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Do You Know How Healthy Your Breakfast Cereal Is?

Nicole Tekkora, MS, RDN

Published in Nutrition

11 min read

March 15, 2022
two bowls of granola, apples and nuts
two bowls of granola, apples and nuts

Everyone has a different morning meal. For some, it’s oatmeal and berries or a healthy Greek yogurt. For others, it’s a hearty plate of eggs, bacon, sausages, bread, and cheese. And then there’s the cereal crowd.

For many people, mornings include a pretty standard routine: pour out a bowl of cereal, add in the milk (or vice versa—that’s a debate for another day), and eat. The popular food may be the “breakfast of champions” (thanks, Wheaties!) but is it actually a healthy breakfast option? It turns out that the answer isn't so simple. If healthy eating is essential to you, your breakfast is the first meal you should focus on. But the answer to whether breakfast cereal is a healthy way to start your day or not depends on a few factors.

First, you need to look at the typical ingredients in the breakfast cereal of your choice. After all, there’s everything from frosted to grain-free cereal options, so there are likely different nutrition facts for each one. Second, you need to consider how those ingredients impact your health. Remember, everyone’s body is different, and your body will respond differently to various cereal options, even if they’re technically healthy. And third, there are healthy alternatives that might be worth considering that aren’t traditional healthy cereal options. Read on to find out more about what we mean.

What Is Breakfast Cereal?

a peanut butter toast with cut banana on a plate and  bowl of granola, milk and nuts

Traditionally, breakfast cereal is a processed food made from grains, often including corn and wheat. The grains are milled into flour, which is then mixed with other ingredients like sugar, salt, and artificial flavorings.

This mixture is made into flakes, pellets, or other fun shapes and toasted. The ingredients and the process may not sound too unhealthy so far, but breakfast cereal can often be high in sugar and low in nutrients. Many cereal options are heavily processed, which can impact their nutritional value.

From muesli and rolled oats to whole-grain cereal and flaxseed options, there are many different cereal brands and types of breakfast cereal available on the market, so there are a lot of nutrition labels to examine so you can see whether there's an option that's worth it for you. While we can’t go into detail about each one, we’re going to examine the nutrition facts for a few popular cereal options below.

Is Breakfast Cereal Good For You?

a bowl of Cereal

There is a lot of debate surrounding the health benefits of cereal. Some people believe that it’s a nutritious (and super convenient) food. In contrast, others think it’s full of sugar and that even no-sugar or low sugar options have other unhealthy ingredients.

On the one hand, breakfast cereal is often fortified with vitamins and minerals, and it can also be a good source of fiber. On the other hand, most breakfast cereals are high in sugar. You’ll find sugar listed as one of the first two to five ingredients on the nutrition labels of most brands of popular breakfast cereals.  

But this doesn’t mean you have to avoid it altogether. The best way to figure out what breakfast cereal is right for you is to work with a dietitian to see how your body responds to different types. You can also try using health tech—tools like continuous glucose monitors can help you experiment with various options to find the healthiest breakfast cereal for your body.

In the meantime, here’s what you need to know about the two most common ingredients in your breakfast cereal.

1) Refined Carbohydrates

You likely already know that there are two different types of carbohydrates—refined, like white rice, and unrefined, like brown rice. When it comes to carb consumption, it’s usually an excellent option to control your consumption of refined carbs.

It’s because refined carbs, commonly found in processed foods, have often been stripped of their natural fiber, vitamins, and minerals. They include processed foods like white flour and white rice and typically contain empty calories. Though they may be tasty, consuming too many carbs may cause blood sugar and insulin spikes.

Consuming too many refined carbs can lead to health problems like heart disease, high cholesterol, obesity, and type 2 diabetes. So it's essential to be aware of what foods contain refined carbs and how to limit your intake of them for the sake of overall wellness. 

Unfortunately, if you eat popular breakfast cereals, there’s a good chance you’re consuming a significant amount of refined carbs. Refined carbohydrates can significantly impact your blood sugar levels. So, while they may seem like a healthy meal, most breakfast cereals may be loaded with refined carbohydrates, GMOs, preservatives, and additives. Your body quickly breaks down refined carbs, turning them into sugar, leading to blood glucose spikes, energy crashes, and cravings later in the day. Remember to read the labels and speak with a dietitian before picking one!

2) Sugar

In 2017–2018, adults aged 20 and over consumed an average of 17 teaspoons of added sugars per day, which might account for the current obesity epidemic. If you've been feeling low, sluggish, and out of energy, you may have a sugar overload.

