It’s quick, it’s cheap and we eat more of it than any other country. But is it healthy? If you like your breakfast boxed, here’s what to look for
Quick, convenient and cheap - it’s no wonder a bowl of cereal is many people’s go-to breakfast of choice. However, one look at at the candy-coloured collection that currently adorns our supermarket shelves and it’s no surprise that it’s received a bad wrap in recent years for advocating a less than healthy start to the day. In spite of this though, it's done little to sour the nation’s taste for it. “With 87% of households eating breakfast every day, Britain has the world’s highest per capita consumption of breakfast cereal according to a Euromonitor study,” highlights consultant dietitian Linia Patel . It seems it's as much a British kitchen staple as a box of tea bags.
However, while its popularity may be in a healthy state, its nutritional value seems to be deviating further and further away from one - and clever branding plays a huge factor in this, says Linia. “While there’s research suggesting that eating wholegrains at breakfast is linked to lower BMI, the problem is that the majority of cereals on the market are not as wholesome as they make out to be often through expensive and misleading marketing campaigns,” she explains. Terms such as ‘natural’ or ‘multigrain’ can often be anything but.
That being said though, cereal has become an immovable centrepiece in many people’s morning arrangements - there’s something incredibly comforting about it, whether you’ve grown up eating it with your family or finding that it helps get you into the right mindset for the day ahead. Tasty, yes, healthy? In it’s sugar-coated, frosted flake form, no - but it definitely can be. We asked a dietitian and a nutritional therapist to weigh in on the factors to bear in mind for carving a healthier relationship with it.
1. Be wary of sugar and salt levels
If the mornings are often a struggle, a sugar-laden cereal can prove to be the perfect motivator for getting out of bed. However, come mid-morning, enthusiasm levels can wane courtesy of energy lulls and increased cravings. “Breakfast is all about ‘breaking the fast’ while you’ve slept and starting the day off with a meal that will balance blood sugar and therefore regulate hunger and mood,” says nutritional therapist Sarah Anderson . “Too much sugar, and your glucose levels will rise too quickly.” It’s a consideration that the whole family should bear in mind - young and old. “Some cereals can have as much sugar as eating chocolate cookies for breakfast,” Sarah cautions. “Children’s targeted cereals can be some of the biggest offenders and can encourage a sweet tooth early on too.”
This also extends to add-ons. “If you’re adding yogurt and fresh fruit, watch out for the extra sugar and fructose which again plays havoc with blood sugar balancing. Many of my clients used to have a huge portion of cereal or granola then add yoghurt, fruit and honey – which is too much of a sugar overload.”
Her recommended add-ons? Maple syrup and honey on occasion as well as bee pollen if you have a sweet tooth, (which offers a good balance of vitamins, minerals, proteins, carbohydrates, fats, enzymes and essential amino acids). She also recommends fruits that contain lower amounts of fructose in them - think apples, pears, peaches, kiwi fruits and passionfruits (her top pick for popping on top of hot porridge). “Half a mango has approximately 16.2g of fructose, while one medium kiwi has approximately 3.4g,” she highlights. “Lime has minimal fructose so is also great to add flavour.” For a protein-boost, she advises adding a seed mix (recipe below) or chia seeds too - 1 tablespoon should do per serving to help slow down sugar absorption and keep you fuller for longer.
2. Cut down on portion size
More moreish than a bowl of popcorn, going back for seconds is an all too familiar situation for the cereal fans among us - a fact that makes portion control hard to put into practice. “Historically, breakfast cereal manufacturers have tried to justify the high sugar and salt levels by stating that (based on the serving sizes recommended on cereals) cereals should not significantly contribute to energy, sugar and salt in the diet,” says Linia. “Unsurprisingly, with all the added sugar and salt that makes cereal taste so good, many people eat much more than the recommended portions.”
“A survey commissioned by the FSA looking into the difference between actual and recommended servings, revealed that more than three quarters of the nation eat two-to-three times more than the portions recommended,” she highlights. What does a recommended serving look like? According to the Food Standard Agency (FSA) a small serving of cereal is 25g, an average serving, 30g and a large serving, 50g. To avoid overeating, Linia recommends taking a little extra time to savour your morning meal: "Science has shown that it can take 20 minutes for your stomach to signal to your brain that you have reached satiety," she says. "Enjoy every mouthful of your meal. Place your spoon down in-between each one."
