Breakfast cereal represents everything hardworking Americans enjoy in a food item: It's quick, convenient, tasty, and as long as you avoid the sugary stuff, it's pretty healthy too. Right?
I always thought cereals boasting muted packaging and labels like "high fiber!" and "protein!" fell squarely into the health food category. But a few months ago, I spoke to certified nutritionist Dana James about the dangers of hyper-processed foods, and that's when I started to question everything.
According to James, healthy boxed cereal doesn't even really exist. "The only truly healthy cereal is muesli made with oats, dried fruit, and nuts," she says. "Anything with added protein or fiber is questionable." As in, it likely contains controversial additives and preservatives. "High-protein and gluten-free cereals are all the rage lately, but buyer beware!" warns registered dietitian Jenny Champion. "In order to get products to have more protein or less gluten, extra handling is happening at the factory level, and when it comes to food, the fewer hands involved in production, the better." We should also be wary of "whole grain" labels.
Champions says, "Even Lucky Charms boasts 'whole grains,' but almost every other ingredient after that is not something you should be eating, especially to start off your day."
That said, not all cereals are out to get you. In general, you can tell a healthier cereal by a short ingredient list, low sugar content, and high fiber content, says Champion. Look for whole grains or oats, vitamins, and minerals, as well. "Read the ingredient list first!" she says. "If it's long with words you can't pronounce or aren't sure what they mean, it belongs back on the shelf, not in your mouth."
With this information in mind, we evaluated 10 popular "health" cereals based on the following criteria:
- Sugar content
- Fiber content
- Vitamin and mineral content
- Length of ingredient list
- Unpronounceable ingredients
The result is the following ranked list. Keep scrolling to find out how healthy your favorite cereal really is!
Low sugar, high fiber, and completely free of syrups and preservatives, these good old Grape-Nuts earn a sky-high ranking. This stuff also has that short ingredient list we're looking for, plus it's chock-full of vitamins and minerals (boasting 90% of your recommended daily iron, if you can believe it)!
This minimally processed pick has just one ingredient: 100% natural whole grain rolled oats. The product has just one gram of sugar and more than 16% of your daily fiber, meaning you'll stay full for hours without crashing. Just add a few berries for flavor, and bon appétite.
The very short ingredient list of these delicious flakes is almost entirely organic. An impressive seven grams of fiber, five grams of protein, and low sugar content are extra pluses, as is the sweet, flavorful taste. This stuff will be available on shelves later this summer (early fall at the latest), and is a fantastic option for those interested in eating vegan and organic.
Your grandparents probably eat Total every morning, and there's a good reason. It's 100% whole grain and offers three grams of fiber, 80% of your daily vitamin C intake, and 100% for both calcium and iron. However, the ingredient list does feature corn syrup (adding up to five grams of added sugar) and preservatives, which aren't ideal.
A very low sugar content and 100% whole grain formula make the classic bowl of Wheaties a solid choice. You also get 40% of your daily iron intake in just one serving. The ingredient list here is relatively short, which is a plus, but we have to dock a few points for the corn syrup and preservatives. It's also worth noting that there are only two grams of fiber here.
Rice Krispies were my favorite cereal as a kid, which is certainly better than Cookie Crisp, Oreo O's, or any of the other wacky sugar cereals that dominated the late '90s. After all, this stuff has very little sugar and plenty of Iron, vitamin A, and vitamin C. But there are additives and preservatives here and very little fiber. For a healthier, preservative-free version, try Arrowhead Mills's 100% whole grain and natural puffed rice ($11).
Not to be confused with the cinnamon version, Life's original formula is relatively low in sugar and offers 45% of your daily iron intake. Preservatives and artificial colors knock off major points, though.
This "smart" choice offers several good-for-you vitamins and minerals. But the whopping 14 grams of sugar and long ingredient list raise a red flag. The cereal itself may look healthy and natural, but it's packed with preservatives and artificial dyes.
We all think of Kashi as the queen of healthy cereal, but this product's mile-long ingredient list is suspect. Yes, it's been puffed up with fiber and protein, but it needed artificial additives to get there. The product also has eight grams of cane sugar and syrup.
Special K commercials are adorable, but its high sugar content? Not so much. This stuff offers a decent amount of iron, but its ingredient list is endless, featuring several additives, preservatives, and artificial colors. Not to mention there's little real fruit here.
This cereal box has so many clues pointing to a healthy formula, but sadly it has everything we're looking to avoid: 16 grams of sugar, syrups, preservatives, and additives.
Instead of cereal from a box, try one of these delicious breakfast recipes.