How to Choose a Healthy Breakfast Cereal

There are a huge variety of breakfast cereals on the market, and even the sugary cereals geared towards children claim to have health benefits. Many cereals in the United States are fortified with iron, vitamins, minerals, folic acid, and may contain whole grains and fiber. Despite having healthy ingredients, however, some breakfast cereals have sugar or other sweeteners that can detract from the nutritional quality of the cereal. The best breakfast cereals have whole grains, fiber, vitamins and minerals, and little or no added sugars or artificial flavors. Indeed, nutritious breakfast cereals can be an integral part of a healthy and balanced diet. Some cereals can boast significant benefits for heart and digestive health, as well as for cholesterol levels and weight management. By knowing how to interpret ingredient lists and nutrition fact labels, choosing a healthy breakfast cereal can be a very simple task.


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    Avoid breakfast cereals with “frosted,” “sweetened,” “sugary,” or “fruity” in the name. These cereals will all contain extra empty calories from sweeteners and flavorings.
    • Ingredient lists that mention fructose, dextrose, glucose, corn syrup, cane sugar, raw sugar, monosaccharide, molasses, honey, or other sweeteners mean the cereal has added sugar.
    • If an unsweetened cereal tastes too bland, try adding a half-teaspoon of sugar or honey at home instead of buying a sweetened breakfast cereal. This way, you can better manage the added sugar and slowly wean yourself off of it at your own pace.
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    Opt for cereals with 100% whole grains. Bran, oat, wheat, and granola breakfast cereals will typically have more whole grains, fiber, and other important ingredients than their over-processed counterparts.
    • Flakes, O’s, and cluster cereals are typically processed, but they may still contain whole grains and other important ingredients for a healthy cereal. When purchasing a cereal in this category, simply avoid those with added ingredients that often accompany processed cereals, such as simple sugars and artificial flavors.
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    Select a cereal fortified with additional vitamins and minerals and rich in fiber. Many healthy cereals will contain additional nutrients that can make them an important part of a morning routine for a healthy lifestyle.
    • Fortified cereals are especially useful for those who do not take a multi-vitamin or mineral supplement.
    • High fiber cereals can be especially important for individuals experiencing irregular bowel movements, high cholesterol, poor blood sugar regulation, or weight issues.
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    Opt for regular (unflavored) hot cereals like oatmeal or creamed wheat that are made of 100% whole grains. Whole grains, as opposed to enriched or refined grains, maintain all of their health benefits and fiber content.
    • If possible, buy oatmeal that is not quick-cook; some health authorities suggest quick-cook oats may contain fewer health benefits than their traditional alternative. If time is an issue, though, quick-cook oats still have many health benefits.
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    Select a breakfast cereal with no added preservatives, colors, or unnatural flavors.
    • The Food and Drug Administration maintains a list of food additives (found in the Sources section below) that can help identify unnatural ingredients in breakfast cereals.
    • Artificial ingredients typically contain no health benefits, and some research indicates that excessive amounts of certain preservatives and additives may be associated with health problems.
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    Look for cereals endorsed by health associations. The easiest way to do this is to look for the logos representing the American Heart Association or another nationally recognized nutrition or health association on the cereal packaging.
    • These endorsements indicate that the cereals meet certain minimum standards of quality or nutrition, and may be useful in helping you choose a breakfast cereal with at least minimum recommended levels of nutrition.
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    Consider breakfast cereals that are certified organic.
    • Many times, organic cereals have significant reductions or even total elimination of the added sugars included in their non-organic competitor cereals, as they are required to meet a minimum standard of naturally-produced ingredients.
    • Although some organic cereals may not be more nutritious than non-organic cereals, they may contain considerably less residue from pesticide, insecticide, or preservative usage. If consumption of these chemicals is a personal health concern, organic breakfast cereals may be worth the extra cost.
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    Watch out for hidden calorie or sugar sources.
    • Dried fruits are often sweetened with sugar, and “clusters” of oats, bran flakes, or nuts are frequently coated with sweetener as well.
    • Flavorings that imitate honey, cinnamon, fruit, or nut flavors may also be loaded with sugar and calories.
    • Flavored oatmeal or creamed cereals may have fruit, spice, or nut flavors that made up of sugar and artificial flavors.
    • Cereals with freeze-dried, unsweetened fruits may contain preservatives and artificial colors, but they also may contain significantly fewer added sugars than dried fruit chunks.
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    Add your own flavorings to unflavored breakfast cereal to reduce your intake of added preservatives and empty calories.
    • Add a handful of fresh or frozen berries, banana, or nuts to boost the nutritional value and the flavor of healthy breakfast cereals. Fruit, spices, and nuts can make a healthy breakfast cereal even better by adding vitamins, antioxidants, protein, and healthy fats. Even a teaspoon of honey can add nutrients and sweet flavor that is a healthier option than choosing pre-sweetened cereal from the store.
    • Try experimenting with fresh herbs like mint and basil, or real spices like cinnamon, cloves or nutmeg. You can also experiment with flavor extracts like pure vanilla or almond extract for added aroma.
    • Homemade muesli is another alternative to pre-flavored store-bought cereals that can contain excellent amounts of fiber, vitamins, healthy carbohydrates, antioxidants, and nutrients essential for a balanced and heart-healthy diet. Start with a base of rolled or whole oats, plain bran flakes, or other whole grain, soaking it in milk, plain yogurt, cream, water, or 100% fruit juice to soften them. Then try adding chopped nuts, fresh or dried (unsweetened) fruits, spices or flavor extracts, seeds, lemon juice, honey, and other fresh ingredients to taste.


  • Many generic brands offer a few healthy varieties that are significantly less expensive than name brand healthy breakfast cereals. Just be sure to compare ingredients to the similar name brand product to make sure there is no compromise between quality ingredients and price.
  • Remember that serving sizes matter. Even a healthy breakfast cereal can be less nutritious in high quantities. Also be sure to use low fat or skim milk instead of whole milk to keep added calories and fat from milk to a minimum. Similarly, avoid sweetened, flavored, or full fat milk alternatives such as vanilla soy milk or full-fat coconut milk.
  • Whole grains are important in the prevention of heart disease, constipation, obesity, and other health problems.
  • Many health magazines and consumer organizations have already done the hard work of taste-testing and ingredient hunting, and have developed lists of healthy and delicious breakfast cereals. Try tracking down a list and shopping for one or two of their selections to make the first foray into healthy breakfast cereals a cinch.


  • Cereals with added sugars can contribute to tooth decay, weight gain, diabetes, and poor general nutrition.
  • In general, cereals targeted toward children will have added sugars, but this does not mean adult cereals will not also have added sugars. Read ingredient lists thoroughly before purchasing.
  • Some granola cereals may seem like healthy options due to large amounts of whole oats, grains, and nuts. Beware of high amounts of added sugars and even fats in some granola cereals, however.
  • Keep in mind that many breakfast cereals may also contain sodium from added salt. For those with high blood pressure or other sodium-related conditions, and even for healthy individuals, breakfast cereals with sodium levels in the double digits should be avoided.

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Categories: Nutrition and Lifestyle Eating