How to buy a healthy breakfast cereal

Written by Catherine Saxelby on Tuesday, 12 February 2013. Posted in Family and kids
Tagged: breakfast, breakfast cereals, healthy eating, healthy lifestyle, tips

How to buy a healthy breakfast cereal

How many times have you heard this: “It’s better to eat the box than the cereal”? That’s fine if you’re after fibre in the form of cellulose (and I get the cereal joke), but it doesn’t address the needs of busy women who are after something quick in the morning rush, that makes a decent contribution to nutrition, and solves the problem of how to get the kids to eat something rather than nothing before school.  Oh and one that tastes good too!

Many kiddie cereals aren’t ideal in terms of fibre and whole grain content but they are inexpensive, high in starchy carbohydrate that fills up tummies, low in fat, fortified with four B vitamins and iron. Cereals are generally eaten with milk which contributes protein and bone-building calcium AND lowers the glycemic load of the meal.

But after that, cereals differ greatly – some are high in fibre, some are wholegrain, two things which are big on my list. Some are fortified with extra calcium, vitamin C, vitamin A or zinc (you can check the label), some are less processed, some have lots of sugar, others have next to none. 

My 4 steps to choosing a healthy cereal

Puffed, rolled, flaked or popped, there are oodles of breakfast cereals. What I want is one with the most fibre and/or wholegrains but the lowest sugars and sodium (salt). One that will fill me up and take me to lunch! Sounds easy but isn’t always.

Me? I’m a muesli Queen at breakfast. I love my muesli as I’ve said before. But at times I want variety and when the kids were little, we had up to FIVE packs of bought cereal in the kitchen. So I’ve been down the cereal aisle more than once. Here’s what I look for. 

1. Look for fibre

Weet-Box-three-in-bowl 14Cereals are one of the easiest ways to boost your fibre intake. So make it count towards your day’s fibre intake. For instance, a bowl of bran cereal (like the ever-popular All-Bran) gives you 9 grams of fibre which is around one-third of your recommended daily intake. Read the back of the box and look for 10 per cent or more (run your eye down the Per 100g column).  10 per cent is equivalent to 3 grams of fibre per 30g bowl.

Bran cereals (All-Bran, Sultana Bran) have between 15 to 30 per cent while Corn Flakes and Rice Bubbles are down at a low 2 per cent.

Alternatively you can sprinkle a couple of spoons of All-Bran Fibre Toppers or Guardian or psyllium flakes over your usual cereal. To max your fibre, I’ve listed my top ten nicest-tasting cereals for fibre to show you the range at the high end:

Cereal % fibre

g fibre

per serve

Serve size*

Uncle Toby’s Bran Plus

40

 18.0  45g

Kellogg’s All-Bran Original

 30  13.3  45g

Goodness Superfoods Digestive 1st

 25  12.7  50g

Vogel’s Ultra Bran and Soy

 26  11.5  45g

Kellogg’s Guardian

 22  6.5  30g

 Sanitarium Weet-Bix Hi-Bran

 18  7.3  40g, 2

 Kellogg’s Sultana Bran

 15  6.7  30g

 Uncle Toby’s Shredded Wheat

 13  6.2  47g, 2

 Sanitarium Weet-bix

 12  3.3  30g, 2

 Uncle Toby’s Vita Brits

 12  4.2  33g, 2

 Recommended daily intake

 -  25-30  -

           *  serve sizes as specified by the manufacturer on pack

2. Look for Wholegrain

Look for a cereal that contains 50 per cent whole grains or more. It’s usually splashed all over the front. The more, the better. Weet-Bix has 97 per cent whole grains while rolled oats hits the max at 100 per cent.

If not, you can check the list of ingredients for clues that “Whole Grains” are present. Words like whole wheat, whole barley, oat AND brown rice are clues. My tip: go for a cereal that contains the words ‘whole ’ or ‘ wholegrain ’ in the first two ingredients.

