While it’s not necessarily the case that breakfast is vital to start the day on a good foot, it can feel great to get going with something healthy and/or tasty in your tum. Whether it’s a sweet sugary treat or a fibre-full energy kick-start, cereal is a convenient way to have a quick and easy morning meal.
You can now even take your cereal on the go, with a number of brands producing convenience packs with a built-in bowl. Or you can nibble on cereal dry, during your morning commute or at your desk, to save even more time and effort. But what even is cereal, and how can you make sure you’re not being sold a ‘healthy’ choice that actually has hidden health harms?
What is in cereal?
There are two meanings of the word ‘cereal’ – one definition describes a type of grain, whereas the ‘breakfast cereal’ meaning describes a food product based primarily on the aforementioned grains. Cereal grains are the dried seeds of different kinds of grasses, and are usually quite starchy. Some of the most commonly eaten cereal grains include wheat, oats, millet, corn, barley, rice, rye, spelt, teff, triticale, buckwheat, chia, quinoa, and amaranth.
Breakfast cereals are made from processed cereal grains. These grains may be puffed, flaked, rolled, or milled to turn into all kinds of shapes, often with added flavourings and other extra ingredients. Some breakfast cereals are quite heavily processed and have a lot of added bits and pieces, while some breakfast cereals are quite simple. Breakfast cereals are usually eaten mixed with milk, yoghurt, or fruit, and can be served hot or cold. Porridge counts as a breakfast cereal just as much as Coco Pops.
What are ‘ancient grains’ cereals?
A number of health food and ‘natural’ brands have begun introducing breakfast cereals and other food products made from so-called ‘ancient grains’. Ancient grains are considered to be those which have been left relatively unchanged by human intervention such as selective breeding over the last few thousand years. A few examples of these are spelt, millet, barley, teff, oats, bulgur, sorghum, quinoa, amaranth, buckwheat, and chia.
Much of the marketing around these grains claims that they’re healthier than those which have been modified through selective breeding. As yet there’s no real proof that ancient grains are just inherently healthier because they’re ‘ancient’ – the nutritional value varies by the individual grain regardless of heritage.
Is breakfast cereal healthy?
‘Breakfast cereal’ is such a diverse food category that there are options all over the health spectrum. Cereal can be deceptively unhealthy – many innocent-looking products are actually packed with sugar or salt. Some ingredients are widely considered to be healthier than they actually are, such as dried fruit, which can be a sneaky source of sugar. If you want something sweet, you’re much better off choosing a plainer, low-sugar cereal and eating it with some fresh fruit.
Many brands of breakfast cereal are fortified with extra vitamins and minerals, such as iron and calcium. These can help boost your nutrient intake, but is often still accompanied by quite a lot of sugar and salt.
How do I choose a healthy breakfast cereal?
You can check the ingredients and nutrition table on the cereal box, however, be wary. Brands use their suggested serving sizes to make health claims, but the amount you put in your bowl and the serving size listed on the box can be wildly different. These suggested serving sizes also often make assumptions about the type of and quantity of milk you use with your cereal, which can make it impossible to make an accurate assessment.
The government health star rating system was designed in collaboration with Food Standards Australia New Zealand and other health experts to make it easier for Australians to make at-a-glance assessments of the nutritional profile of packaged foods. These are based on a standardised 100g or 100mL of the product as-is in the packaging, so you can easily compare directly between products and brands regardless of each product’s suggested serving size.
The health star label compares ‘risk nutrients’ – unsaturated fat, sugars, and sodium, as well as energy – and ‘positive nutrients’ which may include fibre, protein, calcium, or particular vitamins and minerals depending on the nutritional content of the product. This cuts through the confusing nature of nutritional labels, and is a much easier nutritional comparison tool.
Lots of people like to add a teaspoon (or two) of sugar on top of their Weet-Bix or cornflakes, but that’s an easy way to turn breakfast from a healthy meal into a sweet treat. If you really can’t do without a bit of sweetness, it’s better to add sugar in the form of a bit of fruit, such as sliced banana.
High Fibre Cereal
Bran, such as Woolworths Select High Fibre Bran, GoldenVale Just Bran (Aldi) and Kellogg’s All-Bran, is that brown tube-shaped stuff that your dad probably eats. It’s incredibly high in fibre as its ingredients are mostly wheat bran. If you’re not a fan, flaked bran can be a more palatable alternative. Watch out for the sugar content, but apart from that it’s one of the healthiest cereals you can choose from. Bran is a great cereal for eating with fresh fruit.
Low Sugar Cereal
It’s an easy way to start the day – grab your favourite tasty cereal, pour it in a bowl and add milk. When you’ve got fussy kids to get going, you may choose to just shove some chocolatey stuff (in packaging that assures you it’s fortified with iron and full of whole grains) in front of the little monsters and hope they don’t chuck it against the wall.