When your blood sugar is high, your body can start to produce more insulin to bring those blood sugar levels back down to normal. It can wear out your pancreas over time and make it harder for your body to regulate blood sugar levels on its own. High blood sugar also damages cells and tissues, leading to serious health problems.

According to the Environmental Working Group, breakfast cereal averages around 1.4 to 2.6 teaspoons of sugar per serving. So if you eat cereal as a part of your daily breakfast routine and haven’t scanned the ingredient list on your boxes, it might be time to do so.

Since every type of cereal is different, even if it’s the same brand, the next time you’re walking down the cereal aisle looking for healthy breakfast options, read every ingredient list on every box you pick up. Remember that starting the morning with too much sugar can cause blood glucose spikes and lead to energy crashes and food cravings later in the day.

Comparing Popular Breakfast Cereals

two bowls of Cereal, blueberries and milk

From peanut butter to rolled oats, low-fat to multigrain, and shredded wheat to frosted, there are just so many types of cereal to pick from. If you feel like you can’t keep track of all the flavors, it’s because there are hundreds of breakfast cereals on the market. And all of them have different nutritional content.

Do you think you’ve picked the healthiest cereal based on those attractive, promising ads, but then the nutrition facts on the label say something different? It turns out that many popular kinds of cereal are not as guilt-free as they claim to be (especially when it comes to sugars and carbohydrates) as you are led to believe. 

boxes of different types of Cereals in the shop

We asked our dietitian and Nutrition Manager, Carlee Hayes, to take a closer look at ten kinds of cereal made by some of the most popular breakfast cereal brands, including Kellogg’s, Post, General Mills, Kashi, and Magic Spoon. Read on to review the nutritional content of each one, and then see what she thinks may be the best options for your health:

Kashi’s Heart to Heart Honey Toasted Oat

Serving size 1 cup

  • calories 150
  • Fat 2g
  • Carbs 35g
  • Fiber 6g
  • Sugars 7g
  • Protein 4g

Kellogg’s Honey Nut Cheerios

Serving size 1 cup

  • calories 140
  • fat 2g
  • carbs 30g
  • fiber 3g
  • sugars 12 g
  • protein 3g

General Mills Wheaties

Serving size 1 cup

  • calories 130
  • fat 0.5
  • carbs 30g
  • fiber 4g
  • sugars 5g
  • protein 3g

Magic Spoon Cocoa Cereal (Keto friendly)

Serving size 1 cup

  • 140 calories 
  • 7 grams of fat
  • 13 grams grams of protein
  • 15 grams of carbohydrates
  • 2 grams of fiber
  • 0 grams of sugar

Kellogg’s Rice Krispies

Serving size 1 ½ cups

  • 150 calories 
  • 0 grams of fat
  • 3 grams of protein
  • 36 grams of carbohydrates
  • 0 grams of fiber
  • 4 grams of sugar

Quaker’s Cap’n Crunch’s Oops! All Berries

Serving size 1 ¼ cups

  • 150 calories 
  • 1.5 grams of fat
  • 2 grams of protein
  • 33 grams of carbohydrates
  • <1 gram of fiber
  • 17 grams of sugar

General Mills Fiber One Honey Clusters

Serving size 1 cup 

  • 170 calories 
  • 1.5 grams of fat
  • 4 grams of protein
  • 45 grams of carbohydrates
  • 10 grams of fiber
  • 10 grams of sugar

Kellogg’s Raisin Bran

Serving size 1 cup

  • 190 calories 
  • 1 gram of fat
  • 5 grams of protein
  • 47 grams of carbohydrates
  • 7 grams of fiber
  • 17 grams of sugar

General Mills Rice Chex

Serving size 1 ⅓ cup

  • 160 calories 
  • 1 gram of fat
  • 3 grams of protein
  • 35 grams of carbohydrates
  • 2 grams of fiber
  • 3 grams of sugar

Post’s Grape Nuts

Serving size ½ cup 

  • 200 calories 
  • 1 gram of fat
  • 6 grams of protein
  • 47 grams of carbohydrates
  • 7 grams of fiber
  • 5 grams of sugar

Cascadian Farm Organic Honey Nut O’s

Serving size 1 ¼ cup

  • 160 calories 
  • 1.5 grams of fat
  • 4 grams of protein
  • 35 grams of carbohydrates
  • 3 grams of fiber
  • 11 grams of sugar

Quaker Shredded Wheat

Serving size 2 biscuits

  • 348 calories 
  • 2 Grams of Fat
  • 11 grams of protein
  • 81 grams of carbohydrates
  • 11 grams of fiber
  • 0 grams of sugar