3. Opt for oats
Anti-inflammatory and slow releasing, Sarah highlights oats as one of the healthier cereals to opt for. “Hot cereals such as oatmeal have been shown to help individuals feel fuller than dry cereal,” she explains. Also rich in heart health boosting beta-glucans and fatigue-fighting magnesium , they're an effective way to keep hunger pangs at bay, prevent sugar spikes and keep energy levels on an even keel too.
4. Be label savvy
“If you're a cereal fan, you have to be become good at reading labels to make sure you make the right choices,” advises dietitian Linia. As a rule of thumb, she recommends a good wholegrain, low sugar cereal, but if you wanted to get deep into the specifics, Linia suggests that the below would act as an ideal composition:
- 100% wholegrain: these words should be at the top of the food label
- High in fibre: 5 grams of dietary fibre per serving or more
- Low in sugar: 8 grams of sugar or less per serving (4 tsp)
- Low in sodium/salt: less than 200mg sodium/serving
- Rich in vitamins and minerals
- High in protein: nuts will increase protein intake
- Low in saturated fat: typically 3g or less per 100g
In particular, fibre is a key component that many of us could do more of with research highlighting its role in helping reduce the risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
Finding labels that fit every specification isn’t easy though, laying testament to the fact that the general selection of cereals to choose from could do with some improvement. The best way forward? Try to buy ones that fit the criteria of being wholegrain and low in added sugar and salt as much as you can and if you’re looking to wean yourself slowly off the sweet stuff, opt for muesli instead. If you want to boost its fibre content, Linia suggests adding a handful of whole oats, some fresh fruit or some unsalted nuts. “Mueslis should be okay - although the sugar may appear high on the label, the sugar is within the intact fruit,” she says. “Avoid granolas as they will be high fat and sugar.”
Even with having Wholefoods next door, we struggled to find ones that fit the label requirements exactly. However, ones that came close included: Grape-Nuts Crunchy Wheat and Malted Barley Cereal , £2.99, Flanagan’s 100% Wholegrain Organic Porridge Oats , £2.25, Alpen No Added Sugar Muesli , £3.99, Rude Health’s 5 Grain and 5 Seed Organic Porridge , £3.05, Quaker Oat Nuts & Seed Muesli , £2.69, and Weetabix Organic , £2.99.
5. Try making your own
If all else fails, adopt a DIY ethos. “The best option is to make your own so you know exactly what's been included,” recommends Sarah. “Be mindful though of how much dried fruit is added to the mix. Fresh fruit on top of a less sugary, low salt cereal will mean you enjoy the sweetness but obtain more effective nutrition.”
The following is her go-to gluten-free recipe which can act as a tasty substitute for store-bought variations.
“Cereals are now easily accessible with gluten-free choices, but the sugar content of these options still needs to be considered,” she says. “You can buy the ingredients in bulk and store it in a Kilner Jar,” she points out, which could allow it to work out cheaper in the long-term too.
1) Measure out 75g - 100g gluten-free porridge oats or mixed cereal flakes – rye, millet or quinoa (you may want to soak the oats overnight in your choice of milk – almond, goats’ etc. and add the rest of the ingredients in the morning).
2) Add 1 teaspoon of seed mix. Make it by grinding flax, sesame, pumpkin, sunflower and hemp seeds in an electric coffee grinder. This can be stored in the fridge for up to two weeks.
3) Add 1 tablespoon of ground or mixed chopped almonds, hazelnuts or walnuts.
4) Add 3 - 5 brazil nuts.
5) Add 1 tablespoon of orange blossom water or lemon/lime juice.
6) Wash 1 apple or pear, grate and add.
7) Add 1 tablespoon of raisins (amounts of which can be much higher in ready-made cereals).
8) Finally add a teaspoon of cinnamon to help balance out blood sugar levels.