Inside the box: The scoop on cereal

Crunching cereal numbers

Our kitchen has a whole shelf dedicated to breakfast cereals. Over the years, the players haven’t changed much: Cheerios, Shreddies, granola and bran. Periodically, my daughter, Krystal, scratches a hopeful “Froot Loops” on our shopping list and it still makes us all laugh. She knows that purchase is about as likely as a snowstorm in July.

Cereal, namely sugary cereal, draws in little appetites like a huge magnet. With friendly toucans and little green elves beckoning, kids get sucked in and are literally bowled over by its sweetness. Why wouldn’t they be? A 50 g serving of Kellogg’s Froot Loops, Nestlé Nesquik or Post Sugar-Crisp contains as much sugar, respectively, as a Kit Kat, Twix or Snickers bar.

But not all cereals are going to send junior’s blood sugar levels skyrocketing — the savvy shopper can find a cold or hot bowlful that is downright nutritious.

Cereal — as the advertisements say — “is part of a wholesome breakfast.” The other parts include milk or soy drink and fruit. This three-part equation creates a well-rounded meal that hits all the colours of the food guide’s rainbow. Healthy cereals made solely from whole grains are a good source of complex carbohydrates and contain much-needed fibre. Most cereals are heavily fortified too, full of iron, folate, niacin and thiamine.
Kids who eat breakfast benefit in more ways than one. Researchers from the University of Florida reviewed 47 nutrition studies and concluded that children and teens who eat breakfast have superior diet quality overall, are less likely to be overweight and have better mental function and school attendance records than those who skip the morning meal.

But finding these nutritional stars amid that long and crowded cereal aisle “can be tricky,” warns Joey Shulman, a Toronto author, chiropractor and authority on paediatric nutrition. She says that manufacturers’ claims often confuse parents into thinking a product is healthier than it is.

“Parents need to set cereal rules,” she says, and the first is to avoid cer­eals listing sugar as the first or second item on the ingredients list. Rule two? Look for at least 2 to 3 g of fibre in a 30 g serving. What else should parents be aware of?

Label loophole While a box may say “zero trans fats,” Shulman says the stuff inside can still contain those dreaded fats. Canadian labelling laws allow a manufacturer to make a “no trans fats” claim if the amount is less than 0.2 g per serving, which may seem minuscule, until you realize that your child is consuming many of these products daily and racking up a combined amount. Check ingredients lists for words like hydrogenated, partially hydrogenated and shortening, found in cereals such as Post Sugar-Crisp, Kellogg’s All-Bran Honey Nut Flavour and Kellogg’s Froot Loops.

The whole story In 2004, General Mills made a splash by committing to adding whole grains to all of its cereals. Many of its competitors followed suit emblazoning “whole grain” on their boxes. But that doesn’t mean a product is 100 percent whole grain — it just has some. Check ingredients lists. General Mills Cinnamon Toast Crunch shouts out “whole grain” on the front of the box, yet the third ingredient on its list is rice flour (not a whole grain) and there’s only 1 g of fibre per 30 g serving. Instead, look for these words to be first on the ingredients list: 100% whole-grain wheat, corn, oat, barley, brown rice, kamut, spelt or quinoa.

Sweet break Toronto dietitian Liz Pearson says she’ll break her own cereal rule for sugar (aim for no more than 2 tsp or 8 g sugar per serving) if a cereal is high in fibre. For example, Mini Wheats, she says, has “almost 4 tsp of sugar per serving, but also contains 6 g of fibre. Because my kids don’t get a lot of sugar from other sources in their diet, it’s still a good choice for our family.”

