

Choose High Fiber Cereals

Choose a cereal that is high in fiber—at least 5 grams per serving. You'll find the most in high-fiber cereals such as shredded wheat, oat cereals, puffed wheat, and bran cereals. Usually, the more sugar cereal has, the less fiber it has per serving. The sugary cereals typically have about 1 gram per serving.

Fiber provides complex carbohydrates that will have less effect in raising your blood sugar. It also supports digestive health and cholesterol and lipid metabolism. Having a good amount of fiber at breakfast will help you get the amount you need each day.

Look for Whole Grains

Look over the ingredients list for the word "whole" in the first ingredient (whole oats, whole wheat, etc.). These whole grains will provide fiber as well as a small amount of protein, while processed grains do not. If the list begins simply with flour, you may have a highly processed cereal.

Check the Fats

Many kinds of cereal have no added fat. If you are looking at a cereal that does contain fat, see if it comes from "good" fat sources such as nuts and/or seeds.

Vitamins and Minerals

Look for cereals that are fortified with vitamins and minerals. The amounts of fortified nutrients vary among cereals but look for cereals with added calcium, vitamin D, folic acid (the synthetic form of folate), iron, and B vitamins.

Ingredients to Avoid

You may also wish to avoid cereals that contain artificial flavoring and colorings. These aren't things that your body needs. It's better to add fruit or spices to your cereal to provide natural flavors.

Tips for a Healthier Breakfast

Use these tips to get the most from a breakfast that includes cereal:

  • Watch your serving size, as it is very easy to pour yourself twice as much as what is listed on the label. A serving ranges from 3/4 to 1 cup of cereal. A Consumer Reports study found 92% of participants ate more than the recommended serving size. Using a bigger bowl resulted in eating more, as did eating a calorie-dense cereal such as granola.
  • If you are seeking to cut calories and fat from your breakfast, buy low-fat milk for your cereal, or try almond, rice, or soy milk. But be aware that while cow's milk and soy milk have protein, but some of the other choices do not. You can also use yogurt on your cereal.
  • Round out your breakfast with protein by adding a slice of whole grain toast with a little peanut butter, or a hard-boiled egg.
  • Add extra fiber and nutrients to your cereal with fresh sliced fruits or berries. These will also add a colorful and sweet element to your cereal so you won't miss the added sugar and artificial colors.

A Word From Verywell

Breakfast doesn't have to consist of high-fat or high-calorie foods that lack the nutrients your body needs. If you enjoy the convenience of breakfast cereal, there are many good choices for you and your kids. Just be sure you also round it out with fresh fruit and protein.

2 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. U.S. Department of Agriculture. Calculating sugar limits for breakfast cereals in the child and adult care food program.

  2. Cereal portion control matters. Consumer Reports.

By Shereen Lehman, MS
Shereen Lehman, MS, is a former writer for Verywell Fit and Reuters Health. She's a healthcare journalist who writes about healthy eating and offers evidence-based advice for regular people.