3. Be moderate with sugars

I don’t want a sugary cereal but I don’t mind a little sweetness. So I follow a general rule summarised from many criteria over the years eg Choice, Heart Foundation Tick, which says to choose a cereal with:Breakfast-cereal-bowl

15 per cent sugars or less

OR

25 per cent sugars or less
if the  cereal has dried fruit such as sultanas, raisins, dried apple or dried apricots (e.g. Sultana Bran, Just Right, Fibre Plus, muesli) as these contribute their own sweetness.

The content of sugars varies from a tiny one per cent for oats, Vita Brits or Weeties to almost a hefty 40 per cent in Frosties, Froot Loops or Crunchy Nut Corn Flakes. Added sugar in cereals is such a festering sore that I plan to write a separate post on it.

Note: "sugars" includes both added AND natural. The food label isn't helpful here!

4. Go easy on sodium (salt)

Ideally you want  as little sodium as possible. Technically a low-salt cereal must have less than 120mg per 100g but companies today have been gradually reducing their salt content which is a great improvement on years past. Compare brands and buy the lowest sodium content you can. Anything under 400mg per 100g is good.

 

Summary - Cereal label decoder - my 4 things to look for in the "Per 100 grams" column and on pack:

Cereal decoder

 

Tip - watch the serve size

A standard serve of cereal used to be 30g which means one cup of bubbles or flakes or two breakfast biscuits. But these days the serve sizes vary so much as some manufacturers have decided a serve is now 45g ( a huge 50% increase!) in their bid to claim the “highest fibre content” or the “most vitamins”.  Not a helpful move when nutritionists are warning you to watch your portion sizes. You may eat more or less than this. Muesli is heavy and can range from 45g to 60g. I’ve compared the figures on an equal basis of 100 grams as the serve sizes differ so much.

Sugars, fibre, fat and salt in that cereal

Ranked by increasing sugars content with cut off for 15, 20 and 25 per cent shown. 

Cereal

Sugars

%

Fibre

%

Fat

%

Sodium

mg per 100g

Oats, raw

0

10

9

7

Vita-Brits

<1

12

2

400

Weeties

1

12

2

400

Shredded Wheat

2

13

1

10

Weet-bix

3

11

1

290

Corn Flakes

8

3

0

550

Rice Bubbles

9

1

0

550

Mini Wheats, Mixed berry

11

10

1

10

Guardian

12

22

1

215

All-Bran

14

30

3

380

Uncle Toby’s Bran Plus

14

40

5

390

Vogel’s Ultra Bran

14

26

2

320

Special K

15

3

0

490

Cheerios

16

10

3

295

Muesli^

18

11

7

28

Sustain

20

6

3

97

BarleyMax Digestive

21

25

6

56

Sultana Bran

23

15

2

270

Just Right

29

8

2

30

Crunchy Nut Flakes

32

3

3

355

Nutri-grain

32

3

1

560

Coco Pops

37

1

0

465

Froot Loops

38

2

2

400

Frosties

41

2

0

350

All figures rounded to the nearest whole number. Source: Manufacturers’ data / Calorie King Australia online.  ^Manufacturer’s data: Uncle Toby’s Swiss-style Natural. 

 My top 10 healthiest breakfast cereals

All these 10 cereals meet my four criteria and are tasty and readily available at supermarkets. Yes there are other brands and new ones that come onto the shelves all the time so this list is not exhaustive. I’ve not included mueslis as they are a separate group but for me I’d have one in there as well.

  1. Sanitarium Weet-Bix/ Uncle Toby’s Vita-Brits 
  2. Traditional oats (Uncle Toby’s, Brookfarm, Lowan, Carmen’s) 
  3. Kellogg’s All Bran 
  4. Kellogg’s Sultana Bran 
  5. Kellogg’s Bran toppers/Flakes – good for boosting the fibre of low fibre cereals 
  6. Kellogg’s Mini Wheats, Plain or Apricot or Blackcurrant 
  7. Kellogg’s Guardian – good for boosting the fibre of low fibre cereals
  8. Uncle Toby’s Shredded Wheat 
  9. Kellogg’s Sustain Goodness 
  10. BarleyMax Digestive 1st

