How to Choose a Breakfast Cereal

Look for high fiber, whole grains, and less sugar

bowl of cereal with fresh fruit

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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. Go prepared with a few key numbers and be sure to bring your reading glasses, if needed.

Here is what to look for:

  • Sugar: 5 grams or less per serving
  • Fiber: 3 grams or more per serving
  • Fat: 3 grams of fat or less per serving
  • Vitamins and minerals: Look for calcium, vitamin D, folic acid, vitamin C
  • Ingredients: The list should begin with whole grain or whole wheat

Spotting the Sugars

You may not be able to recognize sugar in the ingredient list as it is often disguised with different terms. Instead, look at the numbers. Choose a breakfast cereal that has 5 grams of sugar or less per serving. Avoid cereals with lots of sugar—some cereals have 10 grams of sugar (that's about 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. Instead, it is better to sweeten your cereal at home by adding your own raisins or fruit. Adding a bit of sugar or honey will still result in less sugar than in many kinds of cereal.

Choose High Fiber Cereals

Choose a cereal that is high in fiber—at least 3 grams per serving. You'll find the most fiber 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 words "whole grain" or "whole wheat" as the first ingredient. 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. However, granola cereals can be high in fat. Some of the fat may be healthier forms in nuts, but it could be added fat. Look for less fat and avoid any trans fat.

Vitamins and Minerals

Look for cereals that are fortified with vitamins and minerals. If you eat a healthful diet rich in fruits and vegetables, whole grains, healthy protein sources, and nonfat or low-fat dairy products, you probably don't have to worry about getting enough vitamins and minerals. If your diet isn't so good, or you're buying cereal for a child who is a picky eater, getting those extra vitamins and minerals is a good idea. The amounts of fortified nutrients vary among cereals but look for cereals with added calcium, vitamin D, folic acid (the synthetic form of folate) and vitamin C.

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 study by Consumer Reports found 92 percent of participants ate more than the recommended serving size. Using a bigger bowl resulting in eating more, as did eating a calorie-dense cereal such as granola.
  • Buy low-fat milk for your cereal, or try almond, rice or soy milk. 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.
  • Enjoy a glass of 100-percent fruit juice or use fruit juice on your cereal instead of milk.

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.

Sources:

Olsen DP. Cereal Portion Control Matters. Consumer Reports. https://www.consumerreports.org/cro/news/2014/12/cereal-portion-control-matters/index.htm.

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