As I have mentioned before, some of the food rules I love by Michael Pollan are: “Buy items with fewer than 5 ingredients,” “Don’t eat anything that your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food,” and “Avoid food products containing ingredients a third-grader cannot pronounce.” Another good one is “Don’t eat breakfast cereals that change the color of the milk.”
The box says “They’re magically delicious!”, and it is true…some cereal manufacturer “magic” had to happen for them to be, dare I say, “delicious”?! When you stop to think about it, breakfast cereals can be some of the worst processed foods. I think we all know it and have heard it, but we have a hard time letting go of Tony the Tiger, especially if kids are involved. They have been telling us for years and years they are “GREEAAAAT!”. Another Michael Pollan rule: “Avoid foods you see advertised on television.”
"Coo-coo for Cocoa Puffs?" Not really. I know I am not going to win a popularity contest with kids on this blog! Or some adults for that matter…I have to admit I cringe every time someone says they didn’t have time for anything else so they had cereal for dinner!!!! So, here we go…because our kids’ health (and our own health) is THAT important. For us, a couple of the hardest parts of the transition to more REAL food involved switching to REAL maple syrup and saying goodbye to Cookie Crisp and Lucky Charms. After focusing on and learning more about the ingredients, now I say to myself “why didn’t we make that change sooner?!”
“What are you eating? Nuttin’ honey.” With some cereals, that is absolutely true – when it comes to nutrients. As with everything, it comes down to reading the ingredient labels. But the cereal labels are even trickier because they are loaded with “health claims” on the front of the box to convince us that they are good for us! Here are a few tips to read between the lines to decipher and understand what is going on inside the box!
- Look for whole grains. Don’t trust the claims on the front of the box! For example, if it says “Made with whole grain” there may be very little whole grain. Another good one is the “More whole grain than any other ingredient” or “with whole grain first ingredient.” In most cases, a processed grain or sugar is the second (and maybe third and fourth) ingredient. (In Froot Loops Treasures sugar is the first ingredient!) Remember, if it doesn’t say “whole,” it is likely processed!
- Recognize the difference between natural fiber and added fiber. Fiber is often added to cereals so they can be marketed as high in fiber – the problem is they are often still loaded with sugar. Whole grain fiber is useful in many ways including digestive and cardiovascular health. They are also known to contribute to lower disease rates and help control blood sugar. However, the added fibers in many processed foods haven’t been proven to provide these same health benefits. You may recognize these added fibers on the ingredient label as oat fiber, soy fiber and corn fiber, among others.
- Look at the sugar AND the serving size! For example, Cinnamon Toast Crunch has 9 grams of sugar for a 31g serving size, which is ¾ cup. Almost 30% of the bowl is sugar! A typical bowl of cereal is at least 1 ½ cups (I measured it and trust me, ¾ cup is not much!) So, now you are looking at 18 grams of sugar, and with 4 grams of sugar in 1 teaspoon, this is like eating almost 5 tsp of sugar! WOW! This is comparable to eating a handful of Starburst, a Twinkie or 4 Oreo cookies – it has the same amount of sugar! I read that General Mills recently said kids wouldn’t like their cereals if they reduced the sugar any more than they have in the past few years. Would that be such a bad thing?
- Pay attention to natural sugar vs. added sugar. Not all sugars are created equal. For example, if sugar, fructose, or artificial sweeteners are listed in the ingredients, they have had to add sugar to get that “magically delicious” taste. But, some cereals contain REAL fruit, which have natural sugar. For example, if you read the label on Raisin Bran, it may appear to be high in sugar, but much of it comes naturally from the raisins.
- Beware of “fake fruits.” If the cereal has fruit, read the ingredient label to find the REAL fruit! In some cases, it might just be a combination of artificial ingredients (including coloring and flavoring) to create the “fruit” – YUMMY right?! If you enjoy cereal with fruit, the best bet is to add fresh fruit yourself.
- Watch out for Yogurt clusters. These sound healthy right? But again, read that label…the yogurt clusters may just be a combination of oil, sugar and other artificial ingredients.
So, now you are probably thinking…great, some of our favorite breakfast cereals are bad for us, now what do we do for a quick breakfast? While not as good as REAL food, there are other cereals that are decent alternatives such as Post Bran Flakes, Kashi Go Lean, Fiber One, Frosted Mini-Wheats Little Bites, and Raisin Bran. Even some of the Cascadian Farms or Simple Truth cereal options are better alternatives – just remember to read the ingredients!
If you want something even better, try to focus on REAL food options such as:
- Smoothies – you can get creative and put together your favorite combination with a little milk: frozen strawberries and bananas, peaches and raspberries, blueberries, etc.
- Mini frittatas – you can make them ahead of time in muffin pans, and then you are ready to warm, grab and go! A recipe is available at https://eatrealamerica.com/recipes/mini-frittatas/.
- Mason Jar No-Cook Overnight Oatmeal - you can whip this up the night before, put it in the refrigerator and it is ready to go by morning! https://eatrealamerica.com/recipes/mason-jar-cook-oatmeal/.
- Homemade protein bars - these can be individually wrapped so they are ready to go for a fast breakfast! Pay attention to the commercially-produced protein bars…many contain as much or more added sugars and other “junk” as the worst cereal offenders. Here is a recipe for Peanut Butter Protein Bars: https://eatrealamerica.com/recipes/peanut-butter-protein-bars/.
- Leftovers –who says you can’t have leftovers for breakfast? Many leftovers from dinner the night before can be fantastic with an over-easy egg on top! The Chorizo Sweet Potato Tostadas are a great example! You can find them at https://eatrealamerica.com/recipes/chorizo-sweet-potato-tostadas/.
Now that you are armed with more label reading ammunition, you can ease yourself or your family into other options. We know some of these transitions to more REAL food can be challenging so don’t feel like this is an overnight, go cold turkey, throw everything out change. REAL change takes time, but change doesn’t happen without action!
“If we don’t change, we don’t grow. If we don’t grow, we aren’t really living.” - Gail Sheehy