Boxed cereal is pretty much the American standard for a quick, healthy breakfast. The question is: why? True, certain kinds of cereal are healthier than white bread with jam, or Pop Tarts, or a maple donut. But not by much…
For the most part, it seems the idea that cereal is a great, waistline-friendly way to start the day has originated from — big surprise — advertising. Take the slogan on the current Frosted Flakes box: “From great starts come great things.” Here, a young Olympic ski jumper is telling us this cereal is “the right fuel for takeoff.” Maybe… if we want a crash landing in an hour.
If the goal is a filling, nutritious morning meal (and/or fueling a vigorous workout), the truth is we can do better than cereal. And no, Raisin Bran and Honey Bunches of Oats are not exempt. Let’s take a stroll down the grocery store cereal aisle, and I’ll show you what I mean. It’s time to talk about debunking breakfast cereal…
“Oven Toasted Corn Cereal!”
That sounds nice and wholesome. Oven toasted? Seems artisanal, almost. But as the Cornell Food Lab points out, such descriptors are really good at making consumers unconsciously think something is healthy — while signifying nothing. And the corn base isn’t much to get excited about either. For the most part, corn is a genetically modified filler that makes up a disproportionate part of the modern American diet. Not exactly worth a notch in your essential daily vegetable tally. While corn cereal isn’t inherently unhealthy, it isn’t loaded with nutrients. Yet it does seem to be a vehicle for loading up on other things, like sugar and artificial flavorings and dyes.
“With Whole Grain First Ingredient!”
The lineup of General Mills cereals touts its whole grain base, including dessert cereals like Lucky Charms, Cinnamon Toast Crunch, Reese’s Puffs, Hershey’s Cookies ’n’ Cream, and Cocoa Puffs. I recently heard my 13-year-old brother promoting their fiber benefits. Effectively conditioned by kid-targeted advertising? Check. I hated to break it to him (which is why I didn’t; I told my parents), but it’s still dessert. There are plenty of ways to reap the benefits of whole grains without the sugar and artificial additives, which can cause behavioral problems. Speaking of which…
“Only 10g of Sugar!”
When I was a kid, my parents set a cereal sugar limit of 10g or less. At the time, that ruled out most of the kids cereals. No longer. Mysteriously, the sugary cereals have dropped to a ¾-cup serving size, while the healthier/adult ones have stayed at 1 cup. And since then, I’ve seen my younger brothers get away with loading up on Corn Pops, Frosted Flakes and Lucky Charms — all because they now *seem* to have less sugar. (Note: my siblings are not eating less cereal due to the shrunken suggested serving size. In fact, they eat 2-3 bowls a day, as it doubles as an after-school snack). In all reality, they’re consuming about 13g of sugar from each cereal portion, plus milk which brings it up to at least 20g. Add an 8-oz glass of orange juice and it’s a 40-50g sugar meal.
“Provides 12 Essential Vitamins and Minerals!”
This claim can be spotted on the Corn Chex box, along with many others. Kellogg’s Cinnabon cereal specifically boasts being a “Source of Vitamin D.” And Raisin Bran brags about antioxidants, plus “two scoops” of raisins in every box. Maybe these cereals do provide said nutrients. But we can get them elsewhere, minus the toothache. I hate to contradict whoever compiled this list of top 10 healthy cereals, but there’s no reason to be eating 19g of sugar in a breakfast cereal. Those raisins are not fruit — they are candy.
And last but not least, this hollow slogan. Like “natural,” “wholesome goodness” is a feel-good label so vague that literally anyone can get away with using it.
Easy, Nutritious Alternatives to Cereal
The desperation on every cereal box to convince us of its healthiness should be all the proof we need: steer clear! On the healthiness scale, cereal seems to range from “just okay” to “absolute crap.” It all sounds decent, until you compare it with something else, like…
– An egg and spinach omelet
– Plain greek yogurt with a swirl of honey and granola
– Non-flavored oatmeal and fruit
– A protein smoothie
– Whole wheat toast with peanut butter and a banana
In the last week I put all these to the morning-scramble test and all passed, taking under five minutes to prepare. None of them gave me a toothache or a hungry stomach around 10:30 a.m. A breakfast that is low-calorie, low-sugar, filling and nutrient rich, with no artificial dyes or flavorings? If you ask me (and I wish the majority of Americans would), that beats a mediocre vehicle for a sprinkle of nutrients — and two scoops of sugar.