How to choose a healthy breakfast cereal

Are the 'healthy' cereals really healthy or just misleadingly advertised?

Story highlights

  • Cereal makers offer 'healthy' options, but some are better options than others.
  • Learning to search nutrition labels for misleading information can help you make smarter choices.
  • Whole grain cereals that are low in sugar (and fake sugar!) are your best bets.
Health experts offer tips for navigating the cereal aisle and finding the most nutritious -- and tastiest -- options among the fruity flakes and fiber twigs
Added sugar vs. natural sugar
Increasingly, breakfast-cereal makers are offering more nutritious, low-sugar options. The trick is trying to find them amidst the Cocoa Puffs, Frosted Flakes, Lucky Charms and all the other sugary concoctions on grocery store shelves. Even cereals that seem healthy -- if you're to trust the front-of-the-box labels on many brands -- may be just the opposite.
"Companies have made it harder for shoppers to find a good cereal. They make all these health claims and you really have to read the fine print," says Bonnie Liebman, director of nutrition for the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
First look at the Nutrition Facts panel on the side of the cereal box (ignore any health claims made on the front), which lists the grams of sugar contained. Then, be sure to compare it to the overall serving size. If a cereal says it has 10 grams of sugar and a serving size of 30 grams, that means the cereal is one-third sugar.
That same cereal might boast that it's "High in Fiber!" but it hardly matters if it's basically 30% sugar. "Companies take a junky cereal with a lot of sugar and add fiber to make parents think it's healthy for their kids," says Liebman. "If one-third of the bowl is sugar, it's breakfast candy. Putting in a touch of fiber or whole grains does not make the sugar go away."
Bear in mind, however, that sugar numbers will also include any sugar from fruit. So, if you're eating a raisin bran cereal, don't be concerned if the natural sugars from the fruit make the sugar content a little higher. Read the ingredients: if it's real fruit, it's O.K.
Load up on whole grains
Eating whole grains in the morning is a great idea. Can you get them from cereals with front-of-the-box health claims like "Made with whole grain" or "Whole grain in first ingredient"? Nope. These claims are misleading, experts say.
"The simplest thing to do is look at the [actual] list of ingredients," says Liebman. "The first and second ingredient should be whole grain. Whole grain wheat, whole grain oats. Typically, if you see rice or rice flour, it's refined grain and that's not good for you."
Here's what to look for in the ingredient list:
-- 100% whole grain
-- The word "whole": if it doesn'