My final tip - any plain cereal based on oats or wheat biscuits is great for a healthy breakfast. Keep the sugar or honey you add yourself to a bare minimum. Just enough to sweeten. Add in a sliced banana or a handful of sultanas or some stewed or fresh fruit as well.

photo credit: p!o via photopin cc

Catherine Saxelby

About the Author

Catherine Saxelby knows nutrition! She is an accredited nutritionist, food commentator, blogger and award-winning author. Her latest book - Catherine Saxelby's Food and Nutrition Companion – answers all those tricky questions on healthy eating, diets and supplements. It draws together a lifetime of advice and gives you all you need to know to eat right!

Comments (10)

  • Michelle

    Michelle

    18 February 2013 at 21:11 |
    Hi Catherine, best article I've read on breakfast cereals ! Demystifies the whole label reading thing and clearly prioritises which nutrients to focus on. Thankyou!
  • Catherine Saxelby

    Catherine Saxelby

    01 March 2013 at 19:02 |
    Thanks Michelle. Appreciate your comment. Took me ages to pull all the figures and types together which does tend to sharpen one's focus. Many visits to the supermarket checking too. Glad it helps. Cheers Catherine
    • chris

      chris

      09 May 2013 at 06:58 |
      hi i have found a cereal that I would like to run past you as I seem to have got the rest of the diet and fitness good it would be a shame to fall at the start of the day, its by Aldi its called harvest morn really nutty muesl, im thinking fibre, low sugar low fat and i hate sweet cereals / food but as I am losing weight at lovely rate and increasing my cardio to 3 x 1 hours a week I dont want to slip up here

      Thanks muchly
  • Grahame

    Grahame

    06 July 2013 at 08:21 |
    Hello Catherine found this article very handy have been diagnosed with diverticulitis and need a high fibre diet which includes breakfast cereal , hard to get definitive info but will be using your guide thanks
  • Matt

    Matt

    09 July 2013 at 14:52 |
    "but it doesn’t address the needs of busy women who are after something quick in the morning rush, that makes a decent contribution to nutrition, and solves the problem of how to get the kids to eat something rather than nothing before school."

    ...because women are the only ones who make breakfast for the kids in the morning...
  • Catherine Saxelby

    Catherine Saxelby

    10 July 2013 at 16:08 |
    Thanks Grahame. I reckon breakfast cereal is an easy way for you to boost your fibre intake for the day. So read the label for the highest fibre in grams per serve OR grams per 100g. Or go for the bran or barleymax style cereals which are your best bet. Cheers Catherine
  • Catherine Saxelby

    Catherine Saxelby

    10 July 2013 at 16:10 |
    Matt - why are women the only ones making breakfast? Where are the men in the kitchen? And once kids are over the age of 7 or 8, a bowl of cereal and milk is one meal they can fix for themselves - as long as an adult has bought the cereal and there's some milk in the fridge. Is that what you're meaning? Catherine
  • Derrick

    Derrick

    22 July 2013 at 17:33 |
    Hi Catherine, excellent article, very nice to read! Just wondering if you could tell me the difference between "Weet-bix Hi-Bran" and "Weet-bix Multi-Grain"? I eat The Weet-bix Multi-grain every morning for breakfast (no sugar, fruit etc added because it's already very sweet for me) but decided to try the Hi-Bran this time. Which one would you recommend? From looking at the packaging, the Hi-Bran looks better but i'm not really sure about that.
  • Trevor

    Trevor

    20 August 2013 at 18:01 |
    Catherine- Is it Ok for a three and half yr old to have Kellogg's Guardian. He sat down the other day and ate about bowl and a half of dry Guardian.
  • Tatyana

    Tatyana

    08 July 2014 at 10:47 |
    Thank you so much for giving me the tools to decipher the labels on the back of the packaging. I have been trying so hard to watch the intake of fat and sugar and find I get so confused at times. You have made this so simple now, thank you. By the way I just love the newsletters and the information you provide. Thanks again.

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