Kashi Go Lean Crunch

Serving size 3/4 cup

  • 3 grams fat
  • 190 calories 
  • 38 g carb
  • 9 grams fiber
  • 13 g sugar
  • 9 g protein

Nature’s Path Organic Flax Plus Pumpkin Granola

Serving size 3/4 cup 

  • 10 grams fat
  • 37 grams carbs
  • 5 grams fiber
  • 10 grams sugar
  • 6 grams protein

Barbara’s Original Puffins

Serving size 1 cup

  • 130 calories 
  • 1 gram fat 
  • 3 grams protein
  • 32 grams carbs
  • 6 grams fiber
  • 6 grams sugar

Which Cereal Should You Pick?

three bowls of Cereal, fruits and berries, two glass of coffee with milk and a cup of black coffee

So, which one of these cereals should you pick? Are any of these the best healthy cereals, or bad enough to avoid? Even though everyone’s body is different, there's likely one of these that’s healthier than the rest, right? Here’s what our dietitian and Nutrition Manager, Carlee Hayes, thinks:

“Cereals are tricky because everyone will respond differently to various types. First and foremost, it's essential to test these foods to know how your body reacts and then tweak them as needed. Cereals can contain higher amounts of processed grains and added sugars. So, they are more likely to cause higher blood sugar spikes, leading to energy crashes later in the day! 

When looking through the cereal aisle, check the nutrition label for the ingredients list and stick to fewer ingredients if possible. Remember, the fewer the ingredients, the more whole-food-based it typically is (resulting in smaller, more gradual blood sugar responses). 

Aim for a good amount of protein and fiber (at least three to eight grams) and as little added sugar as possible (less than eight grams is good, but the lower, the better). 

From the list we provided, Grape Nuts, Shredded Wheat, and Magic Spoon may hit the mark on some of these metrics—but it's essential to test for yourself, as no body responds the same! If it's something you love, my favorite hack for cereal is to think of it more as a texture boost than a meal. Measure out a small portion and pair it with something more filling and protein-forward—think Greek yogurt or eggs—and eat that portion first. This way, you're not depriving yourself, but you're balancing it out with something nourishing and blood sugar-balancing. When in doubt, test for yourself!"

How Can I Make Cereal Healthier?

a bowl of cereal with milk

Making cereal healthier doesn't have to be complicated. Make sure that when you shop for cereal, you aren’t simply using phrases like gluten-free, low-fat, and multigrain on the front of cereal boxes to make your selections.

Even if those phrases apply, it doesn’t mean that you are choosing the healthiest cereals for your body. But it can be as simple as making a few small changes to the ingredients you use. Check out these tips to make your cereal healthier:

  • Add a source of protein to your cereal. Throwing in a handful of nuts and seeds can help you improve your cereal game in the morning by packing in some healthy protein and fibers that will help your body slow the absorption of sugars into your bloodstream and keep you feeling fuller for longer. 
  •  Try eating your cereal with Greek yogurt (unsweetened) for a good dose of protein and fewer sugars. Many kinds of milk and milk substitutes often contain added sugar. 
  • Always read nutrition labels before selecting cereal. 
  • Add fresh fruit to your cereal instead of buying cereals with dried fruit. Dried fruit often contains added sugars.
  • Add a serving of chia seeds to your cereal for added fiber and nutrients.
  • Throw in a serving of pumpkin seeds or sunflower seeds for added high fiber and high protein content with the bonus of healthy fats. 

Choosing Healthier Breakfast Cereal

With so many different types of cereal on the market, how do you know which one is the healthiest? Here’s how to choose a healthy breakfast cereal:

  • Look for cereals that are low in sugar content.
  • Opt for cereals that have a high fiber content. 
  • Check the nutrition labels and choose cereals that use whole grains, whole grain oats, or whole wheat instead of processed flours whenever possible. 
  • Check the nutrition labels and see if it contains artificial coloring and flavoring; you should avoid artificial colors and flavors. 
  • Ensure the cereal you are selecting doesn't contain excessive saturated or unhealthy fats. 
  • Make sure that you check the portion size on the nutrition label when looking at cereals. 
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Carlee Hayes, RDN, CD

Reviewed by: Carlee Hayes, RDN, CD

Carlee's training at Western Illinois University and an internship at the Memphis VA Hospital lead her to a career in outpatient counseling and bariatric nutrition therapy. In these positions, Carlee realized many of the disease states (upwards of 80%!) her patients experienced were actually preventable. She knew she had to dig deeper into preventative health and has since been passionate about helping people translate this complex glucose data into actionable changes anyone can implement into their everyday lives.