Cardboard blues

Many high-fibre cereals don’t appeal to kids because they just aren’t that tasty. Manufacturers are waking up to this and introducing more flavourful creations such as Kellogg’s All-Bran Honey Nut Flavour (a 1 cup/59 g serving has 8 g sugar, 11 g fibre) and Kellogg’s All-Bran Strawberry Bites (¾ cup/49 g serving has 9 g sugar and 5 g fibre). But there’s a catch, since one contains small amounts of hydrogenated oil and the other vegetable shortening. Plus, the raisins in most raisin bran cereals are coated in hydrogenated vegetable oil.

What to do? Add your own raisins to cereal. In fact, add-ins (dried fruit, ground flaxseed, nuts) are a great way to boost fibre in any cereal. While most kids are not thrilled by a pure bowl of All-Bran Buds or PC Blue Menu Fibre First Multi-Bran cereal, most can handle a tablespoon or two added to their cereal of choice. Sprinkle it on top along with banana slices or blueberries.

Finally, says Shulman, “Have faith in your kids. Parents think kids won’t eat this stuff, but parents need to keep trying. They might be surprised.”

A bowl of hot oatmeal is a healthy choice since it’s high-fibre and helps protect little hearts, and the complex carbs are absorbed slowly into the bloodstream. Cooking your own doesn’t take that long!

• Take 1 part oats and add 2 parts boiling liquid (water, milk or soy). Add a pinch of salt. Simmer 3 to 5 minutes on the stovetop or microwave, and it’s done!

• Don’t forget the toppings: berries, sliced apples, peaches, banana, mango, granola, yogurt, nuts, shredded coconut, chopped nuts, cinnamon, nutmeg, maple syrup or brown sugar.

• Cooked oatmeal can be stored in the fridge for up to 3 days and warmed in the microwave.

Instant pitfalls
Instant oatmeal may be a few minutes faster, but it’s often high in sugar, sometimes fat. Compare these:

• One (50 g) packet of Quaker Dino Eggs has 200 calories, 3.5 g total fat, 0.3 g trans fat, 3 g fibre and 17 g sugar (over 4 tsp).
• A ¾ cup serving of plain oatmeal has 110 calories, 1.75 g total fat, 3 g fibre and 0.4 g sugar.
• One (50 g) packet of Nature’s Path Apple Cinnamon Instant Hot Oatmeal contains 190 calories, 2 g total fat, 0 g trans fat, 4 g fibre and 14 g sugar.

Here’s a granola loaded with healthy fats that you can feel good about serving. You’ll find flaxseed sold in most bulk or health food stores. For maximum nutrition, it must be ground — a coffee grinder will do the trick. 3 cups (750 mL) rolled or old-fashioned oats
¾ cup (175 mL) sliced almonds
½ cup (125 mL) wheat germ
½ cup (125 mL) ground flaxseed
1 tsp (5 mL) ground cinnamon
pinch salt
2/3 cup (150 mL) honey
¼ cup (50 mL) canola oil
¼ cup (50 mL) water
2 tsp (10 mL) vanilla
1 cup (250 mL) raisins, chopped apricots or dates (optional)

Preheat the oven to 300°F/150°C.

In a large bowl, combine the oats, almonds, wheat germ, flaxseed, cinnamon and salt.

In a small pot, heat the honey, oil, water and vanilla over medium heat, whisking and cooking just enough to combine it well, about 1 minute.

Drizzle half of the honey mixture over the dry ingredients and mix well. Add the remaining half and mix until thoroughly combined.

Arrange the granola over 2 baking sheets in an even layer. Bake for 30 minutes, stirring every 10 minutes. Allow to cool. Add raisins. Store in an airtight container at room temperature.

Makes 5½ cups (if you add the dried fruit) or 11 half-cup servings.

Our recipe tester, Jenny Koniuk, tests Nutrition using both imperial and metric measurements. However, proportions in the metric version may differ slightly from the original, causing small variations in the result.

In a Serving
calories 344
protein 8.5 g
fat 13.6 g
carbohydrates 51.7 g
fibre 6.9 g
iron 19%*
magnesium 40%*
folate 18% * *of recommended daily amount

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