Health dangers of breakfast cereals

Breakfast is considered by many to be the most important meal of the day. It breaks our overnight fast and should provide us with the necessary nutrients to wake us up and keep us mentally alert. A good breakfast should also be filling enough to see us through to the next meal.

Since mornings are often a whirlwind of frantic activity, with family members rushing about trying to get ready and out of the door in time, a leisurely breakfast is off the menu.

Instead, commercial breakfast cereals are a popular and convenient choice for the time poor. Adults and children enjoy eating them and preparing a meal doesn't come much easier than pouring cereal into a bowl and adding milk.

But are breakfast cereals a healthy way to start the day?

When choosing your breakfast cereal, it's easy to be swayed by the various promotions and health benefits shown on the packaging. Marketing and clever targetting is a huge business. Popular cartoon characters feature strongly on children’s cereals, encouraging sales by pester power of often unhealthy cereals. And marketers clearly state the health benefits on packaging such as 'high in fibre' or 'no added sugar', leaving it up to the health conscious consumer to discover any potential health dangers by scrutinising the nutrition label.

Take note - the nutrition label might tell another story...

Starting with the basic ingredients, for example, the majority are made from staples such as wheat, corn and oats, all of which are important sources of starchy carbohydrates. Many are also high in fibre, which is good for the digestive system, plus it's filling.

Children’s cereals in particular are more likely to be unhealthy. They're frequently covered with sweet chocolate flavourings or liberal coatings of sugar, which of course, children love. But giving them cereals which are loaded with unhealthy sugars can lead to hyperactivity, weight gain and it certainly won't do their teeth any favours.

But children's cereals aren't the only culprits. Muesli, which is thought of as healthy, can contain high levels of sugar which is added in addition to the natural sweetness provided by the dried fruit. And granolas are often packed with hidden sugars and can have very high levels of fat and saturated fat.

Even those cereals which are high in fibre or promoted to help you lose weight, may have unacceptably high levels of sugar or salt. Too much salt can lead to high blood pressure, while saturated fat can raise cholesterol levels and added sugar is simply 'empty calories' which provides no nutritional value.

Breakfast cereal packets will obviously promote their good points, while hiding the detail in the small print. But nutritional labels are there to help us, so we should make use of them.

Read the list of ingredients. These should be stated in order of content, so the first ingredient should make up the greatest percentage of the cereal. If sugar is listed second, then it's likely to be high. The NHS Food Labels guide helps you understand the limits for the amount of salt, sugar and fat you should be consuming each day.

Ideally a good breakfast cereal will be low in sugar (less than 5g per 100g). In teaspoon terms, 4.2g is one teaspoon. Food which has more than 15g of sugar per 100g is ‘high in sugar’. So check the label under the ‘Per 100g’ column. All labels should display this information.

Nutrition label tesco wheat biscuits
A low sugar nutrition label - Tesco Wheat Biscuits

As a quick guide, any food which has 5g of sugar or less per 100g is a low sugar food. In teaspoon terms, 4.2g is one teaspoon. Food which has more than 15g of sugar per 100g is ‘high in sugar’. So check the label under the ‘Per 100g’ column. All labels should display this information.

A high sugar breakfast cereal nutrition label - Crunchy Nut Clusters
A high sugar breakfast cereal nutrition label - Kellogg's Crunchy Nut Clusters

Ideally you should include a good proportion of protein - at least 6g per serving. You can add the protein from added milk. However, if you're using a plant based milk (nut milks have negligible protein) you'll need to get your protein from something else e.g. nuts or seeds. It's the protein that will help keep you full until the next meal.

If you're determined to find a low sugar cereal, they are out there, but they're few and far between! Examples include plain oats (not those with added syrups), plain wheat biscuits and plain Shredded Wheat.

When choosing your cereal, always read the nutrition label and be on the lookout for high levels of salt, sugar or fat. It's all too easy to be misled by health promises on the front of packaging. But the nutrition label will help you get a much clearer picture of exactly what's in your breakfast cereal. By doing this, you'll be able to make an informed judgment as to whether your breakfast cereal really is a healthy way to start your day.

Helpful portion control cereal bowls

Visual portion control bowl for weight loss and portion control

Diet plate calorie counting bowl for cereal and soup