But sugar is the worst offender when it comes to hidden health harms of breakfast cereal. Kellogg’s Crunchy Nut looks healthy enough – it’s basically cornflakes with nuts and honey. It’s actually one of the most sugary cereals you can find, with a whopping 11.1g of sugar per 35g (1/2 cup) serve – that’s nearly a third sugar by weight! For comparison, the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommended daily sugar intake of 5% of total energy intake, which for the average adult is about 25g per day.
Low Carb Cereal
Eating cereal on a low carb diet can be quite tricky, as most cereals are quite high in carbohydrates. The first thing to note is that, unless your doctor specifically recommends otherwise, carbohydrates aren’t inherently bad. It’s the source of carbohydrates that really matters. There’s a huge difference between carbohydrates from whole grains versus those from loads of sugar.
Long-lasting energy is important to get you through the day without feeling a ‘slump’ between meals and keep you feeling full. Cereals, as starchy foods, are sources of complex carbohydrates, which break down slowly over time to release a consistent energy supply. Sugar, meanwhile, is a simple carbohydrate, which means it all breaks down very quickly, giving you an energy ‘high’, then drops off to leave you feeling lethargic and hungry again, a feeling described as a ‘sugar crash’.
If, for doctor-recommended health reasons, you’re looking to avoid carbs, look for a high protein cereal to replace your regular choice. Some cereals are relatively low in carbohydrates while containing a high proportion of protein, which is also a good source of energy and makes you feel fuller for longer. Chia seeds are one such example. It’s really easy to make a tasty breakfast out of chia seeds – just mix a tablespoon or two of chia seeds with a healthy plant-based milk, leave it in the fridge overnight, and in the morning you’ll have a healthy chia pudding. Add in a bit of fruit, cinnamon, or other healthy ingredients to add more flavour. If you don’t like the texture, chuck it in the blender.
High Iron Cereal
While there is some iron content already in cereal products, as almost all wholegrains naturally contain some iron, it’s quite common for brands to fortify cereal products with extra iron. One of the most common quantities in fortified breakfast cereals is around 3.0mg per serve, as you can see from the below table of examples. Natural rolled oats contain about 1.1mg of iron per 30g serve.
As the type of iron found in cereals is non-haeme, it should be consumed with a source of vitamin C to improve iron absorption. This could be a glass of orange juice, or some vitamin C-rich fruit sliced on top of your cereal. On the flip side, breakfast favourites coffee, tea and milk can reduce iron absorption.
Gluten Free Breakfast Cereals
As awareness of coeliac disease rises, more and more brands are offering gluten-free alternatives that don’t taste like dust. In addition, brands that specialise in gluten-free and other dietary requirements are on the rise. Here’s a list of some of the gluten free cereals you can find on supermarket shelves, in the breakfast or health food aisles.
- Corn Flakes Gluten Free
- Special K Gluten Free
- Gluten Free Weet-Bix
- Weet-Bix Gluten Free Coconut and Cinnamon
- Cocoa Bombs
- Rice Porridge
- Rice Flakes
- Freedom Foods
- Crafted Blends Clusters – Pink Lady Apple & Pecan
- Crafted Blends Muesli – Mango, Papaya & Macadamia
- Crafted Blends Clusters – Vanilla, Maple & Flaked Almond
- Crafted Blends Clusters –Berries & Toasted Coconut
- Crafted Blends Clusters –Pear, Almond & Vanilla Bean
- XO Crunch
- Active Balance – Multigrain & Cranberry
- Active Balance – Buckwheat & Quinoa
- Maple Crunch
- Ancient Grain Flakes
- Corn Flakes
- Rice Puffs
- Rice Flakes
- Fruit & Seeds Muesli
- Ancient Grains Muesli
- Carman’s Fine Foods
- Almond & Maple Gluten Free Muesli
- Deluxe Gluten Free Muesli
- Orgran (gluten-free brand; also wheat, egg, dairy, yeast, and nut free, and vegan)
- Brekki Muesli Cranberry Crunch
- Brekki Porridge Hot Cereal
- Brekki Porridge Hot Cereal – Apple & Cinnamon
- Brekki Porridge Hot Cereal – Berry
- Multigrain Breakfast O’s with Quinoa
- Rice & Millet O’s – Wildberry Flavour
- Wholegrain Buckwheat O’s – Maple Flavour
- Quinoa Flakes
- Quinoa Puffs
- Itsy Bitsy Cocoa O’s
- Has No (Aldi)
- Almond & Vanilla Flavoured Muesli
- Berry Muesli
Is cereal the best breakfast choice?
Cereal is a quick and easy breakfast, but can start your day off on an unhealthy foot if you’re not careful. It can be healthier to sub out your cereal favourite for whole wheat toast and a piece of fruit, or a bowl of hot oats with a dash of cinnamon. If you really just don’t have time, cereal does win out on the convenience factor.
It can be hard giving up that sugar fix from your Crunchy Nut or Coco Pops – but you don’t have to. Sugary cereal can be okay as an occasional treat, even for dessert! For a healthy lifestyle, balance is everything.