November 13, 2008

You Ask, I Answer/Perfect Pickings: Cereal

I love cereal and eat it almost every morning but I often feel like the ones I eat are probably too sugary or not very substantial.

Can you recommend a cereal or two that you consider healthy and nutritious?

-- Jenna Kozel

Washington, DC

Since the cereal market is so vast, I find it easier to recommend particular nutrient values and ingredients to look for in these products.

The first thing to take note of is the serving size.

Many brands of granola, for instance, use a quarter cup as their serving size, which is absolutely laughable.

A lot of cereals, meanwhile, list their serving size as a half cup.

If you have a measuring cup at home, please pour enough cereal into it to fill it to the brim. Yes, that tiny amount is what many companies use as a "serving." Unreal!

What I recommend you do as early as tomorrow morning is pour the amount of cereal you normally eat into a bowl.

Then, use a measuring cup to determine the exact amount of cereal in that bowl.

Keep that figure as a reference each time you read a cereal's nutrition label, as it will help you make smarter choices when shopping.

Let's say you eat 1.5 cups of cereal every morning.

If a cereal using half cup servings delivers 150 calories per serving, while another using 1 cup servings offers 200, you now know which is the better choice for you (in this case, the latter would add 300 calories to your day, while the first one would add up to 450.)

You also want to pay attention to fiber content.

I recommend anywhere from 4 to 7 grams of fiber per serving.

Again, since the average person eats more than one serving of cereal in one sitting, I don't think it's necessary to track down cereals offering fiber in the double digits.

Sugar values are also important. I consider up to 5 or 6 grams per serving to be reasonable (that equals a teaspoon and a half). The lower, the better.

Be careful with cereals containing raisins or other fruit, as the naturally-occurring fruit sugars "unfairly" drive up sugar numbers.

Twelve grams of sugar per serving from a cereal with marshmallows offers less nutrition than twelve grams of sugar from a cereal that contains raisins (which provide antioxidants and phytonutrients.)

If you enjoy raisins in your cereal, you -- and your wallet -- are better off buying raisins separately and adding them yourself.

Finally, take a look at the ingredient list. You want to this to be short and, ideally, be absent of refined grains (i.e.: enriched wheat flour.)

When in doubt, look for the Whole Grains Council Stamp.

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