(Health.com) -- Nearly 400 new cereals hit the market last year. Adding to the confusion as you stand in the store aisle: Nutritional differences among brands are more vast than with almost any other kind of food, experts say. Call it snap, crackle, huh?!
"Some cereals are as healthy as salad, others are like scarfing down a chocolate eclair," says Dawn Jackson Blatner, author of "The Flexitarian Diet." "But while there are a lot of sugary cereals, happily, it's easier than ever to find a really nutritious one."
Aside from knowing what's basically a box of sugar disguised as breakfast, you want to pick the right kind for your body -- as well as your taste buds. It's simple, if you know what to look for.
The new health perks of cereal
More whole grains. Quinoa, spelt, amaranth, and Kamut are hitting cereal boxes, along with traditional whole grain oats, wheat, and brown rice.
"While different types may appeal to your taste or offer slightly different nutrients -- for instance, quinoa is a little higher in protein -- don't sweat what kind is in your bowl," says Karen Ansel, registered dietician and co-author of the book "Healthy in a Hurry."
"It's more important that the cereal contain at least 16 grams of whole grains, one-third of your daily needs."
Research shows that downing a daily 48 grams of whole grains lowers your risk of diabetes by 25%, heart disease by about a third, and cancer by up to 40%.
That amount also helps your weight; a review of 13 studies by the American Society for Nutrition found that whole-grain eaters have a lower body mass index. Look for the "whole grain" stamp or check brands at wholegrainscouncil.org.
Extra fiber. All whole-grain cereals have some fiber, a great thing: The soluble kind in oats, barley, and brown rice can whisk cholesterol out of your body, reducing the risk of heart disease.
"Any fiber-rich cereal can keep you feeling full for longer," Ansel adds. One United States Department of Agriculture study found that women who doubled their daily intake from 12 to 24 grams took in 90 fewer calories a day than those who ate as much food but less fiber.
Brands are adding more; you'll spot psyllium and inulin (a.k.a. chicory root) on labels. Although research suggests inulin doesn't give you the same full feeling as innate fiber, like psyllium, it could lower cholesterol. The ideal is 5 grams of fiber per serving, period. Like a kind with less? Add fruit.
Bonus nutrients. In 1938, Kellogg's became the first company to add vitamins and minerals to cereal when it debuted Kellogg's Pep.
While iron (for energy), folic acid (for your heart and a healthy pregnancy), and magnesium (for your heart and bones) are now staples in most brands, about a third of new cereals also have omega-3s for good heart health. Rich sources: Nature's Path Organic Qi'a Superfood Chia, Buckwheat & Hemp Cereal, and Uncle Sam Original Cereal.
Experts are also revved about plant sterols (in Health Valley's Heart Wise and Trader Joe's Heart Healthy Whole Grain Instant Oatmeal), which may lower high cholesterol. If that's an issue for you, the American Heart Association recommends 2 grams of plant sterols a day.
Upscale add-ins. Move over, raisins. Today's cereals also pack flax, chia, and freeze-dried berries. Besides elevating taste, they up the fiber and protein.
Meanwhile, sugar is appearing in the fancier forms of maple syrup, honey, and molasses. These unrefined sugar substitutes have an advantage over processed kinds: They could help fight cancer and heart disease. One Virginia Tech University study found that switching to alternative sweeteners is the antioxidant equivalent of eating another serving of berries a day.
Just remember: Any sweetener has the same amount of calories and counts as added sugar -- so stick with less than 8 grams per serving.
The right cereal for you
If you have a sweet tooth... Add in your own healthy sweet stuff, says Jackie Newgent, registered dietician and author of the book "1,000 Low-Calorie Recipes."
Start with a no-sugar (Shredded Wheat) or low-sugar cereal (Kashi 7 Whole Grain Nuggets) and sprinkle on pomegranate seeds. Or blend half a banana and one half-cup milk and pour in. Also delish: 1 teaspoon mini chocolate chips (4 grams of sugar).
If you're trying to lose weight... Pick a cereal under 150 calories per serving (they range from 60 to 350).
"You don't want to eat 600 calories for breakfast and have just 900 more for the rest of your day," says Bethany Thayer, director of wellness programs and strategies at Henry Ford Health System in Detroit.
If you like puffed wheat or brown rice cereal (about 70 calories per serving), toss on 2 tablespoons of a high-fiber cereal to fill you up.
If you eat little or no red meat... Chances are, you're short on iron. A USDA study shows that most women consume about 13 milligrams daily, shy of the advised 18 milligrams. Kellogg's Smart Start and Post's Grape-Nuts have at least half of what you need for the day.
Says Ansel, "Put vitamin C-rich fruit like strawberries on iron-fortified cereal to help absorb the mineral."
If you don't like milk... Resist pouring it on and then leaving most of it.
"Fortified nutrients are sprayed onto cereal, so they dissolve in the milk. If you don't down all of it, you miss out on them," Thayer says.
If you can't stand milk, plop on a cup of Greek yogurt or low-fat cottage cheese. Or eat cereal solo -- and get your calcium in other foods.
Copyright Health Magazine 2011